Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin curates the latest Friends of Friends mixtape, bringing together his classical favorites into a playlist to inspire you to unwind, exercise, and recharge.
How did you first get into classical music? What were some of the first composers you listened to?
From a very young age, I was exposed to various musical genres at home with my family, and also some sacred music through the Catholic church. While we were not an overly religious family, we often went to church. The hymns at mass became ingrained in my unconsciousness, so much so that when I was young I informed my parents that I wanted to become the Pope one day. Bach, who was a church musician, was without a doubt one of the first composers I loved. My parents also had an extensive record collection. I spent a lot of time playing Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Tchaikovsky while sitting under the table.
When and why did you decide you wanted to be a conductor?
As a ten-year-old I was determined to be a conductor. I was a very intense child, and at that age my fascination with religion—and with drawings—transferred to music. From there it happened naturally. I played the piano and sang in choirs. Between the two, I was drawn more to singing in choirs because of the opportunity to be part of a group making music together. My personality is on the gregarious end of the spectrum, which allowed me to be in the center of the action.
You’ve worked both in Europe and North America. What are the main differences between the classical music and opera scenes in the two continents?
In today’s global world, I am less interested in the differences by continent, but more focused on the differences between each orchestra, determined by their history and shaped by the different musicians and their relationship with conductors. Of course, the history and traditions of different orchestras are still very present, but with so many orchestras made up of international musicians, the historic differences are much more subtle. That being said, there is always something special about performing in Europe, where the history of our art form is ever-present. Performing Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in the Theatre des Champs-Elysees—the same place where it was premiered and riots broke out—and bringing The Philadelphia Orchestra to Vienna to perform Strauss’ Rosenkavalier Suite were two moments that, for me, connected the past and the present in a way that could only happen in Europe.
“Opera is beauty. We could all use a little more beauty right now.”
What are some of your favorite productions you’ve worked on with the Metropolitan Opera to date and why? What are you looking forward to working on with them in the future?
Without hesitation, I will always say “the last one.” I just wrapped up a new production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck that was designed and directed by the incredible artist William Kentridge. The stunning and moving images he was able to create to enhance the musical experience were truly moving. Before this, I performed my first Puccini opera, Turandot, designed by the famous Franco Zeffirelli. The production was so lavish, so glittering, and was something that only could have been presented at the Metropolitan Opera. In the coming seasons, I’m looking forward to some of the new works I will be conducting: Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking The Waves, Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, and Terrence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up In My Bones. It is so important to embrace the future of opera as much as we embrace the great repertoire of our past.
There was an article on you in The New York Times discussing your open sexuality in a predominantly straight, white, male profession. Why do you think it is so important to have openly gay leaders in the performing arts industries?
This goes beyond the performing arts industries. It’s important in all professions to have leaders that represent the society we are in. We must be determined to feature women on the podium and welcome them in the boardroom. We must prioritize putting people of color on our stages and in leadership positions. Young people today are open to so many things, and it is our responsibility to show them that anything is possible. Who you are is your greatest strength, especially if it helps you stand out. Music, and the arts, have always been inclusive. I believe that this openness can take down the walls between “us” and “them.”
Some people can feel daunted by opera. What advice would you give to someone who is interested but doesn’t know where to start?
The first thing to take into account is that opera is for everyone. It’s not just for those with an expert’s ear or an incredible knowledge of the subject. What is special about opera to me is that it allows us to slow down. In our fast-paced, screen-filled world, opera gives you the chance to take a break and let the music and the story wash over you. Opera is beauty. We could all use a little more beauty these days.
“It’s important in all professions to have leaders that represent the society we are in.”
How do you think opera can work to become more accessible?
In order for opera to be accessible, it needs to be relevant. An important part of this relevance is to create new work that represents our contemporary society. By commissioning new work by living composers who represent the full spectrum of our society, the art form will organically adapt and become more relevant. This is why we [The Metropolitan Opera] are commissioning and presenting new works by women and people of color and also wish to address pressing issues such as social injustice. We are also inviting high school students to attend rehearsals as part of our mission to open up our house and make everyone feel welcome. We’re going out to other parts of New York to introduce the art form to different communities. All of this plays a role in making opera an irreplaceable part of the cultural fabric of our local and global community.
How did you choose the pieces for this playlist?
I do have some classical favorites, but part of what keeps me in top form physically and mentally is finding time to unwind, to exercise, and recharge—the tracks in this playlist help me to accomplish these things.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin is a Canadian classical music conductor. Having worked with a variety of leading European ensembles, he currently holds the position of Music Director at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. This interview was produced as part of our Mixtape series, in which international creatives curate playlists of music that inspires them. Head over to the Mixtape section to find out more.
Text: Emily May