The Met May Not Survive the James Levine Disgrace

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James Levine in rehearsal. Photo: MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images

The investigations have begun, three victims have stepped into the light, and, while his crimes remain in the “alleged” column, James Levine’s career has clearly ended. If the now 74-year-old high priest of the Metropolitan Opera’s pit did what he has been credibly accused of doing, the principal casualties are his victims — three who have identified themselves, those who may soon do the same, and others who never will.

Since the New York Post first reported the existence of a police report in Lake Forest, Illinois, and the Metropolitan Opera announced it would look into the accusations, many music-world insiders have snorted that Levine’s child molestation has been an “open secret” for decades. But for most, “knowing” really meant that we had heard fourth-hand mutterings, with few details and no corroboration. Publications that tried to nail down the story found it slipping away.

There are some, probably many, who cannot believably claim ignorance. So far, his alleged victims have described encounters during long-ago summers at the Meadow Brook School of Music in Michigan and the Ravinia Festival outside Chicago. (The most recent incident is said to have taken place in 1985.) But it seems highly unlikely that Levine, who lives a few blocks from Lincoln Center, confined his molestation of teenagers to out-of-town trips or stopped decades ago. Even if that were true, Levine has spent virtually his whole adult life as a celebrity in the insular world of opera and classical music, and during most of that time, he has been protected by an elaborate apparatus centered at the Metropolitan Opera. Ever since he became the company’s music director at 26, he has had an army of assistants, Met staffers, managers, and publicists whose job was to keep him happy. We will soon find out exactly how far they went.

For decades, the Met was essentially the Levine Company. Its identity was intertwined with his. His taste in composers, his relationships with singers, his hires, orchestra, conducting style, and even, for a while, his eye for productions all shaped what happened onstage in seven performances a week. Divas remained loyal to the Met because they felt safe onstage so long as he was in the pit. Audiences burst into applause as soon as his corona of springy curls bobbed into the spotlight. Critics — and I include myself — lauded his leadership as well as his musicality. His cheery, seemingly eternal presence thrilled the board and helped keep the spigot of donations open.

I’m not sure the Met can survive Levine’s disgrace. The company is an outgrowth from, and a uniquely regressive example of, the 19th-century commercial opera houses that flourished through specialization, activity, and growth. August companies erected massive buildings, mounted expensive shows, packed in audiences, and concentrated prestige in the hands of very few gatekeepers, all of them men. That power structure produced a century and a half of lavishly misogynistic operas in which women are constantly going mad, turning into prostitutes, dying, or all three. Many companies in Europe and around the U.S. have somehow managed to find their way to the 21st century. But the Met, the world’s largest and busiest opera house, is also among the most cumbersome and conservative. In the past 40 years, it has hired just four female conductors and performed exactly one opera by a woman composer. With a crushing overhead and too many seats to sell every night, the company survives on a diminishing diet of goodwill.

In his heyday, Levine was the antidote to decline — the star-maker, prestige keeper, and donation magnet who could keep an antiquated system from showing its age. Over the last 15 years, his health and the Met’s fortunes have dimmed in sync. Soon it will all be gone: Levine; those who protected him; Peter Gelb, the general manager who quietly cooperated with last year’s Lake Forest police report and launched an investigation only after the news came out*; the donors who ignored the possibility that their hero might be a pedophile. Will the Met be able to build back from that catastrophe? I hope so, but the company was already having a tough time surviving well before Mephistopheles finally showed up to collect on that decades-old deal.

*This sentence has been corrected to clarify Gelb’s participation in the police investigation.

The Met May Not Survive the James Levine Disgrace