How a Canadian maestro is trying to make opera 'cooler'

Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin has been directing ensembles since the age of 18, but he's taking on a whole new challenge —​ not to mention baggage —​ in his new position at the prestigious Met in New York.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin has taken over musical direction of New York's embattled Metropolitan Opera

Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin is taking over the job of music director at the famed Metropolitan Opera, and he wants to make opera more appealing to a wider audience - particularly young people. 'I think it can become cooler. It can be hip,' he says. (Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC)

Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin has been directing ensembles since the age of 18, but he's taking on a whole new challenge —​ not to mention baggage —​ in his new position at the prestigious Met in New York.​

"I'm certainly not oblivious to that pressure, but this is also where my experience comes into play," the esteemed maestro told The National's Rosemary Barton during a sit-down interview in Manhattan.

Nézet-Séguin has worked with the institution for years as a guest conductor, beginning in 2009 with a production of Carmen. He was announced as the Metropolitan Opera's new music director in 2016 and was meant to take over officially in 2020. 

However, after music director emeritus James Levine was suspended last year following multiple allegations of sexual harassment from the 1960s to '80s, Nézet-Séguin stepped in two years earlier than planned.

"I think in the big picture, you know, that people can speak up against certain abusive behaviours, whether it's sexual or psychological, is a good thing for the world," he said. 

"It's going to take time to settle and it's painful, but it's a good thing in the end."

Night after night when you sit there, you have 80 people playing music live. There's no tape there. There's no safety net.- Yannick   Nézet Séguin on the various elements at play during an opera

His new role will debut with a presentation of Verdi's La Traviata, premiering at the Met on Dec. 4.

Canadians can experience the production as part of The Met: Live in HD''s program in 146 theatres across Canada on Dec. 15.

The maestro, recognizable for his energetic and animated presence in the pit, also continues to lead the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal as well as the Philadelphia Orchestra.

'It can be hip'

The Montreal-born conductor and pianist represents a transformation in the field — both generational and operational. At 43, he's introducing a youthfulness to a leadership role which tends to skew much older.

In fact, opera has had a tough time attracting younger audiences, so Nézet-Séguin said he's encouraging the Met to reach out. It's now doing Q&A sessions with high school classes during dress rehearsals and wants to throw parties for the under-40 crowd to turn a trip to the opera into "date night."

"I think it [opera] can become cooler. It can be hip, and the way to do it is interesting," he said. "I think making it known and making it accessible. And when I say accessible, [that] is more people feeling welcome."

A collaborative rather than authoritarian approach also represents a major shift to operatic culture, which he said many of the musicians under his direction aren't used to. 

"I'm not like a superior creature, you know, but I'm surprised how this still seems to be a shock for some of them."

Nézet-Séguin (centre) takes a bow on opening night after conducting his first musical with the Metropolitan Opera, 'Carmen,' in 2009. (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

His goal, he said, is to showcase the vast number of elements at play during an opera besides the singers — including the chorus, pianists, stage hands, costume designers and of course, the orchestra.

"Night after night when you sit there, you have 80 people playing music live," he said. "There's no tape there. There's no safety net.

"There's such a collective effort in this that it's my role to feature that aspect of the teamwork even more, especially from the orchestra," he added. "I have to respect, though, that you can't have the people change a culture overnight."

In addition to being the musical director at the Met, Nézet-Séguin also leads the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal and the Philadelphia Orchestra. (Richard Termine/Metropolitan Opera)

Montreal is always home

Nézet-Séguin studied piano, conducting, composition and chamber music at the Conservatoire de musique du Québec in Montreal, and choral conducting at the Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J. 

His worldly career, which includes stints in Vienna and Rotterdam, is reflected in his musical tastes, which range from Frank Ocean to Bjork. But his top choice is a rising star in Canadian music: "Daniel Caesar, for me that's like, wow!"

The conductor takes pride in his roots and will return to Montreal, which he still calls home, later in December for a concert with the Orchestre Métropolitain. 

"I wouldn't be here if it were not because of who I am as a Canadian and the deep values we have," he said. "This way of approaching people with [an] open mind to everyone else's opinion.

"I feel that my country has helped me and I want to help it back — and I will."

  • Catch the interview with Yannick Nézet-Séguin airing Tuesday on The National on CBC Television and streamed online

With files from CBC's Rosemary Barton and the Associated Press