Heading into his second season as the Metropolitan Opera’s Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer Music Director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin is looking forward to exploring a wide range of musical styles in three very different productions: a new staging of Berg’s Wozzeck by William Kentridge, with Peter Mattei in the title role; Franco Zeffirelli’s beloved production of Puccini’s Turandot, starring Christine Goerke; and an eagerly anticipated revival of Massenet’s Werther, with Joyce DiDonato and Piotr Beczała. In advance of opening night, the maestro spoke with the Met’s Jay Goodwin about adding these works to his company repertoire.
Why is it important for the company’s Music Director to conduct the full range of the Met’s repertoire?
Each season, we ask the members of our orchestra and chorus to be fluent in an incredibly vast amount of repertoire, so I believe the Music Director should be at home in the same breadth of styles. I have always loved contrasting different styles, eras, and repertoire—this is part of who I am.
What are your thoughts about the idea of a Music Director putting his stamp on the company in terms of how it approaches various composers and musical styles?
My intention is not to put my stamp on the Met, per se, but to serve the music, the composers, and the musicians and singing artists the best I can. Of course my own priorities, tastes, and beliefs will emerge in the process, which will eventually lead to a certain approach, a specific sound, but we arrive at this in an organic way. Honestly, I get excited working on the details of every style, so that each night, the same orchestra and chorus will sound totally different according to the work that is being performed. This stylistic flexibility is a great strength of the Met, and I would love to push this farther by broadening even more our variety of composers and works, new and old.
Part of the performance style has to do with orchestral sound. What have you been working on with the orchestra, and what will you focus on this season?
Last season was interesting for me because two of my productions—Pelléas et Mélisande and Dialogues des Carmélites—as well as one of the Carnegie Hall concerts, focused on French repertoire, and the other, La Traviata, was an iconic Verdi opera set in France! This allowed a consistent approach to some fundamentals: transparency, clarity, balance, harmony. Working on this allowed me and the orchestra to know each other better. This coming season, the range is broader. Turandot will give me the pleasure to work more deeply with the chorus, to work on the listening from pit to stage in an opera that calls for massive forces, to explore our rubato. Wozzeck will be an extension of my work on German repertoire so far (building on Parsifal and Elektra), and Werther will bring us back to a certain pre-Debussy, pre-Poulenc French style. I am happy with what we achieved last season, and we should continue from where we left off this season.
You mentioned that you’d like to expand the Met’s repertoire. Is there anything on that front that you can share at this point?
Last season, it was a priority for me to meet with the many composers we have commissioned: Kevin Puts, Missy Mazzoli, and Matt Aucoin, among others. Peter [Gelb] and I have also confirmed plans to revive operas which haven’t been on the Met stage in years, or which have never been performed here. A couple of examples are Kurt Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and the Met premiere of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, both in new productions by Ivo van Hove.
You open your season with Turandot, your first Puccini opera at the Met. Why is he such an important composer for any opera house, and how do you approach his music?
Puccini is the epitome of Italian opera, where feelings and emotions are so true, yet also larger than life. We can all relate to Puccini. I still cry every single time I conduct the final act of La Bohème, or the last notes Puccini composed in Turandot (in the middle of Act III, after “Liù, poesia”) before he died. To master the very precise indications of Puccini in the score, as well as the massive scope of the orchestration and chorus, and to maintain the dramatic tension while telling every moment with heart, is an art in itself. But this is an art that the Met orchestra and chorus have mastered, and which I am honored to help nurture in the years to come.
Wozzeck is unlike anything you’ve done so far at the Met. What will it allow you to work on with the orchestra and singers that you haven’t explored yet?
It uses a huge orchestration, but it’s often treated as a large chamber orchestra, to create an intimacy that helps us feel as if we are inside the heads of the characters. The lines are often in Sprechstimme, or “sung-spoken,” but there is also a lot of lyricism in the piece, and to obtain this balance takes some very careful work with the cast. Above all, I think it is one of the greatest masterpieces of the 20th century, and I am excited to bring this new production to the Met!