14 Hours With the Met Opera’s New Maestro
Posted February 28, 2018 6:55 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — It was a daunting doubleheader.
The conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the next music director of the Metropolitan Opera, had spent the day leading a dress rehearsal of Richard Strauss’ dense “Elektra,” which opens Thursday. And it was not long before he was due back in the pit to conduct the evening performance of Wagner’s nearly six-hour, stamina-testing “Parsifal.”
As he walked back to his hotel near Central Park during his brief break last Friday, Nézet-Séguin considered fitting in a nap. Instead, he opted for a workout — using a smartphone app to connect with a personal trainer — and a light supper.
“It’s very simple moves,” he said of his exercising afterward, as he walked back to the opera house. “Mostly stretching, just to make sure that tonight is good.”
His ambitious biathlon underscored the generational change that is underway at the Met, where Nézet-Séguin, 42, is set to become music director next season, succeeding James Levine, 74, who was appointed to the position the year Nézet-Séguin was born.
Nézet-Séguin is inheriting a great opera house facing great challenges: shaky finances and a box-office slump. And then there is the painful fallout from the last years of Levine, who stepped down as music director in 2016 after more than a decade of serious health problems, and was suspended in December after being accused of sexual misconduct. (The Met is still investigating the accusations, which Levine has denied.)
A long day spent with Nézet-Séguin suggested he is already changing the temperature at the Met — projecting energy and enthusiasm; establishing a rapport with the orchestra, singers and staff; and making his mark in two operas closely associated with Levine. He is already putting his stamp on the orchestra: On Friday he told the players he had appointed violinist Benjamin Bowman as one of the Met’s two concertmasters.
His day was not originally supposed to include quite as much epic drama, or such an epic workload. A daytime rehearsal of “Elektra” had long been planned, but Nézet-Séguin was supposed to have the night off: It was the one “Parsifal” he was not meant to conduct. But when the scheduled conductor withdrew, citing illness, he agreed to take it on.
10:30 a.m.: Ninety-nine players rehearsed “Elektra,” which uses one of the biggest orchestras in opera, and to make room for them the Met lowered its pit by 1 1/2 feet. From the fierce opening chords, Nézet-Séguin was generous with praise, flashing lots of smiles and frequently exclaiming, “Bravo!”
But there were moments of steel, too. At one point, he stopped the orchestra and beat time with his baton on his left palm, telling the players, “I need everyone to be less free — more with me.”
2 p.m.: After a full run-through on the Met stage, Nézet-Séguin summoned the opera’s principal singers to a studio three levels below ground to share his observations.
They discussed tempos (“I was schlepping!” he said, apologizing for a spot where he felt he had gone too slowly); worked to shape a few key phrases; and discussed subtly changing the blocking at one tricky point so the singers could see him better.
Michaela Schuster, the mezzo-soprano singing Klytämnestra, asked if he could take one section a bit faster. He readily agreed. “I’m glad you gave me the note!” he said.
“There is this culture of ‘You can’t say anything to the maestro,'” he added afterward. “And I’m consciously breaking that.”
5:30 p.m.: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. The call is one half-hour,” the stage manager announced over the monitors. Nézet-Séguin had recently arrived in his dressing room, just steps from the orchestra pit.
The room has a piano, a button-tufted leather couch and a counter where supplies for the night (three bananas, two chocolate chip cookies, a bag of almonds and several bottles of water) were already waiting. Nézet-Séguin opened a wood-clad locker and took out his tails; extricated a shirt from dry-cleaner’s plastic; gathered cuff links and shoes; and strained slightly to take his three-volume “Parsifal” score off a high shelf.
“This was obviously done for someone taller than me,” said Nézet-Séguin, who is 5-foot-5.
At 6:04 Nézet-Séguin emerged from his room, fully dressed, walked past a wardrobe case with “J. Levine” stenciled on it, and entered the pit, to cheers. A moment later, the opera began.
7:49 p.m.: As the applause for the first act was still ringing out, Nézet-Séguin emerged from the pit and walked toward his dressing room, stopping to chat with musicians along the way.
Jason Haaheim, one of the principal timpanists, had some thoughts about the positioning of the timpani during the “Elektra” rehearsal. Outside the men’s locker room Nézet-Séguin stopped David Krauss, one of the principal trumpets.
“Those C-major chords were, so, so …” he said, gesturing enthusiastically.
“So what?” Krauss asked.
“So pure!” Nézet-Séguin said.
“There’s still time,” Krauss said wryly, and they both laughed.
9:42 p.m.: Nézet-Séguin was more visibly winded after the second act, with its intense, driven passages of dark magic, attempted seduction and hard-won enlightenment. This time when he got to his dressing room, he grabbed a towel and washed his face with cold water.
“A run for me is a story — the last performance should be better than the first, there’s no question,” he said. “It should be a trajectory. Better, what does that mean? Deeper, tighter, whatever it is. Last time was so dramatic, and I thought with my kind of energy today maybe I shouldn’t try that road. And as result I pushed less, I drove less — and everyone was with me and it was very sensuous.”
Then, he said, he had “decided to explode.”
11:47 p.m.: After the final bows, Nézet-Séguin and the cast stayed onstage, exchanging hugs and laughs as the stagehands tried to shoo them off and reset the stage for the matinee of “La Bohème” less than 13 hours later.
“We survived!” Weston Sprott, a trombonist who had played in the daytime “Elektra” rehearsal and the nighttime “Parsifal,” said to Nézet-Séguin. 12:02 a.m.: Nézet-Séguin left the stage door 14 hours after his arrival, signing a couple of autographs for die-hard Wagnerites waiting outside. Then he walked back to his hotel, his last stop before flying home to Montreal the next morning for a weekend of relaxation.
If there is one thing Nézet-Séguin has been criticized for, it has been for taking on too much: He is also the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Orchestre Métropolitain in his native Montreal, and is wrapping up his final season with the Rotterdam Philharmonic. But earlier on Friday, as he headed back to conduct “Parsifal,” he had brushed off the suggestion that he was overstretched.
“Yes, I do have a high level of energy — that’s clear,” he said. “That’s maybe why I love New York. There is this kind of pace. But I am able, definitely, to also stop and do nothing.”