Life

The Met’s New Music Director Is the First to Be Openly Gay

While the music press celebrates this step forward, it should acknowledge its own long complicity in closeting classical artists.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin holds a baton.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads a rehearsal at Lincoln Center’s Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 2018.
Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

The Metropolitan Opera hasn’t had a new music director—arguably NYC’s most prestigious classical music gig—in four decades. Following the sudden departure of conductor James Levine last year under allegations of sexual misconduct, Québécois conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin (who had previously been tapped to be Levine’s replacement in 2020) assumes the podium this month with a production of the Debussy rarity Pelléas et Mélisande. But the real news, at least according to a splashy profile in the New York Times, is not the new maestro’s musicianship; it’s his sexual orientation. Nézet-Séguin is openly gay.

Since when does being gay in the arts count as news? Well, according to the Times’ Zachary Woolfe (who, full disclosure, I have written for in the past), the ability to fiercely work a baton with queer pride has, until only recently, been an elusive pipe dream for those gay men helming the world’s top-tier orchestras. The classical music world may be crawling with queens, Woolfe explains, but “it’s a sign of how outmoded our conception of authority is that remarkably few major performing arts leaders have been openly gay.” Even in the cultured and urbane concert halls of Manhattan, it wasn’t so long ago that conductors like Leonard Bernstein were actively obscuring their sexual identities to safeguard their careers. And so, to capitalize on Nézet-Séguin’s willingness to live out loud, the Gray Lady is throwing him a gay cotillion.

Sandwiched between photographs of the conductor with his longtime partner, the Canadian violist Pierre Tourville, we get extended takes on childhood bullying and the pair’s first meetup in the mid-’90s (they’d been roommates at the Montreal Conservatory; Nézet-Séguin was dating a woman back then!). There are also fawning quotes from both the Met’s general manager and the lesbian president and chief executive of the New York Philharmonic about how “important” it is that Nézet-Séguin is “comfortable” with himself, alongside a romantic, if somewhat parochial and heteronormative, narrative about how the couple had climbed from relative boho pauperdom (roughing it with noodles on Tuesdays) into top positions at the Rotterdam Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and now, the Met. Gay obscurity no more: Today, we learn, a Zaha Hadid “moon” sofa graces their Upper West Side apartment.

Woolfe’s interview, which took place at an iconic West Village gay bar, does a fine job of presenting the bourgeois and aggressively normal contours of a successful gay partnership. But however well-intentioned its effort to celebrate progress in the classical music industry, his article serves up some whitewashing of its own. In a manner similar to midcentury Hollywood’s routine steamrolling of its stars’ wayward queerness, the mainstream music press has happily worked overtime to sanitize the orientations of its own gay celebs—from lifelong “bachelor” Aaron Copland onward—and Woolfe’s own paper is no exception.

Leonard Bernstein, whose ongoing bisexual “double life” was known even to his own wife, often saw his straight relationship idealized in print as a “blossoming romance”; People magazine characterized their faltering union in the 1970s as “storybook.” Despite a hyped marriage to a shipping heiress that electrified the press in the late ’60s, the “brilliant, boyishly handsome” Met conductor Thomas Schippers was caught up in a romantic liaison with the composer Gian Carlo Menotti that was so tumultuous and codependent his Times obituary couldn’t help but mention it—though in 1977, the reference remained oblique, a footnote couched in professional terms:

The Menotti connection, which resulted in their founding of the Spoleto Festival in 1958, continued until 1976, when composer and conductor fell out. Mr. Menotti told an Italian newspaper that Mr. Schippers had become too costly a performer for the festival to afford, a “Marron glacé,” rather than a menu staple. Mr. Schippers retorted in another newspaper that big names had become irksome to Mr. Menotti, and that there was nothing more to say but goodbye.

Closeting rarely happens in a vacuum; it requires a hostile culture of gay suppression and mechanisms like the popular media to thrive. Rather than simply acting like the secrecy of high-profile gay men in Manhattan was a random phenomenon, a story such as Woolfe’s could just as well have addressed the music press’s past complicity in making homosexuality a secret in the first place. As James Jorden, founder of the LGBTQ opera blog Parterre Box (and occasional editor of mine), recently noted, so long as the Times is identifying James Levine, Nézet-Séguin’s predecessor at the Met, as an example of closeted conductors, the newspaper might also have come clean about its own participation “in promulgating the absurd fiction that Levine had literally no ‘personal life’ at all.”

Of course, with alleged psychosexual indiscretions ultimately ending Levine’s career, there may be irony in hindsight: Such elisions likely kept us from getting closer to useful truths that could have limited the scope of abuse. And with Nézet-Séguin’s charming camp-crush on fellow compatriot Céline Dion now taking center focus in a mainstream news item, it’s clear that queer taste, if reported earlier and more explicitly, could have positively refined our sense of history, and of previous conducting giants. Recast as an apology for past journalistic failings, Woolfe’s article (with its slanted “out with the bad gay, in with the good” subtext) would then have delivered an even more powerful statement than it already does: The times have changed, but so has the Times.