Throughout more than four decades as a music director, director James Levine, who died at the age of 77, led New York’s Metropolitan Opera to unmatched heights of professionalism. Poor health led him to move to an emeritus role in 2016, but still with the prospect of directorial appearances.
However, late the following year several men made allegations of abuse by Levine as teenagers. In 2018, the Met fired him on the basis of what it viewed as credible evidence that he had “engaged in sexual abuse and harassment of vulnerable artists in the early stages of their careers.” The breach of contract proceedings between the company and Levine were settled out of court in 2019 with a $ 3.5 million payment to the latter, but the Covid-19 pandemic further impeded any opportunity for him to act again.
A piano prodigy in his youth, however, Levine gravitated toward opera from an early age and took advantage of opportunities to get on the podium even before entering the Juilliard School, New York. In fact, urged by his mentor George Szell to focus on directing, he never completed the course there.
Lucky break at the San Francisco Opera and at the Met led to his appointment to the latter as principal conductor in 1973 and musical director in 1976. In his long reignWith over 2,500 performances of 85 different works, he not only made the orchestra an elite force, but was also responsible for establishing the house on a firm financial footing.
With his signature red towel slung over his shoulder, the burly, curly-haired teacher was enormously popular, even revered, in New York by singers, performers, and audiences alike, but elsewhere regarded with some circumspection.
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, the son of Lawrence, a bandleader, and Helen (nee Goldstein), a former actor, James began his piano lessons at the age of four and at the age of 10 he was performing the Piano Concerto n . Mendelssohn’s 2 with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. However, his passion for opera would soon be revealed: his mother had given him a miniature stage, on which he would mount his own productions with toy tables and chairs as accessories.
On the recommendation of Walter levin, leader of the LaSalle Quartet, embarked on an interdisciplinary European-style music education aimed at broadening his cultural perspective. Experience was gained in Marlboro Festival in Vermont and the Aspen festival in Colorado, where he returned for several years. At the Juilliard School in 1961, he met Szell, who, favorably impressed with the young Levine, convinced him to discontinue his academic studies and join him in the Cleveland Orchestra, under whose assistant conductor he remained from 1964 to 1970.
After Szell’s death, the apprenticeship ended, but Levine’s reputation was already gaining ground and he was offered the last Toscas of the season in San Francisco, followed by an Aida with the Welsh National Opera.
His 1971 debut at the Met was also with Tosca, and in fact Puccini was to be one of the pillars of his repertoire during his stay at the house. Mozart, Wagner, Verdi and Strauss also featured prominently: there were occasional excursions into the French repertoire (Les Troyens, Pelléas et Mélisande and Carmen, for example), but Italian bel canto was not as well represented as its advocates would have liked. .
However, the singers generally adored him. He discovered, nurtured, and trained a generation of high-caliber artists, including James morris (the leader of Wotan for about 20 years), April Millo, Kathleen Battle and Maria Ewing. Sherrill Milnes, Teresa Stratas, and Plácido Domingo were other highly cultivated in the Levine years. Not all of them, by any means, had large, traditionally operatic voices and at times there were complaints that they were drowned out by the orchestra. But Levine, with his level-headed disposition and encouraging smile, had the skill and charisma to bring out the best in his singers.
“If you’re singing love, you look down and his face reads love,” Milnes said, while Battle argued that “he can make you better than you are.” In the recital room he was a sensitive but pale companion.
His orchestral rehearsals were equally thorough. Replacing many older musicians at the Met over the years with younger and more dynamic ones, he honed the instrument to a remarkable level of perfection. He secured for his players the highest salaries in the United States, with broadcast and recording rates at the top, and won wider accolades by performing with them also at Carnegie Hall, New York. His commitment to the Met was total, and offers from Covent Garden, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and elsewhere were rejected.
Staying on-site throughout the season, he directed the vast majority of the performances himself. Others were often delegated to third-rate drivers, a policy for which he was widely criticized, assuming he wanted to avoid obnoxious comparisons. That may or may not have been the case, although CAMI (Columbia Artists), which led most of the leading teachers, perhaps preferred to steer them toward more profitable engagements than a six-week production at the Met.
Another criticism frequently raised (by the press rather than the Met sponsors, it must be admitted) was that the repertoire was too conventional. Little can be denied the fact that the staples of the long 19th century were recycled over and over again. Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites and Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny joined the list in the late 1970s, but Janáček’s Katya Kabanová had to wait until 1991 (70 years after her first performance). Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron and Berg’s Lulu received a high gloss that helped to disguise their dissonance.
Contemporary opera barely made its appearance during the Levine years: John Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles, commissioned in 1980 to celebrate the Met’s centennial, was not heard until 1991. The conservative character of the repertoire was safeguarded by Levine, who demanded and obtained complete artistic control, at least until the appointment of Joseph Volpe as general manager in 1990. Volpe was responsible for presenting four world premieres and 22 Met premieres during his tenure (1990-2006), while his successor, Peter Gelb, chose a more commercialized Modernization Path.
The repertoire favored by Levine was certainly intended to capitalize on his strengths, although his stylistic authority was frequently questioned. His Mozart showed few traces of historically informed interpretation, while his Wagner tended to have a synthetic, mechanized quality. His Parsifal (also recorded with the Bayreuth forces by Philips in 1985) was both portentous and glutinous; his Ring also aspired to monumentality, but often achieved its great effects at the expense of keen psychological observation. With Verdi he seemed safer: his Don Carlo (also recorded for Sony in 1993) was projected tense, often electrifying, while his Otello (recorded twice with Domingo) was an intense and moving read.
Beyond opera, Levine also had a distinguished career. He had a close association with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and for two decades (1973-93) served as the musical director of the Ravinia Festival, to the north of the city. From 1975 he appeared regularly in the Salzburg festival, developing a close relationship with the innovative director Jean-Pierre PonnelleAll the more surprising given Levine’s conservative tendencies.
He endeavored to establish a new European base in the Bayreuth Festival, where he first appeared in 1982 with his tendentiously broad reading of Parsifal. He hoped to succeed Herbert von Karajan at the head of the Berlin Philharmonic after the latter’s death in 1989, but was ignored. It was best favored by the Vienna Philharmonic, whose traditional Mozart approach made it the popular choice of the orchestra for a full set of symphonies. He also held the position of chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra (1999-2004), but was otherwise an irregular guest on European podiums.
After serving as artistic director at the Met since 1986, in 2004 he returned to the role of musical director, to fill the position of musical director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Initially he was credited with revitalizing that orchestra with a European tour, a recording program, and new commissions. Physical problems that began with a slump in 2006, however, resulted in an inordinate number of cancellations, though it took another five years before he finally bowed to the inevitable and resigned in 2011.
Whatever criticism has been leveled at Levine during the course of his long career at the Met, no one could deny his commitment. Nor was it an obvious vehicle for the image-obsessed public relations industry. Indeed, once his father advised him to lose weight, cut his hair and change his glasses for contact lenses, he replied that he preferred to go to the opposite extreme to have “the satisfaction of knowing that I am engaged because I am a musician, and not because the ladies faint. on the first balcony ”. And indeed, the “comforts” he once admitted to spending his generous salary on were not clothes, but fast cars and good food.
Articles about Levine usually referred to his partner Sue (Suzanne) Thomson, a former oboist who shared his Manhattan apartment; they got married last year. A profile in Time magazine in 1983 hinted at “relationships with people of all ages and shades, both sopranos and tenors.” Levine was undoubtedly a man of voracious appetites and his failure to appear in the UK in the latter part of his life was said to be the result of minor offenses committed in the past.
Certainly his indiscretions and abusive behavior were an open secret in the musical world. “I was brought up to take responsibility for myself, to obey the natural laws of my personality and my gifts,” he once declared. It was that attitude of self-exculpation, combined with his victims’ fear of discrimination and legal action, that allowed the traces of his activities to be covered until history finally caught up with him.
In December 2017, he led a Saturday morning presentation of Verdi’s Requiem at the Met. Press reports broke that night that the company would open an investigation based on a 2016 police report, and Levine’s plans to do a new Tosca production that New Year’s Eve, with more Verdi to follow in 2018, were shelved. .
Levine’s brother, Thomas, acted as his assistant; died last year. Levine is survived by his wife and sister, Janet.
• James Levine, conductor, born June 23, 1943; died on March 9, 2021
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