NEW YORK — Mighty Mouse has come to save the Met.
Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducts his first performance as just the third music director in the Metropolitan Opera’s 135-year-old history when he mounts the podium of the financially challenged company Tuesday night in a new production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” by Tony Award-winning director Michael Mayer.
Some in the Met orchestra have taken to calling the 5-foot-6-inch Montreal native by the affectionate anthropomorphic nickname first bestowed by mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato.
“It has to do with the incredible amount of energy and super-heroic disposition, wrapped in a more compact package,” she said in an email.
Rafael Kubelik lasted just six performances as the Met’s first music director in 1973, quitting after clashes over casting. James Levine started a 40-year reign in 1976 that lasted more than 2,300 performances; he was pushed out two years ago following a decade of declining health and fired from his emeritus role last March after allegations of sexual misconduct the Met found to be credible.
The Met said in June 2016 that Nezet-Seguin would become music director for the 2020-21 season, then moved up the timetable last February.
“There’s a boyish enthusiasm about him that’s very sincere, and I think that that brings something different to the table,” said Sylvia Danburg Volpe, associate principal second violin.
Nezet-Seguin, 43, represents a generational change from the 75-year-old Levine, a dynamo in his prime but confined to conducting from a motorized chair since 2013 due to back injuries, his left arm impaired by Parkinson’s disease.
Clarinetist Jessica Phillips, chair of the Met’s orchestra committee, felt “in the last 10 years we were left sort of rudderless” and “it was just kind of a slow, steady decline.” She encouraged Nezet-Seguin to move up the start of his tenure.
A drawing of him by Emmanuelle Ayrton was commissioned by the orchestra, which along with Met general manager Peter Gelb toasted Nezet-Seguin with Champagne after a matinee of Wagner’s “Parsifal” last winter.
“My impression is that there is a general state of euphoria around the house,” Gelb said.
Because of his relative youth, Nezet-Seguin is more approachable and musicians are more relaxed.
“Jimmy was awe-inspiring and then like kind of terror-inspiring,” Phillips said. “Not that he was a dictator, but if you hadn’t worked with him for a long period of time, you would be terrified. He would just work and work and work, and either you grew or you became very worried about everything that you were doing because he would nitpick so much. I think Jimmy would only nitpick with the people he thought could grow from it.”
Nezet-Seguin has been music director of the Orchestre Metropolitain in Montreal since 2000 and of the Philadelphia Orchestra since the 2012-13 season. He was chief conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic from 2008-09 through last season.
He becomes Met music director at a time when ticket sales have stabilized at about 75 per cent of capacity and 67 per cent of available box office. Levine focused on Verdi, Wagner, Mozart and Strauss but broadened the repertory. Nezet-Seguin wants to widen it even more, increasing baroque operas in the 4,000-capacity house.
“I feel that the orchestra is confused, not only the orchestra, the house is confused at how to behave with the size of the auditorium,” he said. “I hear a bit too much about, oh it’s big here, therefore this and that and that. I understand the box office and the seats issue. That is easy. But acoustically I always found that here the size of voices, the volume of the voice, is not what reacts the best. What reacts best is actually the right resonance of the voice.”
While Levine’s interactions with students were concentrated to those on an elite track, Nezet-Seguin is opening the house to school groups. A class from Queens attended a “Traviata” orchestra rehearsal, and he answered questions after. A post-opera meet-and-greet is planned for the house’s new south entrance space after the second “Traviata” performance on Dec. 7.
His musical impact already has been significant.
“It’s the first time that we had a conductor be able to tell the director what to do,” Phillips said. “It’s been the other way around for a very long time.”
Nezet-Seguin is an urbanite without a driver’s license, muscular and with a tattoo of a turtle holding a baton on his right shoulder. He has one assistant, Ben Spalter, plus his agency, Askonas Holt in London. Claudine Nezet, his mom, takes care to get his clothes and scores to the right city. His husband, Orchestre Metropolitain violist Pierre Tourville, tends to cats Rodolfo, Melisande and Rafa (named after Nadal) at home in Montreal but intends to move to the new two-bedroom apartment — a 6-minute walk from the Met — cats Pelleas and Parsifal have passed on.
He got the orchestra’s attention this fall when he mandated new parts for “Traviata” to replace ones that some players had marked up dating to the performances conducted by Carlos Kleiber in 1989. While Nezet-Seguin made his Met debut on New Year’s Eve nine years ago in Bizet’s “Carmen,” the relationship changed with the shift from guest conductor to music director.
“Whenever somebody visits, they kind of treat you more like they’ve got you out on the first date. Now we’re moving in together,” Danburg Volpe said. “I can tell from what he says that he spent a lot of time in the house listening to us in other performances. And so he’s kind of crafted a very specific version of how he wants things to read in the house. And so, yes, I think he wants us being richer. He does ask for vibrato a lot. He does want things a little bit longer.”
Nezet-Seguin’s plans include the first Met performances in French of Verdi’s “Don Carlos” in three years and “Les vepres siciliennes (The Sicilian Vespers)” in the Stefan Herheim staging from Covent Garden. He will conduct the Met premiere of Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking with DiDonato in 2020-21, when he likely will lead six productions.
“I think he will bring with him his incredible enthusiasm and exuberance, wrapped in a huge desire to lift every performance to its utmost potential,” DiDonato said. “He has a wonderful way of getting the artists around him to contribute and to participate in a way where all of us have a stake in the quality of what we are giving the audience. I also sense in him a total devotion to the craft — there is no ego to wade through, no self-serving agenda. This will win the hearts of the musicians, the patrons and the public.”