The set for “Porgy and Bess” had been pushed to the back of the Metropolitan Opera’s stage on a recent Wednesday morning, and in front, lines of chairs and music stands had been set up. The company’s orchestra and chorus were coming together for the first time with the cast of “Eurydice” — a recent adaptation of Sarah Ruhl’s wistful play, with music by Matthew Aucoin — to run through the score in what’s known as a sitzprobe.
Inside the vast and almost empty Met auditorium, Peter Gelb, the company’s general manager, typed on his laptop near the back of the theater. Ruhl was in the house; Mary Zimmerman, the director of the production, which opens on Tuesday, watched, too. Aucoin dashed around, listening for balances.
At breaks, he rushed down the aisle to the pit to confer with the leader of any sitzprobe: the conductor. Here that was Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Met’s music director, who offered the ensemble bits of counsel, sometimes asking for delicacy and transparency (“more French in approach”), sometimes for lyricism (“violas and cellos, you could sing a bit more”).
The orchestra flew through one breathless passage in the second act, making a gallop to the final burst. “Ecstatic and chaotic,” said Nézet-Séguin, 46, smiling from the podium. “Is this something we can do?”
Chaos has lately dominated: The pandemic shut the Met for a year and a half. During much of that period, its unionized employees — including orchestra musicians and choristers — were furloughed without pay as a stalemate over compensation cuts dragged on.
But the response to the company’s return has been ecstatic. And at the center of it all — short and muscular, with close-cropped, bleached-blond hair and a taste for rehearsal athleisure — is Nézet-Séguin. Omnipresent and energetic, he has been one of the central figures in New York’s cultural re-emergence, and certainly the city’s most significant and visible classical musician at a transformative moment.
Over Labor Day weekend, shortly after the Met reached a deal with its unions, he conducted Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony — the first notes the company had played together since March 2020 — in front of thousands outside the opera house. Audiences soon returned inside the theater to hear him lead a nationally telecast performance of Verdi’s Requiem, for the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11.
Later that month, he began the Met’s season in earnest at the podium for Terence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmons’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” from 2019, the company’s first work by a Black composer. Nine days after that, he reopened Carnegie Hall with the Philadelphia Orchestra, of which he is also the music director, in the first of an astonishing nine dates for him at Carnegie this season. With the New York Philharmonic’s director, Jaap van Zweden, a newly declared lame duck, Nézet-Séguin is entering an era as the city’s presiding conductor, the one whose artistic achievements blur into civic stature.
At the Met, he works from the ground-floor office once occupied by James Levine, who ruled the company for decades before being brought down by illness and…