The set for “Porgy and Bess” had been pushed to the back of the Metropolitan Opera stage on a recent Wednesday morning, with rows of chairs and music stands lined up in front. The company’s orchestra and choir first got together with the cast of “Eurydice”—a recent adaptation of Sarah Ruhl’s wistful playing, with music by Matthew Aucoin—to walk through the score in what’s known as a sitzprobe.
In the large and almost empty Met room, Peter Gelb, the company’s general manager, was typing on his laptop in the back of the theater. Ruhl was in the house; Mary Zimmerman, the director of the production, which opens on tuesday, also viewed. Aucoin ran around, listening to balances.
During intermissions, he ran down the aisle to the pit to confer with the leader of a random sitzprobe: the conductor. It was here that Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the musical director of the Met, offered the ensemble some advice, sometimes asking for delicacy and transparency (“more French in approach”), sometimes for lyricism (“violas and cellos, you could can sing more”).
The orchestra flew through a breathless passage in the second act and galloped to the final outburst. “Ecstatic and chaotic,” said Nézet-Séguin, 46, smiling from the podium. “Is this something we can do?”
Chaos has dominated lately: The pandemic has shut down the Met for a year and a half. For much of that period, union workers—including orchestral musicians and choristers—were were fired without pay like a stalemate over austerity that drags on.
But the response to the company’s return has been ecstatic. And at the center of it all—short and muscular, with cropped, bleached blond hair and a penchant for rehearsal athletics—is Nézet-Séguin. Omnipresent and energetic, he has been one of the central figures in New York’s cultural revival, and certainly the city’s most important and visible classical musician at a transformative moment.
Over Labor Day weekend, shortly after the Met struck a deal with its unions, he conducted Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony — the first notes the company has been playing together since March 2020 – in front of thousands outside the opera house. The audience soon returned to the theater to hear him lead a nationally broadcast performance of Verdi’s Requiem, for the 20th anniversary of September 11.
Later that month, he kicked off the Met’s season in earnest on stage for Terence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmons’s “Fire locked in my bones”, from 2019, the company first work by a black composer. Nine days later, he reopened Carnegie Hall with the Philadelphia Orchestra, of which he is also the musical director, in the first of an astonishing nine dates for him at Carnegie this season. With the director of the New York Philharmonic, Jaap van Zweden, a newly declared lame duck, Nézet-Séguin enters an era as the president of the city, the one whose artistic achievements fade to civic status.
At the Met, he works out of the ground-floor office once occupied by James Levine, who ran the company for decades before he became brought down by illness and allegations of sexual misconduct. Those problems prompted Nézet-Séguin to move up to music directorship in 2018, two years ahead of schedule. Levine – who rarely conducted contemporary operas, much less two in two months – died in march.
A big change has taken place in the office. At the start of a recent interview there, Nézet-Séguin pretended to knock down a series of bookshelves that had blocked the view of Damrosch Park.
“It feels symbolic,” he said. “It is for me. It’s about open windows and the fresh air of our repertoire and approach.”
Despite the bright new light and festive mood of the past month and a half, the pandemic was a dark period for Nézet-Séguin. During labor disputes, the position of a music director – closely associated with the players, but at the same time part of the administration – is intensely uncomfortable. There were musicians angry that Nézet-Séguin, who did not comment publicly on the negotiations until March, just after the orchestra agreed to accept partial payment, was not sooner and louder in support.
“It’s an unenviable position,” Gelb said in an interview. “And one I hated seeing him. I’ve grown accustomed to catching fire during these fights, and I hated seeing him get it too. I tried to keep him out of it; it was unfair that he was in the middle of it. But I wasn’t very good at protecting him.”
The experience was unsettling for an artist whose rise to the top of his profession has been swift and sunny, and who is not accustomed to animosity from musicians. (They tend to revere him: “He’s the best conductor I’ve ever worked with,” said Harold Robinson, who is retiring as the Philadelphia Orchestra’s first bass after 26 years.)
“I didn’t know what to expect when I came in,” said Nézet-Séguin of the orchestra’s first rehearsal after the leave. “I said very little in the beginning. I said, ‘We’ve lost a lot of people. We have lost members of our company. We lost people in our families, our friends.’ And the first notes were actually Verdi. We just played it out. Let’s put all our emotions into this. And it helped.”
David Krauss, the Met’s lead trumpeter, said in an interview: “There was some tension in the first half of the first rehearsal back. And in the second half it was business as usual again.
Not really business as usual. The pandemic and calls for racial justice that flared up last year accelerated the Met premiere of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” giving it a prominent place on one of the most notable opening nights in the company’s history. The play’s success – reviews were positive, four of the eight performances sold out, and audiences were noticeably more diverse than usual – convinced Nézet-Séguin that works represent the experience of groups often marginalized in the classical canon, including Latinos. and LGBT people, should be competitions in the future.
“This shows us what to do,” he said, “and confirms what I’ve wanted from day one.”
But one question is whether, without the burst of publicity that came with the late presentation of a black composer’s work by the Met, new operas can hold their own at the box office. (To be fair, even classics have struggled to sell in recent years.) Test cases will come: While Nézet-Séguin has his eye on the little corners of the repertoire — he dubbed Gluck, Weber’s “Der Freischütz,” Korngold’s “The Dead City” and Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda” — he’s decided that if the choice has to be made between the revival of a rarity and a contemporary piece, the latter takes precedence.
“It might have to come at the cost of what I would have wanted to bring back,” he said.
“We’re re-evaluating all the operas I’m going to conduct,” he added, “because I don’t want this to be the exception, to do ‘Eurydice’ and ‘Fire.'” For me, this should be the norm. I had a lot of new pieces planned in the future. But I thought maybe I’d do one a year, or skip a few years. And now, no.”
Aucoin, the composer of “Eurydice,” said Nézet-Séguin is a collaborator “to an extent unusual for conductors.”
“In the chaotic dance scene in the first act,” he added, “there’s a techno-esque line in the background, and my idea was that it would only be in the lower octave, the left hand of the piano and contrabassoons. I wanted it to be a pop song that I heard from another room. But it didn’t register. And he suggested we throw in some bass trombone, and he was right.”
On an early November afternoon in Philadelphia, Nézet-Séguin and his orchestra presented an episode in the cycle of the Beethoven symphonies they are also playing at Carnegie this season.
Beethoven’s Second and Eighth framed ‘Sermon’, a suite of arias and spoken texts about race and struggle, organized and performed by the young bass-baritone Davóne Tines. Central is the calm, radiant sadness of ‘Vigil’, written by Igee Dieudonné and Tines in memory of Breonna Taylor.
New music can often seem randomly scattered throughout an orchestral concert, added only to give a progressive glow to fundamentally conservative programming. But the mournful “Sermon” felt right at home among the symphonies, both complementary and in tension with them, especially since they were played by the Philadelphians with such a graceful, sweet-not-saccharin polish and elan. Old and new, life and death, coexisted and reinforced each other.
‘That was the idea,’ said Nézet-Séguin of Tines’ play. “Give him the space to tell us his story. I am not a private, private person. I like to talk to you about my art; I like to be on television and share who I am as a person. But it’s not about getting more famous so that people pay attention to me. I don’t shy away from attention, but I want it to help the collective. I want to be the person who can help others shed light.”
At the end of February, Nézet-Séguin will reach another milestone in the repertoire at the Met, performing Verdi’s “Don Carlos” there for the first time in its original French – rather than in the more common Italian, as “Don Carlo”. A few weeks later, as part of what is intended to be an ongoing collaboration between his two American institutions — he also directs Montreal’s Orchester Métropolitain — he and the Philadelphia Orchestra will give the world premiere of Kevin Puts and Greg Pierce’s operatic adaptation of “The Hours.” in concert, before performing it at the Met in a future season.
The Met’s rebuilding is far from over. Eleven of the orchestra’s 96 permanent full-time members have retired or left their jobs during the pandemic. Does everything have to be replaced? In what order? That is largely up to Nézet-Séguin to decide. And the company’s financial model, which continues to force the need for austerity and union alliances, is no closer to a definitive solution.
“I cannot say that we are completely behind what happened last year,” said Nézet-Séguin. Were not. But at least these moments – this Verdi, this ‘Fire’ and now this ‘Eurydice’ – help everyone to focus on what is important to us and how we can function together. And make a difference. sounds cliché, but trying to make a difference in the world.”