A childhood collection of nearly 12,000 CDs helped mold Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor and director of three major orchestras, into the musician he is today.
“I would go to a record store and buy CDs and discover repertoire after collection, every symphony of Brahms, every symphony of Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler”. “I then wanted to hear every version and buy every version of every symphony. And I’m not ashamed to say that it greatly shaped who I am as a musician.”
His parents assured 60 Minutes correspondent John Wertheim that the 12,000 CDs were no exaggeration. Of course, Nézet-Séguin trained his ear in a more formal way. He studied piano and conducting at the Montreal Conservatory and directed a church choir as a teenager.
Throughout his 30s, Nézet-Séguin worked on the international circuit — London, Vienna, Rotterdam — guest conducting 100 orchestras. He made his Met Opera debut conducting “Carmen” in 2009 and now serves as music director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City with orchestras in Philadelphia and Montreal.
Nézet-Séguin took the podium at the Met in 2018, after her predecessor was fired for sexual misconduct. Already facing weak ticket sales and perpetually strapped for cash, the Met has had a tough time rebounding from Covid and has dipped into its endowment to cover about 10% of its $300 million operating budget.
Nézet-Séguin is hitting the reset button, betting on new composers and new operas to bring in larger audiences and boost the bottom line. He is threading the needle, hoping to balance new pieces with traditional opera.
“The truth is I’m not necessarily concerned about not upsetting traditionalists. I think people who love our art will still love it because we’ll still be playing some Puccini and Verdi,” Nézet-Séguin said. “To me it’s never about being upset. And if some people are upset, too bad. They don’t have to come to everything we do.”
A recent premiere of the opera “Stop the fire in my bones,” Based on the memoirs of journalist Charles Blow and written by jazz legend Terence Blanchard, Verdi’s classic Rigoletto sold out and outperformed that season. What’s more, half the seats were filled by Met goers for the first time.
The Met will commission 17 new and recent works over the next five seasons — a venue that once went nearly a decade without staging a new opera. This spring brings “Champion,” a jazz-infused Blanchard composition based on the complicated life of Emil Griffiths, a bisexual boxing star of the ’60s and ’70s.
“Champion” is a rare collaboration between a conductor and a living composer. Seven-time Grammy winner Blanchard is the first black composer in the Met’s history.
“She gets the story,” Blanchard said of Neget-Seguin. “He gets the whole idea of bringing these different styles of music together.”
During the rehearsal, Nézet-Séguin also moved away from “old ideas of authority”. In some of the older recordings you can hear the singers being afraid of their conductors, he says. Performing on stage without the conductor waiting for the musicians to fail is nerve-wracking enough, Nézet-Seguin said.
“Music wins when everyone feels free to express who they are,” he said.
When Nézet-Séguin conducts, his eyes reach the musicians in the pit and the vocalists on stage, seemingly simultaneously. The bounce of his baton makes every note sacred.
“I try not to take myself too seriously, but music has to be taken seriously,” he said.
He brings this sensibility to bear up and down the eastern seaboard. In Philadelphia, he has been the current custodian of a world-renowned orchestra for over a century
Hundreds of miles north, in his hometown of Montreal, Nézet-Séguin has a lifetime contract with the Orchester Metropolitan. She has led musicians there for more than 20 years, including her husband Pierre Torreville on viola.
Some weeks, Nézet-Séguin conducts performances in Philadelphia, New York City, and Montreal, but he bristles when asked if he has a favorite child among the three orchestras.
“I can’t deny that it’s a very demanding schedule,” he said. “And even the word ‘schedule’—if, if I ever retire, I want to ban that word from my life.”
Nézet-Séguin is busy blurring the boundaries that have long kept some audiences away from classical music and opera.
“I would prefer when I finish my time on earth that no one ever says, ‘Oh, classical music is not for me. It’s for the educated. It’s for the rich. It’s for the white,'” the conductor said. “Whatever it is, you know, I want everybody to feel, ‘Oh yeah, I might like this, some of it. I don’t like Mozart, but I like Blanchard.’ Well, but at least you feel like you can go there because there will be something for you.”