Inheriting the Wind

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In an unsurprising but significant move, James Levine is now on a breather from his duties at the helm of the Met until at least 2013.

Much has already been made of Levine’s overextended schedule and health woes, the culmination of which occurring, in a pure stroke of bad timing, during Levine’s 40th anniversary with the company. The festivities quickly turned from triumphant to limpid (though a high point was the maestro’s return to the pit for a razor-sharp Wozzeck). With Levine’s prognosis positive but ultimately uncertain after injuries sustained during a fall over the summer in Vermont, the Met is left in an equally cautious position: Principal conductor Fabio Luisi will take on the majority of Levine’s duties this season, including the first complete Lepage Ring Cycles.

But with Levine’s retirement seeming more a matter of time than possibility, who will inherit the farm? posed this question as a poll this past weekend, naming specifically Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Fabio Luisi, Vladimir Jurowski, Plácido Domingo and James Conlon as specific possibilities. Below is our take on the likelihood of each one assuming the podium.

Fabio Luisi
Luisi is a sharp talent, proving his command of Wagner and Berg—two of Levine’s bread-and-butter composers—alongside staples of Mozart and Verdi. Moreover, he’s already become the principal conductor at the Met, a title also held by Gergiev, Toscanini and Mahler. However, his additional workload at Lincoln Center has left the conductor cancelling other appearances, notably drawing criticism from the Rome Opera earlier this fall. His appointment as the Zurich Opera’s Generalmusikdirektor effective next season will also keep Luisi busy—and in Europe—for the next five years. Such contracts could conceivably change, but with that comes a whole bucket of trust issues.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin
The maestro from Montreal has scored a rare coup with the Met: Since 2009, he has conducted once a year with the company, and each gig has been a new production. Insiders say he was able to smooth over the tensions between director and singers in the new production of Faust to coax out a musically ravishing performance despite an unholy mess of a production, and his youthful energy could sustain a career at the Met for quite some time. Nézet-Séguin also has a packed resume, but his contracts as principal conductor in Rotterdam and music director for Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain are set to expire in 2015. Could the young conductor balance, like Levine, music directorships in Philadelphia (which picks up in 2012) and at the Met? It’s a short enough train ride.

Esa-Pekka Salonen
Picture a music director who is also a composer—and a composer also interested in turning his ear towards writing opera. In his time at the forefront of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Salonen was instrumental for commissioning over 54 new works and giving 120 pieces their world or American premieres, and made his Met debut making a strong case for Janacek rarity From the House of the Dead. Such forward thinking would dovetail nicely with the Gelb era. But would the maestro’s modern flair also be at home with the necessary bel canto and grand opera that fuels the Met’s fire?

Vladimir Jurowski
His is not the first name that comes immediately to mind when contemplating a Levine successor, however Jurowski’s varied pedigree and successes as Glyndebourne’s music director (he steps down in 2013) make him not only a solid contender but one who may be poised to be in the right place at the right time. Against Luisi, Nézet-Séguin and Salonen, Jurowski also has seniority, having made his Met debut in 1999. But this is still the Met, the country’s leading opera house and a titan among the world’s companies. One wonders if Jurowski’s name, omnipresent in Europe but rarer here, has the necessary cache.

Plácido Domingo
Domingo has been performing at the Met longer than Levine (he returns this month for The Enchanted Island) and has more name power than any of the other contenders mentioned here. But while he remains a skilled and tireless singer, Domingo’s conducting credentials are more suspect and his managerial skills even less reputable. His own packed schedule, multitasking between singing, conducting and administrative duties, left the Washington National Opera in a perilous situation, and between that and his advancing age, it would most likely be just a few years before the Met would have to find a new music director all over again.

James Conlon
Currently the Los Angeles Opera’s music director, the Queens-born and LaGuardia High School/Juilliard-educated Conlon would score a nice homecoming with a return to New York. He has a sure hand with the standards and a dedication to exploring new works—notably those of composers lost to the Holocaust. But at just seven years Levine’s junior, age and stamina once again become a hot topic. What the Met needs to ask itself is: How long should its music directors last? Should there be long-term spans that stack decades upon decades? Or would all parties be better suited to music directorship with shorter contracts or term limits?

Who do you think should be the Met's new music director upon James Levine's eventual departure? Leave your picks in the comments below.