"Selfless and Supportive": Yannick on Opera

by Mary Hammann, violist, and Daniel Khalikov, violinist

For members of the MET Orchestra, it is both rewarding and exhausting to play Richard Wagner’s groundbreaking opera, Parsifal. This season, we were thrilled to perform under the baton of our new maestro and music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who brilliantly conducted both Parsifal and Richard Strauss’ Elektra.

MET Orchestra Musicians Mary Hammann and Daniel Khalikov explored Maestro Yannick’s views on conducting and repertoire here at the Met. The Maestro touched on topics of fluidity in performance, taking risks, how music must breathe, his admirable work ethic, and much more.

Operatic vs. Symphonic Performing

Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Photo by Hans Van Der Woerd)

Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Photo by Hans Van Der Woerd)

"One of the main things I love about opera is how it changes from performance to performance. In opera, you are constantly reminded of this because the orchestra has to listen to the singers. And, of course, the singers have to listen to the orchestra, too. Therefore, there is a built-in awareness of how music must breathe.

“I used to think that changes from night to night had to be, in some way, decided upon. I would try to make each performance different on purpose. But I found in doing that, I was not following the organic experience of the music.

“Music was never meant to be so calculated. In symphonic performance, there is always a give and take, a flow between taking charge with a solo line and following as in chamber music. But I feel that the symphonic world has taken the values of perfection and predictability too much to heart. Maybe my secret goal is to take the spontaneity that necessarily happens in opera to the symphony.

“One of the great qualities of Klaus Florian Vogt, who sang Parsifal this season, is that he used to be an orchestral player. One night, during the Parsifal run, I thought, let's give him a little more fire in his second act monologue. I took it just a little faster and I could see him react right away. It gave him wings and from that moment to the end of the act, the performance was different. It is beautiful to react to one another this way.

Mary Hammann

Mary Hammann

“The beauty of what we do in music is that it is never over. Facing a great work, we find ourselves very small. As we play it again and again, we see more and go deeper. During our Parsifal performances, I feel that the singers reacted to us more and more and then we reacted to them. There is not just one truth in a musical performance. I have the responsibility to help the singers do their best and work as a team with the orchestra. It is a mixture of being selfless and supportive.”

Parsifal vs. Elektra

“These two German masterpieces could not be more different. Parsifal is six hours long and Elektra, at just one hour 45 minutes, could not last one moment more. Elektra is full of violence and Parsifal, except for the aggressiveness in the middle, is not. Conducting the two back-to-back is truly a yin yang experience!”

Being a Workaholic

Daniel Khalikov

Daniel Khalikov

“I know the perception right now, but I am not a workaholic. The day I did both the Elektra final dress rehearsal in the morning and Parsifal for the evening performance, the media noted that I had done both operas in one day. But so did members of the orchestra, as they do many times during the opera season. Everybody knows that, in opera, the hours are long and arduous. There are days with two operas plus teaching. We just do this as musicians. We breathe, eat, and drink music. We are immersed in it. As for myself, I lead a very disciplined life: I don't drink a lot, I eat well, and I try to get my eight hours of sleep.”

Our Future Together

I feel that as we work together here at the Met, we will find more shared values and our music making will become even more organic. As I undertake this journey with you, I feel that my responsibility is big here at the Met. Plain and simple, I owe you a lot of respect as one of the greatest opera orchestras in the world.”