NEW YORK -- Backstage, the Metropolitan Opera is anything but how you'd imagine it to be.
Ultra-refined singers aren't seen floating down the corridor. Instead, open office doors reveal walls covered with baseball memorabilia. A delivery person is parked at the security desk with a diva-size pizza. And conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin seems to be in several places at once, in spirits that are high even by the Philadelphia Orchestra maestro's upbeat standard -- even though all eyes will be upon him at the Tuesday opening of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman.
The production is his first since becoming music director designate at the Met, in addition to his post in Philadelphia. And though he doesn't lose the "designate" part of the title until 2020, he's making the kind of changes that only an authoritative resident artist can do -- as opposed to the guest he has been for the last eight years.
That does not mean the Met orchestra will start to sound like the Philadelphia Orchestra, Nézet-Séguin said on Tuesday, in an interview between meetings and rehearsals. He's not going to New York to boss the talent around, either. They don't call him "the diva whisperer" for nothing.
Clearly, you enjoy being liked, both on stage and off. But that's not so easily maintained at the helm of one of the world's largest operatic organizations.
Since I was 18 years old, I've been in charge of institutions. Though I may be only 42, there's 24 years of knowing what it is to be the artistic head of an institution. Over the years, I've developed my own way of dealing with the tough things ... and I don't think it has to do with becoming a tougher person or being less humane. It's rather the opposite.
I think I was chosen here precisely because of my way of relating to people and how I achieve my artistic goals in the most human way possible. I don't have to get into details, but already this year there were quite a few decisions that weren't the easiest ones.
You've been called "the diva whisperer" because you appear to handle singers so well. How does that work?
We [conductors] are the ears of the singer. But if we tell singers to please fit into a little box that I'm trying to create ... then the conductor is like a teacher, and that is not what it should be.
If you've talked to singers, they all say James Levine [Nézet-Séguin's predecessor] made them want to just give it all, and this is what I want to carry on. We're there ... to take care of them so the audience gets the best of them. Sometimes it has to be done with a little bit of tough love, but love nonetheless.
The Flying Dutchman is an early work, often said to be the first in which Wagner sounds like Wagner. Do you wish this crucial engagement were with an opera that's more evolved?
I've conducted it many times. I come with my own baggage, but the orchestra has rarely played it over the last 20 years. ... I feel that I have more of a clean slate -- free from too much tradition. That makes the event very good for me.
Your 2014 performance with the Vienna State Opera, which I caught in a radio broadcast, was as high-tension as it can get. Every moment was a matter of life and death. Is that what is in store for the Met?
I have more time to rehearse than in Vienna, where there was one rehearsal. ... Maybe I'm going deeper for this production. The Dutchman's music needs to feel the life-and-death extremes, but there are places where Wagner was never more light. We need this approach as well. The contrast is what makes Dutchman live.
If it's just one or the other, we're not true to this particular piece. I like the condensed aspect of the piece. We're doing the one-act version, but without cuts. In Vienna, we had cuts. I hope the performances will be understood as the beginning of something. ... Next year, I do Parsifal [Wagner's final opera] and Elektra [the Strauss opera that takes Wagnerism into the 20th century].
Tell me about working with two orchestras -- Philadelphia and the Met -- that are both known for their lush but rather different sounds.
I consider the orchestras to be cousins. I think everyone in both orchestra knows everyone in the other orchestra. There are so many friends. Their personalities are different because their functions are so different.
When the Met plays forte, it's under a singer. They know immediately by a gesture of one finger that this is what we're after. ... But I told the Met orchestra yesterday that from now on, the basses and cellos could use more presence when playing soft.
I have a vision of the sound that needs more harmonic support, which is different from what Levine had in mind. Maybe the darker quality of the sound is something I take from Philly.
You're also navigating a much larger and more complex organization. Placido Domingo once said that after years of singing at the Met, he keeps discovering more doors ...
With all of the people coming and going, there's still a strong sense of family. Every production creates, for a few weeks or a few months, this little nucleus of family, and therefore there's never the feeling that you're part of a factory, which is a danger in something as big as this.
I'm so impressed that nobody seems to be jealous of anybody else. ... If you've made it to the Met, there's no other advancement in your career. So why would you try to play that kind of silly game of trying to climb the ladder?
So you're conducting, planning, getting to know everybody ...
During this bridge time, I'm still there to help move the institution as a music director. I'm listening to the orchestra committee, the chorus master, the artistic staff, the sound engineers, and, of course, lots of meetings with Peter Gelb [the general manager]. I'm doing my part right away to absorb this and that and see where my help is most needed.
So let's see how much of a New Yorker you've become. Define the Yiddish word 'mishegas.'
I was told that word a year ago, at the Met, and I even wrote it in one score. I think it was a member of a music staff here. Or a singer, probably during Otello. It means "a complete mess."
What is your favorite thing to eat at Zabar's?
Oh, I've never been there. I'm sorry.
What is your gut reaction to seeing a rat in the subway? This is a multiple-choice question. Do you, a) Recoil in horror? b) Consider bringing it home to your cat? or c) Give it a slice of pizza?
The closest is A. Horror? Maybe not. But I guess there are more rats than human beings in New York, and I'm not meaning this a metaphoric way.