Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Metropolitan Opera’s music director, dressed in a blazing sapphire jacket and trim black pants, stood before a mirror backstage on a recent afternoon and smiled.
“Oh my God, it’s so good,” he said, waving his baton. “I love it so much.”
There were three days until the opening of Puccini’s “La Bohème,” and Nézet-Séguin, surrounded by a small team of tailors, designers and assistants, was offering feedback on his attire, which had been designed by the Met’s costume shop.
His outfit was modeled on one worn onstage by a band leader in Franco Zeffirelli’s classic production. Could the golden braid that dangled from his right shoulder be fastened, so it did not create a distraction in the pit? Was the jacket comfortable enough to accommodate the sweeping gestures that the music demanded? And should there be more red, or maybe gold?
“The more unusual elements,” he said, “the more fun for the audience.”
Since the Met returned from the long pandemic shutdown, in the fall of 2021, Nézet-Séguin has been on a mission to challenge sartorial conventions, wearing eye-catching outfits designed by the Met’s costume shop in eight productions. There is limited space to make a statement; the designers focus on his back, since that is what most audience members will see.
“We want to get some attention but not be too distracting,” said Robert Bulla, the Met’s assistant head costumer. “Nothing too obnoxious, but something that occasionally catches the light.”
Nézet-Séguin sports a black-and-white hooded jacket modeled on a vintage Everlast boxing robe for Terence Blanchard’s “Champion,” an opera about the boxer Emile Griffith that had its Met premiere this month. (At the start of the second act, he enters the pit wearing the hood and boxing gloves, but removing both to conduct.)
He wore a stained-glass pattern on his jacket for a 2021 revival of Puccini’s “Tosca,” which opens in the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome. And he switched from green to red to white shirts in Wagner’s “Lohengrin” this season, mimicking the look of the choristers, whose robes changed colors throughout the show.
Nézet-Séguin said his outfits helped strengthen the bond between the pit and the stage.
“You don’t want to ignore the orchestra,” he said. “If the conductor is there and seen, I think that helps the connection. It’s much more integrated.”
The costumes are also part of his efforts to make opera, which has long had a reputation for conservatism, more exciting and accessible.
“We have to be more modern and approachable,” he said. “We want to welcome everybody.”
While earlier music directors at the Met, all men, favored white tie and tails, Nézet-Séguin, who has held the post since 2018, has long had a more eclectic style, both in his clothes and appearance. He has bleached-blond hair and wears a diamond earring and several gold rings. He is fond of performing in clothes by designers like the Canadian Marie Saint Pierre and can be seen onstage in red-soled Christian Louboutin shoes.
As the Met prepared to reopen its doors to the public after the pandemic shutdown in 2021, Nézet-Séguin felt it was time for a change.
The Met was preparing to open the season with Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” the first work by a Black composer in the company’s history. Nézet-Séguin wanted to wear something to reflect the importance of the moment. The costume designer for “Fire,” Paul Tazewell, suggested a fireworks pattern, with flashes of red, indigo, teal and orange.
“To be plain dressed — it just felt wrong to me,” Nézet-Séguin said.
The designs often riff on an opera’s central themes. For Kevin Puts’s “The Hours,” based on the 1998 novel and the 2002 film it inspired, he wore a floral pattern, a nod to the work’s many references to flowers.
Comfort is a priority — the designers want to ensure that he feels unhindered, and they use lightweight and stretchable fabric for flexibility and to absorb sweat. The costume shop often produces several of each jacket so he can change into a fresh one between acts.
Some operas are more challenging than others. The team struggled to come up with an idea for “Bohème” before recalling that the production includes a scene in which a band leader guides a procession of soldiers across the stage.
“It’s good to be breaking this mold of what everyone thinks classical music and opera is,” Bulla said. “Some people say it’s taken a long time to start this evolution process. But at least it’s evolving.”
Nézet-Séguin sometimes adds his own touches. He painted his nails fuchsia for “Champion,” to match the purple robe worn onstage by Ryan Speedo Green, who plays Griffith. And he said he was eager for a day when the Met orchestra musicians would be allowed to dress with more variety. (The dress code demands tuxedos or long, flowing black clothes for evening performances.)
“It’s baby steps,” he said. “When I make statements like this, mentalities can evolve. We have to think more creatively and ergonomically. This is only the beginning.”