Few conductors have been quite as fast out of the starting gate as the French–Canadian maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin. He was only in his early twenties when Bernard Uzan selected him to be chorus master and assistant music director of the Opéra de Montréal in 1998. In 2005, Nézet-Séguin made his first appearance with the esteemed Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra; in December of the following year, he was unanimously voted the ensemble's eleventh music director, succeeding Valery Gergiev. He is also artistic director and principal conductor of the Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal. This month, he appears on an EMI release of works by Ravel with the Rotterdam Philharmonic and leads performances of the Metropolitan Opera's new Carmen — reportedly the first in five consecutive seasons of Met engagements.
OPERA NEWS: When you took over as music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, what did you feel you had to work on?
YANNICK NÉZET-SÉGUIN: The quality that historically has distinguished the Rotterdam Philharmonic is daring. It goes with the voice of the city — a city that had to rebuild itself completely after World War II. This has shaped the sound of the orchestra. The ensemble is extremely fearless, direct and bold. What I am trying now is to bring to the orchestra a lot of delicacy, and French music is a wonderful playground for us.
Do you find that audiences are now more responsive to French opera in general than they have been in years past?
It all depends on how you do it. When I did my Roméo et Juliette
in Salzburg, many people were thinking this is not what they would call a conductor's opera, or this is not what they would call a serious transposition of the story into opera. And yet, when it is performed trying to be true to the spirit of Gounod and handled with care — not pretending that it's Puccini, or [thinking] that it's sterile — it can touch people. I am very happy that French repertoire can be taken somewhat more seriously. Carmen
is not considered French repertoire anymore. It belongs to the western world. But I do hope to bring a certain Gallic flavor to this. When we do it at the Met, we won't have a French-speaking cast, except for Roberto Alagna. It's really not so relevant to me to have a French-speaking cast. It's important to remind the singers, however, what is the real rhythm of the language and how it can shape a certain color. That's my role. It's not about getting the correct pronunciation. That's irrelevant if it has no effect on how a phrase is shaped.
Last summer, you made your New York debut conducting the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra in a program that included Stravinsky's Pulcinella
. The ensemble has been criticized for sloppiness on occasion. Did you find that to be the case?
Absolutely not. I think there is a special feeling of occasion with that ensemble. These musicians are willing to work, and willing to have this intense work in the summer, which is very different from the regular season's approach. And yes, it might make for a short time of rehearsal. I prepared Pulcinella
with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra one week prior to that for the Proms in London. We had three times more rehearsal time than the Mostly Mozart concert was assigned. But when I arrived, I felt maximum concentration and maximum willingness to work.
Anyone coming in as a guest conductor — and for that matter, anyone first coming to an orchestra as a principal conductor — often comes up against problems of discipline, of sloppy playing, of entrenched attitudes. How do you deal with this kind of tough situation without just succumbing to anger?
An orchestra is a very complex organism, obviously. Psychologically, it is always complex, because it varies from one to the other. We know all of these problems in orchestras. Some people have been there too long or don't speak to their neighbors. I don't try to ignore it, but I try not to make a big thing out of this, and to see how as a group we can always do better. I make the players comfortable enough to understand they can trust me — because I trust them. It's no use going in and saying, like a teacher, "You play in general late, you play in general early, you're sharp." It's better to know how to address these things and to create a work atmosphere which is collegial. I wouldn't say "relaxed" — not the right word — because it is nerve-wracking to play in an orchestra. But I don't believe that we can create art and perform in tension and anger. I think that goes against the humanity of music-making.
Recently you conducted two concerts in Spain with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, and the program included Mahler's Ninth Symphony. I'm curious how the Spanish audiences responded to those performances.
It was quite fantastic. The Spanish audience has the reputation of being an extremely noisy audience, and a work like Mahler Nine demands concentration, especially in the last movement. I was impressed by how the audience got to be really taken by the music as the movements would go by. By the end, with the Adagio, it was impressively silent.
will mark your Met debut, I'm wondering if there is a specific performance of the opera that has been a particular inspiration to you.
I haven't experienced a lot of Carmen
live. When I was a student and first got interested into opera, Carmen
was obviously one of the most immediate ones to make a great impression. You know, you think, "Oh, well, everyone knows these great masterpieces, everyone knows Carmen
, everyone likes it — so it must not be so interesting." But I discovered, when I worked as an assistant in Montreal on a production of it, that it's one of the greatest operas ever written. It's because of that real balance between the quality of the music and the emotional content.
I spent a long time searching for a complete performance that would blow me away, but I've never found one that was the
performance — either because the Carmen was slightly too vulgar or the relationship with Don José was not believable, or because the recitatives were not done with enough life, or because the dialogue was not done by French speakers, which ended up being dreadful! But of all the recordings, one of my favorites is the one with Leontyne Price, conducted by Karajan. Once you get past the Vienna Boys' Choir's French, there is something irresistibly sexy about the way it is done. It's so lush in terms of the orchestral colors. Not necessarily dramatic, but wonderful anyway. There was also the Regina Resnik recording with Tommy Schippers conducting, which was also something that always grabbed me very much.
One of the most consistent problems with singers cast as Carmen is that they work overtime trying to make her sexy. And of course, if you have really potent sex appeal, you don't work at it.
Absolutely correct. But Carmen does have tremendous power, and she has to be shown exercising that power. In the Richard Eyre production we're about to do at the Met, we will try to go back to the roots of the flamenco, and the roots of why these women are in Seville. These women are not necessarily young, but they have this drive that is irresistible. From the conductor's point of view, I also want to get back to two things. Bizet is a masterful orchestrator in many ways, but you can't neglect the sheer power and drama of the piece. Bizet was one of the very first to allow the orchestral colors to develop into what will eventually become even something like Pelléas et Mélisande
, but because we enhance the colors, it doesn't mean it will become pastel or something that's simply pleasant to listen to. The impact should be strong. I personally don't think the two have to negate each other.
I remember a production where the director was trying hard to emphasize how dark the Gypsies were. There is the one scene with the cards aria, which is of course very dark, but there is also something completely Bohemian and playful about it.
While I've been conducting these Mahler performances in Spain, I've been thinking about this a lot. The Spanish have a very unusual attitude toward life and death. It struck me how, in anything they do in architecture and art, there is always this fine line between life and death, which sometimes appears in a playful
way. In Spain, the ritual of the dead is actually much more comfortable. It's very different from other western countries. I think that fascinated French composers, starting with Bizet. The connection between Spain and French composers — Ibert, Debussy — is very strong. I think it's fascinating to ask ourselves these questions about life and death, and to see what the Spanish were thinking about it, and how Mérimée and Bizet were able to grasp that and put it in front of their audiences.
Any thoughts about how the tricky relationship between Carmen and Don José is going to be handled in this new Met production? It's something that a lot of conductors and stage directors have grappled with.
I find a lot of weakness in the relationship between Don José and Carmen. It has to be convincing, but it's easy to make him sound like and look like such a coward. He is
a coward, but Carmen is so passionate about him that there must be something strong about that character, too. Think about Micaela — it's not helpful to make her sound a total opposite to Carmen, as just this angel girl coming in. Of course, there's a dichotomy between the two, but that gray area is what is most fascinating in opera — not trying to emphasize too much the black or white aspects of a certain character, but more what is black-and-white in each
character. And I think this score does encourage us to do so. If this wasn't the case, there wouldn't be so many performances of Carmen