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From divine to downfall: James Levine at 75

Rick Fulker
June 22, 2018

After four decades at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Levine's career ended suddenly after allegations of sexual misconduct. Now the opera company and the maestro are embroiled in litigation.

Dirigent James Levine
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Medina

In March 2018, the "Met" suspended its collaboration with James Levine. Citing breach of contract and defamation, the conductor filed a lawsuit. A counter-suit by the opera house followed, demanding at least $5.8 million (5 million euros) in damages and claiming that Levine had used his position to sexually harass or abuse young men. The conductor denies all allegations.

After reports in December 2017 in the New York Post and the New York Times — the same newspaper that uncovered the scandal surrounding film producer Harvey Weinstein — other alleged victims came forward. The Met's legal representative questioned 70 individuals, and more details came to light. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, which Levine headed from 2004 until 2011, also severed contact with its onetime music director.

The accusations of abuse go back to the 1970s. "People always knew about it" is a sentence one hears repeatedly in music circles concerning James Levine. "Everybody in the classical music business at least since the 1980s has talked about Levine as a sex abuser," Greg Sandow, a faculty member at New York's Juilliard School of Music, told the Associated Press in December. "The investigation should have been done decades ago."

Before Levine became principal conductor of the Munich Philharmonic in 1999, rumors surrounding his personal life — or the possibly criminal amalgamation of personal and professional activities — were so persistent that the city's Greens Party submitted a complaint to the city council in an attempt to revoke the appointment. 

"Levine the Divine"

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

Fantasia 2000 - James Levine and Mickey Mouse
A film star in Disney's "Fantasia 2000"Image: picture-alliance/United Archives/IFTN

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 ten 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.

Yannick Nezet-Seguin
Succeeding Levine at the Met, Yannick Nezet-Seguin will now take over two years earlier than originally plannedImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Rourke

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 euros) 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.

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.

James Levine (1992)
With the Berlin Philharmonic, 1992Image: Imago/Leemage

Fall from the heights

The story of James Levine is also a story of decline that didn't begin with the recent 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.

James Levine (1996)
At the Munich Philharmonic, 1996Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Dedert

Now that the musician has been stripped of all honors, offices and distinctions, it seems difficult to imagine that only five 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."

On James Levine's 75th birthday, the dream does in fact seem over.

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