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Met Opera maestro James Levine dead at 77

Rick Fulker | Elizabeth Grenier
March 18, 2021

One of the most prominent artists to see his career ended in the #MeToo era, the longtime conductor of NY's Metropolitan Opera was also a major star in Germany.

James Levine (2006)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Dwyer

James Levine, longtime conductor of New York's Metropolitan Opera, has died at the age of 77 "of natural causes," his doctor Len Horovitz reported on Wednesday.

The maestro was among the influential artists whose career ended in disgrace following accusations of sexual abuse

Following reports in December 2017, including in The New York Times — which had also uncovered the scandal surrounding film producer Harvey Weinstein, launching the #MeToo movement — the Met's legal representative questioned 70 individuals; the investigation led to the opera house suspending its collaboration with its star conductor.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, which Levine headed from 2004 until 2011, then also severed contact with its onetime music director.

Also prominent in Germany

Levine had also served as principal conductor of the Munich Philharmonic in 1999.

But before taking on the position, rumors surrounding his personal life — or the possibly criminal amalgamation of personal and professional activities — were so persistent that the city's Greens Party had submitted a complaint to the city council in an attempt to revoke the appointment. 

Nevertheless, Levine's stint in Munich until 2004 was highly praised by music critics, with the Süddeutsche Zeitung writing that he had brought "new splendor to the Munich Philharmonic Hall."

James Levine conducting the Berliner Philharmonic Orchestra in 1992
James Levine conducting the Berliner Philharmonic Orchestra in 1992Image: Imago/Leemage

Becoming 'America's top maestro'

James Levine, born in Cincinnati, Ohio on June 23, 1943, was obsessed with music even as a child, staging operas in a wooden box and taking his grandmother's knitting needle to mark the beat to music on the radio. At age 10 he gave his first piano recital. He went on to study at the Juilliard School in New York and debuted as a conductor at age 18.

In 1964 he became conductor Georges Szell's assistant with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. Teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Music from 1965 until 1972, Levine was music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Ravinia Festival from 1973 until 1993.

In 1971, James Levine led a performance of Puccini's opera "Tosca" at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, was named principal conductor there two years later, and went on to serve as the Met's music director and artistic director. In over four decades, he led more than 2,500 performances of 85 different operas; 175 of those performances are available on the Met's streaming service.

In 1983, James Levine was on the cover of Time Magazine as "America's Top Maestro." By 2006, the country's best-remunerated classical musician was earning $3.5 million (€3 million) a year.

Levine made the Metropolitan Opera one of the best-known opera companies worldwide — in part through the "Live from the Met" television broadcasts, which established themselves as highlights even in movie theaters in Europe. He also took the Metropolitan Orchestra on multiple tours.

James Levine and Mickey Mouse in 'Fantasia 2000'
Levine became a part of pop culture: Here with Mickey Mouse in 'Fantasia 2000'Image: picture-alliance/United Archives/IFTN

Music with a 'narcotic effect'

Nearly every year from 1982 until 1998 he was a fixture at the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, conducting much-praised performances of the opera "Parsifal." His rendition of the opera cycle "The Ring of the Nibelung" from 1994 was so unusual that the production went down in festival history as the "Levine Ring."

The German news weekly Die Zeit cited the "nearly narcotic effect" of Levine's musical concept, with the conductor creating "pure beauty, with the most full-bodied, sensual aural effects."

The conductor was also a frequent guest with the Vienna Philharmonic and at the Salzburg Festival. His clear, transparent and faithful renditions of musical scores earned him the nickname "Levine the Divine." Musicians called him "Jimmy" and described him as demanding but also cordial, fair and loyal.

Fall from the heights

The story of James Levine is also a story of decline that didn't begin with the #MeToo scandal. In 2013, after a two-year absence and several operations, he made a comeback — in a wheelchair. Not lacking self-confidence, he said, "I feel stronger than ever. I'm a moving miracle."

But, with a trembling arm caused by advanced-stage Parkinson's disease, he could only conduct with the help of assistants. In 2016, he resigned as the Met's music director, becoming music director emeritus and head of the company's young artists program.

After the musician had been stripped of all honors, offices and distinctions, it seemed difficult to imagine that only seven years ago Die Welt wrote: "After Leonard Bernstein, James Levine was and is the only genuine American conductor of global legendary fame. An American dream — that must not come to an end."

Elizabeth Grenier Kommentarbild App PROVISORISCH
Elizabeth Grenier Culture reporter and editor based in Berlin.
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