NEW YORK – Mighty Mouse has come to save the Met.
Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducts his first performance as 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 "The Traviata" by Tony Award- winning director Michael Mayer.
Montreal, Quebec, Canada 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," 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 has been pushed out two years ago following a decree of declining health and the role of the child.
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's something different to the table," said Sylvia Danburg Volpe, senior associate second violin.
Nezet-Seguin, 43, represents a generational change from the 75-year-old Levine, a dynamo in his prime aiming to conduct a motorized chair since 2013 by Parkinson's disease.
Clarinetist Jessica Phillips, chair of the Met's orchestra committee, felt "in the last 10 years we are left of rudderless" and "it was just kind of a slow, steady decline." She encouraged Nezet-Seguin to move up the start of his tenure.
Emmanuel 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 it was a dictator, but if you had not worked for a long period of time, you would be terrified. He would just work and work, and you would have become 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 Metropolitan Orchestra 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 a music director and has 75 percent of capacity and 67 percent 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 opera in the 4,000-capacity house.
"I feel that the orchestra is confused, not only the orchestra, the house is confused with how to behave with the size of the auditorium," he said. "I hear a bit too much about, oh it's big here, so 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 is the best answer to the right resonance of voice. "
Missy Mazzoli 's Breaking the Waves at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2020.
While Levine's interactions with students are in focus, Nezet-Seguin is opening the door 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 after the second "Traviata" performance on Dec. 7.
His musical impact has already been significant.
"It's the first time we've been 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 with a driver's license, muscular and 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 of his clothes and scores to the right city. His husband, Metropolitan Orchestra violist Pierre Tourville, tend 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 Metropolitan Pelleas and Parsifal have passed on.
He got the orchestra 's attention when he was commissioned by Carlos Kleiber in 1989. While Nezet-Seguin made his debut on New Year's Eve ago in Bizet's "Carmen," the relationship has changed with the shift from guest conductor to music director.
"Whenever somebody visits, they kind of treat you on the first date. Now we're moving in together, "Danburg Volpe said. "I can tell what it says that it is a lot of time in the house. And so he's kind of crafted to a very specific version of what he wants in the house. And so, yes, I think he wants us being richer. He does ask for vibrato a lot. He does not 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 "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 will likely lead six lead productions.
"I think he will bring his 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 to a place where we have a stake in the quality of what we are giving the audience. I also feel a total devotion to the craft – there is no ego to wade through, no self-serving diary. This will win the hearts of the musicians, the bosses and the public. "
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