On the Talented, Monstrous James Levine

Photo: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

James Levine, who presided over years of glory at the Metropolitan Opera before ending his career in ignominy, has died at 77. After a lifetime of being greeted with ovations every time he appeared at the podium, he got a grim slow clap on the way out. “Good,” one musician tweeted on the news of his death, a sentiment echoed across social media. As the Met’s chief, leading more than 2,500 performances there, he was king of the American musical world and emperor of opera. He was also a monster who sexually preyed on children. He never admitted a thing, was never put on trial, never even suffered a Cosby-like erasure, but he leaves behind a legacy of mixed admiration and disgust. “The Metropolitan Opera honors the memory of former Music Director James Levine, who held the musical reins of the company for four-and-a-half decades,” the company’s website reads.

Levine began his career at the top and stayed there until he was forcibly removed, his phenomenal talent evident from the day he first materialized in the spotlight. He made his Met debut in 1971 at 27, conducting Tosca. A veteran operagoer once recalled for me his impressions of that performance — the tenor Franco Corelli drawing out the aria “E lucevan le stelle” at such a flamboyantly slow tempo that it practically defied a conductor to keep from falling apart, as Levine kept the orchestra glued to the voice.

From then on, even though at various times he also took jobs heading the Munich Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, his home and his identity remained at the Met. He became music director in 1976 and led it for 40 years, building and rebuilding the orchestra into one of the world’s great ensembles, shaping the repertoire, launching careers and presiding over their sunsets. His long tenure overlapped with several generations of phenomenal singers — Luciano Pavarotti, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Plácido Domingo (another great artist banished from the Met as a sexual transgressor), Samuel Ramey, Tatiana Troyanos, Dawn Upshaw, Renée Fleming — and he made them feel artistically safe and sound their best. The musicians in the pit knew they belonged to a singer’s band, phrasing in long vocal breaths, punctuating syllables and dramatic epiphanies, enfolding the voice in tailored orchestral drapery like an embroidered robe. The stars relied on him not to be thrown by their lapses or eccentricities.

At the same time, he was abusing teenagers.

Like almost everyone in the music world, I had heard murmurs about sexual transgressions — vivid, unverifiable rumors about some young boy’s family having been paid to keep quiet and midwestern cities he had been ordered out of, gossip that seemed luridly anti-gay. From time to time, journalists tried to pin down the stories, and they always came up empty-handed. Profiles tended toward the warm.

And yet, once the details did eventually come out, first in the New York Post, then in other papers, it was clear that many in the industry had to have known, and not just “known.” Levine was constantly surrounded by assistants and administrators who booked his travel, carried his luggage, supplied him with the towels that were perpetually draped over his shoulder, and closed his office doors. Everyone in his orbit and many beyond had motivation to discount what they heard. A pat on the back from him was currency around the world. A touch elsewhere went unremarked upon.

I got to know Levine a bit in the late 1990s, when I lurked backstage at the Met for weeks, reporting for Newsday on the making of a new production of Carmen. Interviewing him was like talking to a stone wall of placidity that was overgrown with verbiage. He’d answer a question by rewinding to prehistoric times, then enchaining digressions, until an hour had passed and I was smiling in desperation. At other times, he dodged me for days, then called me at home late in the evening. “It’s Jimmy,” he said, before launching into another vague peroration. With his noncommittal smile and frizzy halo, padding around the velvet corridors of his musical home with his shoulder towel, he projected an air of benevolent enthusiasm. The blandness was strategic. He rarely if ever got angry or said no; he had others do it for him. Singers often bathed in his admiration until they stopped getting jobs.

His conducting style could be equally gnomic. Never physically clear about his musical intentions, he counted upon an orchestra that knew what he was going to say and could interpret his comments. An opera rehearsed in August may not reach performance until November, and the musicians have to hold a finely honed interpretation in their heads all that time. During a rehearsal of Die Walküre, I once witnessed him adjust a tiny inflection in the horns and then heard the entire string sound instantly metamorphose, becoming hotter, deeper, more liquid. How did he do it? By misdirection, he acknowledged to me later: Focus everyone’s attention on one detail and they will listen harder to themselves.

The Met was not just grateful for his care, loyalty, and prestige; it was also desperate. The company is a show-biz factory like no other, presenting more than two dozen operas in the course of a season — three or four a week, and two on Saturdays. It’s a hugely expensive machine, one that runs on a steady supply of ticket buyers and donations, all of which seemed to depend on Levine’s presence and prestige. The Met was the House that Jimmy Built, and it could crumble if he didn’t keep propping it up. Levine quietly banked on his uniqueness, freezing out other conductors who might threaten his hegemony. The company did eventually hire Valery Gergiev as principal guest conductor, mostly as a conduit to Russian singers and a champion of Russian operas that Levine had little interest in. Later, when Levine’s health was failing and his grip was loosening, the Italian conductor Fabio Luisi became principal conductor and heir apparent, but he left without ever even having met the man he was supposed to replace.

Levine made innumerable comebacks, and though he ended his career in bitterness and disgrace, he also avoided the punishment he deserved. The Met investigated allegations of sexual harassment and fired him … and then paid him millions to settle a lawsuit. His health would likely have prevented him from conducting much longer anyway. Starting in the mid-1990s, a tremor appeared in his hand, and though he waved away inquiries, he later admitted to having Parkinson’s disease. Successive back injuries knocked him out of commission at various times and he eventually began conducting from a wheelchair, which the Met accommodated by building a hydraulic lift to the podium in the pit.

Even now, the Met continues to need him. When the pandemic shut the house, with catastrophic financial consequences, the company began tapping its archive of telecasts, streaming a different opera every 24 hours, for free, to audiences all over the world. Night after night, there was Levine in his prime, popping onto the podium to roaring cheers. Onstage, characters commit murder, treason, incest, and assorted acts of depravity. Then, the curtain falls, and they emerge back onstage to forgiving applause.

On the Talented, Monstrous James Levine