Next season, Yannick Nézet-Séguin will take on the role of Met Music Director Designate (becoming Music Director in 2020–21), following in the footsteps of James Levine, who announced last spring that he would be stepping down after more than four decades at the Met’s musical helm. The Canadian maestro, on the podium this month and next to conduct Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer and parts of the 50th Anniversary Gala, spoke with the Met’s Matt Dobkin about this historic appointment and his longstanding admiration for the Met.
The 50th Anniversary Gala on May 7 pays tribute to the last half-century of Met history. I’m curious to know how you first became acquainted with the Met—what were your own first experiences of the company?
I was an avid radio listener in Montreal during my teenage years. From age 12 or 13 years old, I listened to as much music as I could, so of course I listened to the Saturday presentations from the Met. I have to say, at first, it was not necessarily opera that attracted me the most. It was more symphonic, chamber music, and above all choral music, and opera became an extension of that. The period when I really fell in love with opera was in my early twenties. I had the opportunity to become the assistant conductor and the chorus master at the Montreal Opera at age 22, and this is when I started to just get crazy in love with opera. And I was lucky because a friend of a friend who was a member of the Met’s Opera Club invited me to come to New York any time I would like to attend the Met with him. I saw so many things in those years. This must have been between 1998 and 2002, around that time. And this is when I really started to dream about the Met—you know, “Oh, I wish one day I’ll work here.”
Do any particular performances stick out from that period?
Many do. There were especially two operas with Jimmy on the podium, performances of two of his beloved operas. There was a Pelléas et Mélisande, which I will never forget, and maybe even more powerful a Parsifal he conducted with Domingo singing. That was just truly unforgettable. I also attended a Susannah—Carlisle Floyd—with Renée Fleming, and of course I fell in love with her voice. And the first time anyone sees La Bohème at the Met is something you never forget. I got spoiled, because I hadn’t seen most of these operas before. So, in a way, although I was already a trained conductor, I got to learn the repertoire through Met performances, as an audience member. That’s probably the reason why, when I made my debut in 2009, I felt I already knew the house. I felt extremely comfortable, already at home here.
At the gala, you’ll be conducting the Prologue to Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra (among other selections)—the first time this work has been heard in the house since that inaugural 1966–67 season. How does it feel to be conducting the gala, and Antony and Cleopatra in particular? Does it make you feel part of Met history yourself?
A gala such as this is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on our own history and to put it into perspective with our present and future. Performing new works has been an important part of the Met’s history, and it is still a priority for the institution. As an incoming Music Director, I want to play an even greater role in the commissioning and performance of new operas, and this is why it is exciting and symbolic for me to conduct this excerpt from Barber’s masterpiece.
We’ll also hear your first Wagner performances at the Met when you lead the revival of The Flying Dutchman. Are you approaching this opera any differently from the Verdi and other composers we’ve heard you conduct here previously?
Of course, aside from the stylistic differences, there is also the role of the orchestral writing in Germanic repertoire, especially Wagner, which is fundamentally different. Even though The Flying Dutchman is considered “early Wagner” and is still rooted in the Romantic tradition of Weber, it is also extremely visionary. I am also happy to be working next year on Parsifal at the Met—it almost gives me a sense of touching the alpha and omega of Wagner’s oeuvre! I’m looking forward to working with the fabulous Met Orchestra on this specific orchestral writing, colors, and expressivity.
You’ve often expressed your admiration for Maestro Levine. How does it feel to step into his footsteps?
I’ve always loved listening to his recordings or observing him conduct and attending his performances. And I’ve discovered, working my way through the opera repertoire, that I share some of his greatest values. One of those is his love for singers, his genuine love for the voice. There’s a way of making a singer feel that he or she is at the top of the world and can do anything— and Jimmy will be right there with them. Then, of course, I also associate Jimmy very much with the sound of the orchestra. There’s a mixture of energy, a full richness, an intensity that is inimitable. It’s so alive. And this too is what I really, really admire—how he has shaped the orchestra not only into this extraordinary listening group but also a group that is able to just occupy the space, inhabit it in such a powerful, energetic way.