It's not quite right to say the news came as a shock when the Metropolitan Opera announced Thursday that Yannick Nézet-Séguin would become the house's new music director, beginning in the 2020-21 season. He follows in the footsteps of James Levine, who said in April that he was stepping down after leading the Met for four decades.
Nézet-Séguin, a 41-year-old Québécois conductor, is also the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He had long been the subject of intense speculation by opera fans, who thought he might ascend to one of the world's most prominent and prestigious posts.
Discussion has also ranged wide in the classical music community about what such a succession plan means during a particularly bruising era at the Met. Limp ticket sales and financial woes are ongoing. The wounds of a bitter public battle between the house's management and unionized musicians — which nearly led to a lockout two years ago — are still healing. There was also a stinging appraisal, published last year in the New Yorker, of the Met's internecine warfares, even among the company's board members.
Nézet-Séguin's news came in two bursts Thursday morning. The first was that the affable Canadian was being granted the Met podium, along with a title that has only been given to three conductors in the New York house's storied history. Less than 20 minutes later, the Philadelphia Orchestra announced he is also extending his contract there until at least the 2025-26 season.
I spoke to Nézet-Séguin by phone Friday in Tokyo, where he is on a tour of Asia with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The conductor was cagey about what he plans to do at the Met in terms of repertoire; he said that more details will come this fall, though he did say that his engagement leading Wagner's Flying Dutchman in the spring of 2017 "is maybe the beginning of more involvement in the next few seasons in German repertoire." He also said he is beginning to think about how his two East Coast appointments might intersect collaboratively.
But what he was more interested in discussing now is how he envisions his role in the Met's mission — and how he is already trying to signal his intentions to the world.
Shortly after yesterday's announcements, the Met organized a livestreamed video presentation with Nézet-Séguin, who appeared via video hookup from Osaka. Gathered in New York were Met general manager Peter Gelb; two leaders of the Met's board, chairman Ann Ziff and president/CEO Judith-Ann Corrente; Jessica Phillips, acting principal clarinetist in the orchestra and the chairman of the musicians' union committee; and the orchestra's concertmaster, David Chan. (I have known Phillips as a friend for more than 20 years, and was unaware she would be part of the presentation.)
Nézet-Séguin said in the Friday interview that the symbolism of bringing that particular group of people together was highly deliberate, given the Met's widely known struggles between all those constituencies. "You know, one function of the music director — or one privilege, I should say, which becomes a function or even a mission of mine — is that the music director is at the center of all of these forces," he said. "There are many, many, many components of the Met family, and an opera house as big as this one is a huge family. And I see the role of the music director as being maybe someone who can bring people together, the way a conductor is bringing people together, whether it's onstage or in the pit."
"I believe this is the role, institutionally, that I should have," he continued, "and this is why we did the announcement in this significant way. I'm a team player, and what attracts me to the Met is that it has the potential to be just the greatest team in the world. It was symbolic. It was an indication of the spirit in which I already intend to have my own voice in the whole Met family."
He said there were pressing reasons to have made the announcement at this particular juncture, even though he was halfway around the globe at the time: "First, James Levine announced his resignation and became music director emeritus. A house with the importance of the Metropolitan Opera has got to have a plan in place, so that at least we have a certain vision of where it's going. Even if I'm not on the podium so much in the next season, I will start immediately being involved in all the planning, because it is all four to five years in advance. So it's necessary to have someone there right away to have someone there in charge of the music."
"I can understand how some people who don't know how the opera world works are a bit surprised that it's only starting in 2020," he said. "But quite frankly, reading some of the articles today, I was surprised that some of the insiders of our world did not understand that actually, 2020 is the season that we're planning right now. The rest of the seasons are planned and cast. Everybody knows who's conducting, who's singing. A house like the Met is always planned four to five seasons in advance. There was no way I could start earlier."
"The second reason to make the announcement now is that this is the end of the season for both the Met and for Philadelphia, so I think it was only fitting," Nézet-Séguin said. "And that leads to the third reason. It's important to have a certain clarity about my commitment to both institutions, both the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera. Of course I'm aware that there's been some speculation for quite some time, and nobody is so surprised that I'm here at the Met now. But that also means that there was a lot of speculation in Philadelphia about whether or not I would renew. And I'm so happy that the two institutions could come together in a really collaborative spirit, in terms of what it indicating what it means for the future, and have this secured. And then we can really imagine, plan and dream, together and separately, where we're heading for."
Nézet-Séguin adds that he believes that his ascension at the Met might also mark an opportunity for the house to reshape its identity — not just in the opera world, but as a wider presence in New York.
"There is this role for New York as a city, as a community, and as a very diverse city, to maybe diversify our offerings — to be the house of the entire city, and therefore maybe be an example also internationally of how we can be the house of every people, and make opera passionately relevant to as many people as possible," the conductor said. "One deep value that I have in the next months, and years, is to work with the Met's staff and with every artist who are giving their skills and their hearts to this institution, to develop and imagine how the Met can be as present as possible in the hearts of New Yorkers and everyone else in the world."