June 3, 2023

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the music director of the Metropolitan Opera, dressed in a flaming sapphire jacket and tight black trousers, stood in front of a mirror backstage one recent afternoon and smiled.

“Oh my god, it’s so good,” he said, waving his cane. “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, provided feedback on his clothing, which had been designed by the Met’s costume shop.

His outfit was modeled after one worn on stage by a bandleader in Franco Zeffirelli’s classic production. Could the golden braid dangling from his right shoulder be tied so that it wouldn’t cause a distraction in the den? Was the jacket comfortable enough to accommodate the sweeping gestures 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 its long pandemic shutdown, in the fall of 2021, Nézet-Séguin has been on a mission to challenge sartorial convention, 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 because that’s what most onlookers will see.

“We want to get some attention, but not distract too much,” said Robert Bulla, the Met’s assistant principal customer. “Nothing too unpleasant, but something that occasionally catches the light.”

Nézet-Séguin wears a black and white hooded jacket modeled after a vintage Everlast boxing jacket for Terence Blanchard’s “Champion,” an opera about the boxer Emile Griffith that premiered at the Met this month. (At the beginning of Act Two, he enters the pit wearing the hood and boxing gloves, but taking off both to conduct.)

He wore a stained glass pattern on his jacket for a 2021 revival of Puccini’s “Tosca,” which will open at the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome. And he switched from green to red to white shirts this season in Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” mimicking the look of the choristers, whose robes changed color during the show.

Nézet-Séguin said his outfits helped cement the bond between the pit and the podium.

“You don’t want to ignore the orchestra,” he said. “If the conductor is there and seen, I think that improves the connection. It is much more integrated.”

The costumes are also part of his efforts to make opera, which has long been known as conservatism, more exciting and accessible.

“We need to become more modern and accessible,” he said. “We want to welcome everyone.”

While previous music directors at the Met, all men, favored white tie and tails, Nézet-Séguin, who has held the position since 2018, has long had a more eclectic style, both in his dress and appearance. He has bleached blonde hair and wears a diamond earring and several gold rings. He likes to perform in clothes from designers such as the Canadian Marie Saint Pierre and can be seen on stage in Christian Louboutin shoes with red soles.

As the Met prepared to reopen its doors to the public after the 2021 pandemic shutdown, Nézet-Séguin felt it was time for a change.

The Met prepared 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 that reflects 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 dressed simply – it just felt wrong to me,” Nézet-Séguin said.

The designs often riff on the central themes of an opera. For Kevin Puts’ “The Hours,” based on the 1998 novel and the 2002 film it inspired, he wore a floral design, a nod to the work’s many references to flowers.

Comfort is a priority – the designers want to make sure he feels unobstructed, and they use lightweight and stretchy fabric for flexibility and to absorb sweat. The costume shop often produces several of each jacket so that he can put on a new jacket between performances.

Some operas are more challenging than others. The team struggled to come up with an idea for “Bohème” before remembering that the production includes a scene where a bandleader leads a procession of soldiers across the stage.

“It’s good to break away from what everyone thinks is classical music and opera,” said Bulla. “Some people say it has taken a long time to get this evolutionary process going. But it certainly evolves.”

Nézet-Séguin sometimes adds his own accents. He painted his nails fuchsia for “Champion,” to match the purple robe worn on stage by Ryan Speedo Green, who plays Griffith. And he said he looked forward to a day when the musicians of the Met orchestra could dress more variedly. (The dress code requires tuxedo or long, flowing black attire for evening performances.)

“It’s baby steps,” he said. “When I make statements like that, the mindset can evolve. We need to think more creatively and ergonomically. This is just the beginning.”