In the fly space above the stage at the Metropolitan Opera and around and behind it, scenery waits to be called into action. An intricate system of pulleys and lifts allows quick changes. Today’s afternoon rehearsal for Dialogues des Carmélites, for example, will be followed only hours later by a performance of Rigoletto. And in a place of many moving pieces, Yannick Nézet-Séguin fits right in–even though he’s standing at the head of the orchestra in a T-shirt and sneakers while the singers are costumed for 18th century France.
Nézet-Séguin, whose conducting of Francis Poulenc’s Carmélites will put a bow on his first season as music director at the New York City institution, is a man with many batons in the air. He fills parallel roles at the Philadelphia Orchestra and at the Orchestre Métropolitain, in his hometown of Montreal, and when he began this gig in 2018, it was two years ahead of schedule. The appointment was announced in 2016 for a 2020 start, but the timeline changed when his predecessor, James Levine, who’d held the job since 1976, was fired over accusations of sexual misconduct, which he denies but which were backed up by internal investigation. So he’s plenty busy, and that’s all in addition to his role in wider soul-searching about nothing less than the very future of classical music.
But on this rainy late-April day, he has more immediate work to focus on. Outside the auditorium, heavy-duty vacuums hum loudly across crimson carpets. Inside, the air fills with the notes that will be heard by audiences that come out to see Carmélites in person and at more than 2,200 movie theaters around the world that will, on May 11, host a live broadcast of the production.
Rehearsal went smoothly, Nézet-Séguin says afterward, sitting down to chat in a luxe dining room at the Met, and he feels similarly about his official first season. Although he wasn’t really new here, having made his Met debut conducting Carmen in 2009 and easing into this job over the past two years, it’s been “liberating” to be in the driver’s seat. He decided at age 10 to be a conductor, and although his post entails conducting not only several operas a year but also a whole musical enterprise–with a hand in everything from the Young Artist Development Program to the arrangement of music stands–he says that’s a good fit with the gregariousness that led him away from the more solitary pursuit of playing the piano. His priority has been to bring that mood to work, to help his colleagues feel “love for the art form again” after a difficult few years, so they pass on the feeling to audiences.
“In that respect I feel that it exceeded my expectations,” he says of his first season, “because I felt immediately–from the orchestra, from the chorus and from everyone–really a willingness. They were not hard to convince.”
It hasn’t been hard to convince others to be enthusiastic about the Met’s new era, either. Nézet-Séguin is shadowed today by the crew of a new documentary being made about him, and much media coverage of his Met appointment framed him as a last best hope for opera. The New York Times called him “quite possibly a savior for the troubled company,” and riffing on an oft-cited nickname for the compact and energetic conductor, the Associated Press declared that “Mighty Mouse has come to save the Met.” He’s gotten used to the cameras, but the hero rhetoric sits less easily.
“I certainly don’t see myself as a savior. The Met doesn’t need to be saved,” he says, leading the way to stop in at his office, a cozy space with windows on the plaza at Lincoln Center. “But I see my personality as helping, arriving at the right time.”
Nézet-Séguin is bringing more than just personality to the Met. He’s become a symbol of change partly because of the man waiting for him in his office: violist Pierre Tourville, his longtime partner. The openness of Nézet-Séguin’s Instagram-friendly life with Tourville and their cats is a rejoinder to old stereotypes about a glowering, distant, all-powerful maestro on a pedestal. And while he can’t personally exemplify other types of diversity lacking in his field–a 2016 League of American Orchestras study found only 5% of conductors at major orchestras it looked at were African American; about 9% of all music directors were women–he sees championing inclusivity as key.
Working with general manager Peter Gelb, he plans to be closely involved in ensuring that what plays here better represents the world as it is, and in the process strengthening the company’s connection to its city. Since its doors opened in 1883, the Met has performed only two operas by women; now it’s actively commissioning them. For proof that this work is necessary, he points to history: Felix Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny and Robert Schumann’s wife Clara “put aside their great genius to serve the man’s genius,” he says. A person doesn’t have to stop enjoying the better-known Mendelssohn and Schumann to acknowledge it’s a shame we’ll never know the music their counterparts could have created had they been able to flourish fully. Encouraging female and minority composers, conductors and musicians is a promise to the next generation not to deprive them of great music that remains unwritten.
It’s also a financial imperative. Nézet-Séguin is careful to stay away from talk about audiences dying out, which doesn’t exactly make loyal patrons feel good, but he knows he must show potential new listeners that opera is for them too. It’s time for artists to realize, he says, that it’s no longer enough to play great music with great skill. They must forge a connection with the audience, and his role puts him at the forefront of that work.
It won’t be easy. The venerable opera company has been selling tickets at two-thirds of its potential, as of the 2017 fiscal year; less than 30% of the revenue that balanced its $301 million budget that year came from box office, with most of the rest from contributions. And it’s not just the Met. When Nézet-Séguin arrived in Philly in 2012, that orchestra had recently gone through bankruptcy; the Met’s neighboring New York City Opera also went through that process. Precarious finances introduce other risks too: an obsession with filling seats makes experimentation extra scary. “Of course, everybody would like to think that budgets would be balanced all the time,” he says. “But I think to fight a little bit more for your survival, this is what also keeps us alive.”
Some critics have questioned how Nézet-Séguin can handle it all at once. To that, he says that splitting time among three cities is easier than the typical conductor’s lifestyle of managing one orchestra and traveling the rest of the year, and that the companies are so different, there’s no risk of a muddle. Whether critics are satisfied remains to be seen–conducting is a long-term endeavor–but he feels up to it. “I’m 44. I’m still very energetic,” he says.
Energy helps, but to Nézet-Séguin, what sets his generation of conductors apart is a willingness to break down boundaries between musical genres, between those in the pit and the person on the podium, between audience and orchestra. A bit of mystique might be lost, but something special can take its place. Restaurants, he says, took time to get used to the idea of open kitchens; now they’re everywhere. “We just need to think the same way,” he says. “It doesn’t detract from being the best.”
This appears in the May 13, 2019 issue of TIME.