Yannick Nézet-Séguin has made it official: Tuesday’s opening of La Traviata – a new production by Michael Mayer – marked the 43-year-old conductor’s first night on the podium as the new music director of The Metropolitan Opera.
Despite Canada’s minor role in the opera industry – we have neither the centuries-old history of Europe, nor the manpower of the United States – Canadian artists have a consistently great international reputation for being well-trained, ambitious and kind colleagues. So it should be a decent blow to our inferiority complex that Montréal-born Mr. Nézet-Séguin is now at the helm of one of the most powerful operatic entities worldwide.
Slight of frame, generous in gesture and fearless in front of the world’s leading orchestras, Mr. Nézet-Séguin at first glance is a charming caricature of a great opera conductor – except for the turtle tattoo he sports on his shoulder. He conducts with a memorable energy, and a graceful athleticism that drags the eye toward the pit, reminding audiences of the orchestra’s role in opera alongside all the mouths-agape singers. With houses in the business of persuading the public to pause Netflix long enough to go see an opera, Mr. Nézet-Séguin is certainly a convincing spokesperson.
And the Met is certainly in need of some good public face time. Last season, the company had a low point with the multiple accusations that James Levine had engaged in sexual abuse during his 40 years as music director, some with men under the age of 18. After an investigation by the Met – slow as it was for the company, which was partly complicit in keeping quiet a known industry secret – the allegations proved credible and Mr. Levine was formally terminated.
The good news to come out of that mess: Mr. Nézet-Séguin’s appointment was made effective two years earlier than planned. The Met had few places to go but up at the end of last season, and the Canadian maestro is a savvy pick for the company in the 21st century. The Met – which is simultaneously a symbol of opera at its highest level and also at its most museum-like – is wise to link arms with Mr. Nézet-Séguin, who represents opera in its current state: valuing collaboration over dictatorship, and encouraging the art form’s traditions to bend, lest they break.
Already on the horizon under Mr. Nézet-Séguin is a plan for the Met to put up more operas by living composers – specifically by Mason Bates (The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs) – and to occasionally branch out of its Lincoln Center real estate; currently in discussion are collaborations with the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Philadelphia Orchestra, the latter of which Mr. Nézet-Séguin is also music director.
Baby steps, perhaps – but significant for the slow-moving Met. Mr. Nézet-Séguin is unfazed by the circumstances of his hurried ascent to music directorship, and is instead focused on the slow lobby for the hip, sold-out crowds. And wisely, making no sudden movements, Mr. Nézet-Séguin’s first waves of the baton for Verdi’s Traviata are about as classic as one can get.