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Is it possible to mourn James Levine?

Yes, but with an enormous asterisk.

With an air of mystery that was typical around James Levine’s private life, the Metropolitan Opera conductor’s death in Palm Springs at age 77 was announced on Wednesday, roughly a week after his actual passing on March 9. No explanation, of course.

With his history of hiding physical ailments (including Parkinson’s disease) and dismissing sexual abuse accusations, Levine was such a creature of denial that it might’ve taken a full week to convince his restless spirit that he is indeed dead. Now free of his long-troubled body, Levine will no doubt attempt an ectoplasmic resurrection of his 47-year Met tenure.

The tenacity that allowed him to build the Met into a great opera house also threatened to take down the august institution with him when — hours after his last Verdi Requiem at the Met in 2017 — allegations of sexual abuse with young men hit The New York Times.

At that time, I’m sure that many agreed with the mixed emotions expressed by Diana Burgwyn’s 2018 Letter to the Editor in the Times: “While I am in complete agreement with the decision to dismiss Mr. Levine for his alleged despicable personal behavior, his remarkable artistic accomplishments cannot simply be obliterated. Surely there is a way to acknowledge these accomplishments.”

Later in 2019, more people might have gone in a less sympathetic direction when the pugnacious Levine received from the Met an out-of-court settlement that may have been as high as $3.5 million. (His contract had lacked a “morals clause,” so dismissing him for sexual misconduct was a breach.) And Levine continued asserting his innocence amid overwhelming evidence to the contrary, claiming that there was no basis for his firing.

It was all so senseless. Either way, the lawsuit wasn’t going to change anybody’s mind after the detailed, nausea-inducing news reports of his activities. The world turned the page on James Levine. One veteran musician I know whom Levine had conducted was fairly nonchalant about his death: “Great conductor and pianist. Glad I played under him.” But no sadness.

The allegations had been brewing for decades, though many sounded like urban legend. One example is the story that Levine didn’t show up for an important recording session because he had been jailed on a morals charge. The setting was either Salzburg or Philadelphia, depending on what version you heard. In the 1990s when Johanna Fiedler was working on her excellent Met history, Molto Agitato, I was in touch with her on a weekly basis (we were in the same writers’ group in New York) and she had found no hard evidence backing the stories. She did note, however, that every time the allegations periodically surfaced, “he gets quieter.”

A less vain, more balanced conductor would’ve known to step back from the limelight — if not for his own sake, then for the sake of the institution that he had helped rescue from disaster, both in the financially troubled 1970s and after the 11-week strike of 1980. But no, he stayed. He also seemed in denial about the endless health problems that cost him his music directorship of the Boston Symphony (2004–2011) and often absented him from the Met, particularly after his May 4, 2011 simulcast of Die Walküre. That performance was a shining moment. Levine was in great form with a great cast that you wish could be frozen in time as our last memory of one of the century’s great conductors.

Levine had alchemy. Those who say that he didn’t put a strong personal stamp on the music (slow Parsifal tempos aside) aren’t wrong: In interviews, he revealed that he was about creating a chamber music on a grand scale, in which the musicians maintained their ensemble by listening to each other — an effort into which he wished to (as he put it) “disappear.” Except during the everyday emergencies of an opera performance.

Soprano Deborah Voigt talked about looking down the barrel at a note she was sure she couldn’t hit, but a glance at Levine somehow gave her the ability to nail it. Credible reports have it that if a performance was going badly, he would work with singers during the long intermissions. You could sense when Levine was on a long absence from the Metropolitan Opera: The singing, particularly Wagnerian, just felt more effortful.

May 4, 2011. If only it had stopped there.

The morals charges might’ve happened anyway, but at least there would’ve been more distance from the Met. Now, through no fault of Levine’s, the Met Orchestra — his finest creation — is falling apart amid labor negotiations and pandemic-induced furloughs. Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s behind-the-scenes credibility with the orchestra is reportedly faltering. Something like 40 percent of the musicians have left New York for lack of salary since April.

But there is one part of the Levine legacy that will never die: The modernists that he championed.

The two Berg operas, Wozzeck and Lulu, were brought back time and again despite their less-than-crowd-pleasing box office. Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron reached a new generation. At the Met Orchestra performances at Carnegie Hall, Levine brought the often-maligned Milton Babbitt out of academic obscurity with the 1998 Piano Concerto No. 2. Charles Wuorinen, a great but not often adored composer, was a significant presence at Levine concerts. To Elliott Carter’s Variations for Orchestra, Levine brought a rare polish and interior understanding.

It is sometimes said that the way to listen to that music is not to analyze the underlying tone rows, but to hear it as you would Puccini. You could do that with Levine. This is a contribution that tangibly changed the DNA of our world.

And his Verdi wasn’t bad either.


  1. Daniel Guss says

    Curious about the Leonard Bernstein anecdote…The Met Production of Moses und Aron premiered eight years after Bernstein’s death.

  2. Rex Hearn says

    David Patrick Stearns obituary of the late James Levine is disturbingly mean.
    The ghost of Jimmy will haunt him from the grave with long sleepless nights.

  3. Perhaps one way to answer DPS’ opening question is: “Yes, it is possible, but it is certainly not advisable to do so publicly.” Even here in the Midwest, the allegations were talked about 20+ ago, from a friend on the orchestra’s staff here then. (My friend was not a victim or an acquaintance of any of the victims, AFAICT.) I also remember reading a German-language review of Brigitte Fassbaender’s memoir where she alleged that Met higher-ups knew about the allegations back in the day, but they all looked the other way because he was genuinely improving the artistic level of the company. Clearly, though, that artistic improvement came at a terrible human cost. (One wonders if the Met could have gotten fairly similar results, with a lot less baggage, had they hired “the other James”, namely Conlon, as music director back then. Too late to rewind the tape and re-run history, of course.)

    Underlying the whole issue is the assumption that we all implicitly make, that noteworthy artists are also supposed to be pillars of moral virtue, and that art is supposed to be positively moral or morally uplifting. Or, in a sentiment attributed to Alexander Pushkin, “genius and villainy are incompatible”. This, of course, is all too sadly not true, as this case shows all too well that, to paraphrase, artistic talent and human awfulness are sadly and perfectly compatible. Unfortunately, the penchant for hero-worship continues in opera (e.g. a certain tenor with the initials PD) and in other artistic areas, so that this situation is likely to repeat itself again and again in the future.

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