Post by JohnA
JAMES LEVINE IS DEAD
By Norman Lebrecht
On March 17, 2021
The longest-serving music director of the Metropolitan Opera has died of the effects of Parkinsons Disease. He was 77.
James Levine, Former Met Opera Maestro, Is Dead at 77
Mr. Levine was the longtime musical leader of the Met and orchestras in Boston and Munich. But his career ended in a scandal over allegations of sexual improprieties.
By Anthony Tommasini
March 17, 2021
Updated 2:16 p.m. ET
James Levine, the guiding maestro of the Metropolitan Opera for more than 40 years and one of the world’s most influential and admired conductors until allegations of sexual abuse and harassment ended his career, died on March 9 in Palm Springs, Calif. He was 77.
His death was confirmed on Wednesday morning by Dr. Len Horovitz, his physician. The cause was not immediately released, nor was it clear why the death had not been announced earlier. He had been living in Palm Springs.
After investigating accounts of sexual improprieties by Mr. Levine with younger men stretching over decades, the Met first suspended and then fired him in 2018, a precipitous fall from grace at the age of 74. He fought back with a defamation lawsuit.
Before the scandal emerged, Mr. Levine was a widely beloved maestro who for decades helped define the Met, the nation’s largest performing arts organization, expanding its repertory and burnishing its world-class orchestra. And his work extended well beyond that company. For seven years, starting in 2004, he was the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, earning high praise during his initial seasons for revitalizing that esteemed ensemble, championing contemporary music and commissioning major works by living composers.
Mr. Levine also served as music director of the Munich Philharmonic for five years (1999-2004). He had long associations with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as music director of its Ravinia Festival for more than 20 years.
His final years as a maestro were dogged by health crises, including a cancerous growth on his kidney and surgery to repair a rotator cuff after he tripped on the stage at Symphony Hall in Boston in 2006. The problems forced Mr. Levine to miss weeks, even months, of performances. In March 2011, facing reality, he resigned the Boston post.
Despite the stark break with the Met Opera, it is at that institution where Mr. Levine’s musical legacy will be mainly defined. He had a 47-year association with the house and served in various positions of artistic leadership there. “No artist in the 137-year history of the Met had as profound an impact as James Levine,” Peter Gelb, the company’s general manager, said in a statement. “He raised the Met’s musical standards to new and greater heights during a tenure that spanned five decades.”
Most conductors of Mr. Levine’s generation maintained international careers, jetting from one appearance to another and not getting tied down for too long at any one post. Mr. Levine’s commitment to the Met was a throwback to the era of conductors like his mentor George Szell, who was the music director of the Cleveland Orchestra for 24 years.
From the beginning, his association with the Met seemed an ideal match of musician, art form and institution. A few weeks before turning 29, he made his debut in Puccini’s “Tosca” on June 5, 1971, a matinee for which he had had no stage rehearsals with the starry cast, headed by Grace Bumbry as Tosca and Franco Corelli as Cavaradossi. Reviewing the performance, Allan Hughes of The New York Times wrote that Mr. Levine “may be one of the Metropolitan’s best podium acquisitions in some time.”
In 1973, Mr. Levine was named the company’s principal conductor, the first person to hold that post. The next year, with the departure of Rafael Kubelik, who had a brief and uneasy tenure as music director, Mr. Levine took over that title and settled in for what turned out to be 2,552 performances — far more than any other conductor in its history — as well as the creation of an extensive catalog of recordings and videos, including some landmark Met productions. He confidently led both early Mozart and thorny Schoenberg, and he brought works like Berg’s “Wozzeck” from the outskirts to the center of the company’s repertory.
At 5 feet 10 inches, with a round face, unkempt curly mane and portly build, Mr. Levine did not cut the figure of a charismatic maestro. His father used to nudge him to lose weight, cut his hair and get contact lenses, but Mr. Levine balked.
“I said that I would make myself so much the opposite of the great profile that I will have the satisfaction of knowing that I’m engaged because I’m a musician, and not because the ladies are swooning in the first balcony,” he said in a 1983 Time magazine cover article. Indeed, Mr. Levine expanded the public’s perception of what a conductor should be and, through dozens of “Live From the Met” broadcasts on public television, became one of the most recognized classical musicians of his time, even sharing the screen with Mickey Mouse in Disney’s “Fantasia 2000.”
He was neither a podium acrobat like Leonard Bernstein nor a grim-faced technician like Szell. His movements were nimble but never attention-grabbing. He encouraged orchestra players to watch his face, which beamed with pleasure when things were going right and signaled an alert when called for. “Give me some eyes” was his frequent request.
A Sense of Musical Drama
Some critics said Mr. Levine’s work lacked an identifiable character. Though his interpretive approach, even in matters as basic as tempos, fluctuated markedly throughout his career, certain qualities were consistent. His performances were clearheaded, rhythmically incisive without being hard-driven, and cogently structured, while still allowing melodic lines ample room to breathe. Not surprisingly given his immersion in opera, he had a keen sense of drama that carried into his accounts of symphonic literature. Above all, Mr. Levine valued naturalness, with nothing sounding forced, whether a stormy outburst in a Wagner opera or a ruminative passage of a Mahler symphony.
By the late 1980s, the Met Orchestra was considered among the top opera house ensembles in the world. That was not enough for Mr. Levine. He instituted a regular series of orchestra concerts at Carnegie Hall and transformed what had been periodic chamber music programs with Met musicians into the popular Met Chamber Ensemble.
A proficient and elegant pianist, he forged close musical ties with the Met players by performing chamber works with them. In time, many critics came to consider the Met Orchestra on a par with the leading symphonic ensembles of the world.
Mr. Levine began his career in opera at a time when the genre was perceived to be in decline. “The farther we get from the living tradition of opera, the more difficult it is to come up with the voices and personalities to perform it convincingly,” he said in a 1985 article in The New York Times Magazine.
To contend with this situation, he argued, it was essential for the Met to place artistic matters under the guidance of a maestro steeped in the tradition — namely himself. Soon he was conducting as much as one-third of the Met’s performances each season, claiming for himself most of the major works, the new productions and the biggest stars. His quick rise at the Met was viewed by many as a power grab. There were frequent complaints that giants of opera like Claudio Abbado, Carlos Kleiber, Georg Solti and Riccardo Muti had little presence or were absent from the conducting ranks.
In its defense the Met explained that given the company’s repertory system, with multiple works in performance simultaneously during a week, conducting an opera involved a commitment that many leading maestros were unwilling to make. Besides, it was hard to argue with success. Perhaps Mr. Levine was hogging the podium and keeping rivals at bay, but audiences and critics were excited by the artistic results.
Rumors of Mr. Levine’s alleged sexual misconduct with younger men had trailed him for decades. Though periodically news organizations had looked into the story, nothing concrete turned up until December 2017. Amid the tide of allegations against powerful men in what came to be called the #MeToo movement, four men went public with accusations that Mr. Levine had sexually abused them. The acts were alleged to have taken place as far back as 1968 and began, the accusers each maintained, when they were teenagers.
After their accusations were reported in The New York Post and The Times, the Met hired an outside law firm to investigate and suspended Mr. Levine pending the results. In March 2018, after the investigation found what the Met called credible evidence that Mr. Levine had engaged in “sexually abusive and harassing conduct,” the company fired him.
Days later Mr. Levine sued the Met for breach of contract and defamation. The suit claimed that Peter Gelb, who had been general manager since 2006 and in public had been a steadfast supporter of Mr. Levine, had “brazenly seized” on allegations of misconduct as “a pretext to end a longstanding personal campaign to force Levine out.” The company responded in May of that year with a countersuit, releasing evidence that, according to a company statement, Mr. Levine had “used his reputation and position of power to prey upon and abuse artists,” citing examples of misconduct that it said had occurred from the 1970s through 1999.
Mr. Levine’s suit sought at least $5.8 million. The Met sought roughly the same amount. The two sides settled in the summer of 2019, agreeing that the Met and its insurer would pay Mr. Levine $3.5 million.
In July 2020, the Maggio Musicale festival in Florence, Italy, announced his return to the podium the following January, but those performances were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
A Young Talent
James Lawrence Levine was born on June 23, 1943, in Cincinnati. Though his heritage was German, Latvian and Hungarian, all of his grandparents were born in the United States. His father, Lawrence Levine, under the name Larry Lee, was a bandleader and pop crooner in Los Angeles during the 1930s; he later returned to Cincinnati, his hometown, to work in his father’s clothing business. Mr. Levine’s mother, the former Helen Goldstein, had been an actress in New York under the name Helen Golden and had a leading role opposite John Garfield on Broadway in “Having Wonderful Time” in 1937.
By the age of 2 Mr. Levine was picking out tunes on the family’s Chickering piano. Formal lessons with Gertrude Englander began when he was not quite 5. Thor Johnson, the conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony, took an interest in young Jimmy, who advanced quickly and made his debut with the orchestra at 10, playing Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
His teacher persuaded his parents to take him to New York for an evaluation at the Juilliard School. The renowned piano pedagogue Rosina Lhevinne heard him play and urged the dean of the school to offer him a scholarship.
But Mr. Levine’s parents did not want to disrupt his childhood in Cincinnati. There were more things in the world than music, his mother said. Jimmy needed to learn how to be a full person and to live with his two younger siblings: Thomas, an artist, who in later life became an assistant to his brother; and Janet, who became a clinical psychologist.
He is survived by his sister; his brother died in April.
Instead of setting their son up in New York, the Levines arranged for him to take regular trips to the city, usually every other week. He would fly to New York on Friday night, have lessons with Ms. Lhevinne on Saturday morning, take in the Met matinee or an evening orchestra concert, have another lesson on Sunday, then return home that afternoon.
In 1956, Mr. Levine went to the Marlboro Festival in Vermont, where he worked with the pianist Rudolf Serkin and was the chorus master for a performance of Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte” put on by the resident musicians and singers. The next year he spent the first of 14 summers at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado, where he committed himself to a conducting career.
In 1961, after graduating from high school, he moved to New York and enrolled in Juilliard’s college division, where he studied with the conductor Jean Morel. At a summer program in Baltimore in 1964, the American Conductors Project, he was heard by Szell, who invited him to come to Cleveland to be his assistant. Mr. Levine left Juilliard without completing a degree and spent the next six years working closely with Szell.
Mr. Levine’s debut with the Cleveland Orchestra came in 1967, conducting Strauss’s tone poem “Don Juan.” While there he met Suzanne Thomson, a young oboist from Detroit, who put aside her own career to become his personal assistant and living companion, sharing his Upper West Side apartment from the early 1970s.
Mr. Levine was circumspect about his private life, refusing to discuss his sexual orientation or romantic relationships. In a 1998 interview with The Times, he explained why he had refused to comment on rumors and “such nonsense” over the years. “I’ve never been able to speak in public generalities about my private life,” he said. “Day by day, my world is filled with real music, real people, real interactions.” He added almost plaintively: “How much do you have to give? How good do you have to be?”
In 1966, while still working under Szell in Cleveland, Mr. Levine founded the University Circle Orchestra, an ensemble of young musicians interested in contemporary music. The next year he conducted the orchestra in the premiere of Milton Babbitt’s “Correspondences,” a formidably difficult 12-tone work, winning its composer’s lasting admiration.
In March 2018 The Boston Globe published a long exposé of Mr. Levine’s years with this student ensemble in Cleveland, drawing on some two dozen interviews with former students and musicians, who described a cultlike atmosphere around Mr. Levine, even though he was not much older than they. The participants, who became known as “Levinites,” recalled belittlement by their mentor, loyalty tests and even group sex.
Just 15 years after his Met debut, Mr. Levine’s leadership role there was formalized in 1986, when he became the house’s artistic director, a title that was scaled back to music director in 2004, when he began his tenure with the Boston Symphony.
He had other important associations as well. He made his Salzburg Festival debut in 1976 conducting Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito” in a landmark Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production. In 1982 he made his debut at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany, conducting the centennial production of Wagner’s “Parsifal.” At the time, Bayreuth was still tainted by the anti-Semitism of Wagner and certain of Wagner’s descendants, who ran the festival during the rise of the Nazis and hobnobbed with Hitler. The festival directors purposefully entrusted this milestone production to Mr. Levine, who was Jewish. “Parsifal,” a work he conducted with spacious, luminous eloquence, became a Levine specialty.
Though he made 20th-century operas like Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron,” Berg’s “Lulu” and Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” central to the Met’s identity, Mr. Levine could not turn the company into a house that nurtured new opera. For such a prestigious international institution, the Met’s list of premieres during the Levine era, including works by John Corigliano, John Harbison, Philip Glass, Tobias Picker and Tan Dun, was not long.
In interviews over the years Mr. Levine asserted that he tried to commission new works but that the Met was a monumental, slow-moving institution. He once also lamented the dearth of good-enough new operas.
In the 1990s, Mr. Levine’s relationship with Joseph Volpe, the Met’s effective, pugnacious general manager, was sometimes fraught. Mr. Volpe respected Mr. Levine and gave him most of what he wanted, but put the brakes to financially risky projects (like a concert performance of Mahler’s daunting “Symphony of a Thousand”) and several commissioning ideas.
As supertitles became popular at other opera companies, including the New York City Opera next door to the Met in Lincoln Center, Mr. Levine argued that his house’s informed patrons would find them distracting. Supertitles would come to the Met “over my dead body,” he said in a 1985 interview, a comment he came to regret.
Mr. Volpe, who disagreed, prevailed, and in 1995 the house introduced its innovative technology, Met Titles, which employed individual screens mounted on the back of the seat in front of each audience member. The titles could be individually turned on or off, a feature that Mr. Levine said had ameliorated his objection.
Podiums in Munich and Boston
Mr. Levine was eager to leave his mark on the legacy of symphonic music and to cultivate a major orchestra. This led to what many saw as a curious career move: becoming principal conductor of the Munich Philharmonic.
His selection was hotly debated in the German press, in part because of his salary ($1.2 million), at a time when cultural institutions in Germany were being forced to accept smaller government subsidies. Though the orchestra made strides under Mr. Levine’s leadership, the relationship proved disappointing. He was unwilling to cut back his Met schedule to spend more time in Munich. When the Boston Symphony came calling, he was receptive.
Mr. Levine began his Boston tenure in the fall of 2004 with a commanding performance of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand,” the piece he had longed to perform with the Met’s orchestra and chorus. Initially, Mr. Levine was able to maintain full involvement and high standards at the Met while thriving in Boston, where he could finally commission significant works from major composers, especially Elliott Carter and Charles Wuorinen, and build a legacy. But concerns about his health soon surfaced.
Starting in the 1990s, Mr. Levine had been afflicted with tremors in his left hand and left leg. To compensate, he developed a technique with minimal hand motions and eventually conducted while sitting in a tall, swiveling chair. In 1996, for the 25th anniversary of his Met debut, he conducted the Met orchestra and chorus in a gala concert that lasted eight hours and involved some 60 acclaimed singers performing 42 selections. As the author Johanna Fiedler recounted in “Molto Agitato,” a history of the Met, Mr. Levine’s detractors considered the gala an unseemly act of self-celebration. Others felt inspired to see Mr. Levine marking the occasion by working so hard.
Still, overweight and overworked, he often moved with hesitancy. In an article in The New York Times in the spring of 2004, several members of the Met orchestra complained anonymously that Mr. Levine’s baton cues were getting hard to read and that his attention sometimes flagged during long performances.
In 2008 Mr. Levine had surgery to remove a cancerous cyst from a kidney, causing him to withdraw from most of that season at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony’s summer home. By the time he resigned, the symphony calculated that he had missed one-fifth of his scheduled performances.
At the Met, with Mr. Gelb’s encouragement, Mr. Levine limited his schedule to the projects he most cared about and ceded some major productions and important revivals to guests, including Mr. Muti, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Simon Rattle, who made long-awaited Met debuts.
Mr. Gelb kept Mr. Levine on as music director even during a two-year period when health problems prevented him from performing. When, in May 2013, he conducted a Met Orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall, a triumphant return, Mr. Levine used a motorized wheelchair, which he continued to employ at the house. In April 2016, Mr. Gelb eased him into a new position as music director emeritus.
Mr. Levine’s final appearance at the Met, on Dec. 2, 2017, was a Saturday matinee performance of Verdi’s Requiem with the orchestra, chorus and four vocal soloists. He looked fatigued that day, and the performance was somewhat lackluster. That evening, the news of the allegations against him broke.
Michael Cooper contributed reporting.
Correction: March 17, 2021
An earlier version of this obituary misstated the given name of James Levine’s sister, who survives him. It is Janet, not Helen. It also misstated the year of Mr. Levine’s final appearance at the Met. It occurred on Dec. 2 in 2017, not 2018.