Yannick Takes a Ticket on the Titanic
Let’s Set The Record straight: The relevant question when contemplating the recently announced appointment of Yannick Nezet-Seguin (henceforth called Yannick) as the new music director of the Metropolitan Opera is not whether the Met made the right choice but what was Yannick thinking --or smoking--when he agreed to take on the Met post.
Consider what the 41-year old maestro from Canada faces in New York:
1. A veritable snake pit of critics—led by Tommasini at The New York Times-- whose obsession with promoting contemporary music makes them blind and deaf to most everything else going on in the music world. So far, Yannick has shown little aptitude for or interest in contemporary music. Whether Yannick’s undoubted charisma will get him a free pass from this crowd is open to serious question.
2. Yannick will be facing the fans of his still-active legendary predecessor James Levine. They could be tough on him especially since he is a novice at Wagner, the music Levine truly excels at.
3. Yannick takes up the post when product quality has seriously deteriorated under the leadership of Peter Gelb, the Met’s current general manager. Why else do you think attendance is down? Put on a good show and people come even at outrageously high ticket prices-- last season’s Electra proved that. (The idea that high ticket prices are the problem for the Met is nonsense. Tickets at the hit Broadway show ‘Hamilton’ are sky high and people still can’t get enough of them.)
4. Yannick’s strengths as a conductor—Italian and French opera—are in the areas in which the Met must move away from if product quality is to be improved-- and his weakness is in German opera, precisely where the Met needs to expand. That’s why Yannick is the wrong man for the job. (In terms of repertoire, Andris Nelsons who has become a fixture at Bayreuth in recent years and did a terrific Electra at Carnegie Hall with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Christine Goerke last fall would have been a far better choice).
You can’t make chicken soup without chicken. The great talent available today is in German opera, not Italian and French opera. You can cast a great Lohengrin but not a great Aida or Rigoletto. A key reason Met product quality is down is that Mr. Gelb stubbornly insists on doing Verdi and other Italians when there are so few great singers available in this ‘fach’. On the other hand, there are three terrific Lohengrins currently active (Vogt, Botha and Kaufmann), an opera the Met hasn’t done in two decades.
5. Yannick is walking into an opera house with overwhelming financial problems. In most large organizations top executives are fired when sales are down and product quality falters. Not at the Met. The Met Board is extremely indulgent of Mr. Gelb—and it’s costing them plenty. Do the Gelb loyalists understand they are underwriting--and enabling-- the decline in product quality responsible for all those empty seats? The Met won’t fill them until it gets rid of Mr. Gelb--and the fear is that by the time that occurs the damage to the venerable opera company could be irreparable. What intelligent musician with a budding career would want to get in the middle of that mess?
Yannick-- where’s the glory and prestige in leading a sinking ship down to the depths? Taking charge of the Met with attendance hemorrhaging and the Board unwilling to cut loose the responsible party is like signing up to captain the Titanic as the ship takes on increasing amounts of water.
Still, things might work out for Yannick if he gets lucky. The young maestro is not slated to take up his duties at the Met until the 2020-21 season. Four years is a long time and a lot can happen. Yannick can work on his Wagner and other German composers like Strauss. The Board finally might pull the plug on Peter Gelb.
Optimists argue that with Gelb gone the Met can quickly recover. The realists point out that it will take a long time for the Met to rebuild an audience that has developed other entertainment and cultural habits in the interim. Realist or optimist, the Met is in serious trouble.