James Levine obituary

Acclaimed conductor forced to quit the Metropolitan Opera in New York after a series of sex abuse allegations

Over the course of four decades as its music director, the conductor James Levine, who has died aged 77, took the Metropolitan Opera, New York, to unparalleled heights of professionalism. Ill health caused him to move to an emeritus role in 2016, but still with the prospect of appearances as a conductor.

However, at the end of the following year several men made accusations of abuse by Levine when they were teenagers. In 2018 the Met fired him on the basis of what it regarded as credible evidence that he had “engaged in sexually abusive and harassing conduct toward vulnerable artists in the early stages of their careers”. Breach of contract proceedings between the company and Levine were settled out of court in 2019 with a $3.5m payment to the latter, but any opportunities for him to perform again were further prevented by the Covid-19 pandemic.

A piano prodigy in his youth, Levine nevertheless gravitated towards opera from an early age and seized opportunities to mount the podium even before entering the Juilliard School, New York. In fact, urged by his mentor George Szell to concentrate on conducting, he never completed the course there.

Lucky breaks at the San Francisco Opera and at the Met led to his appointment at the latter as principal conductor in 1973 and music director in 1976. In his long reign, with more than 2,500 performances of 85 different works, he not only turned the orchestra into an elite force but was also responsible for establishing the house on a firm financial footing.

James Levine in the early 1980s.
James Levine in the early 1980s. Photograph: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

With his signature red towel slung over one shoulder, the corpulent, curly-haired maestro was hugely popular, even revered, in New York by singers, players and audiences alike, but elsewhere regarded with some circumspection.

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, the son of Lawrence, a bandleader, and Helen (nee Goldstein), a former actor, James began piano lessons at the age of four and at the age of 10 was performing Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No 2 with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. A passion for opera was soon to reveal itself, however: his mother had given him a miniature stage, on which he mounted his own productions with toy tables and chairs as props.

At the recommendation of Walter Levin, the leader of the LaSalle Quartet, he embarked on a European-style, interdisciplinary musical education intended to broaden his cultural perspective. Experience was gained at the Marlboro festival in Vermont and the Aspen festival in Colorado, where he returned for a number of years. At the Juilliard School in 1961, he encountered Szell, who, favourably impressed with the young Levine, persuaded him to cut short his academic studies and join him at the Cleveland Orchestra, whose assistant conductor he remained from 1964 until 1970.

On Szell’s death, the apprenticeship came to an end, but Levine’s reputation was already gaining ground and he was offered the last few Toscas of the season in San Francisco, followed by an Aida with the Welsh National Opera.

His 1971 debut at the Met was also with Tosca, and indeed Puccini was to be one of the mainstays of his repertoire during his tenure at the house. Mozart, Wagner, Verdi and Strauss also loomed large: there were occasional excursions into French repertoire (Les Troyens, Pelléas et Mélisande and Carmen, for example) but Italian bel canto was not as well represented as its proponents would have liked.

He was generally adored by singers, however. He discovered, nurtured and coached a whole generation of high-calibre artists, among them James Morris (the leading Wotan for some 20 years), Aprile Millo, Kathleen Battle and Maria Ewing. Sherrill Milnes, Teresa Stratas and Plácido Domingo were others much cultivated in the Levine years. Not all of these, by any means, had large, traditionally operatic voices and sometimes there were complaints that they were drowned by the orchestra. But Levine, with his equable disposition and encouraging smile, had the ability and the charisma to get the best out of his singers.

“If you are singing of love, you look down and his face is reading love,” said Milnes, while Battle maintained that “he can make you better than you are”. In the recital room he was a sensitive if pallid accompanist.

His orchestral rehearsals were equally painstaking. Replacing many older players at the Met over the years with dynamic younger ones, he honed the instrument to a remarkable level of perfection. He secured for his players the highest salaries in the US, with broadcasting and recording fees on top, and won wider acclaim by performing with them also in Carnegie Hall, New York. His commitment to the Met was total, and offers from Covent Garden, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and elsewhere were declined.

James Levine conducting the Metropolitan Orchestra during a rehearsal in 1996.
James Levine conducting the Metropolitan Orchestra during a rehearsal in 1996. Photograph: Ronald Zak/AP

Remaining in situ throughout the season, he conducted the vast majority of performances himself. Others were often delegated to third-rate conductors, a policy for which he was much criticised, the assumption being that he wished to avoid invidious comparisons. That may or may not have been the case, though CAMI (Columbia Artists), who managed most of the leading maestros, perhaps preferred to steer them towards more profitable engagements than a six-week production run at the Met.

Another criticism frequently levelled (by the press rather than the patrons of the Met, it has to be admitted) was that the repertoire was too mainstream. There is little denying the fact that the staples of the long 19th century were recycled again and again. Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites and Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny both joined the roster in the late 1970s, but Janáček’s Katya Kabanová had to wait until 1991 (70 years after its first performance). Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron and Berg’s Lulu were both imparted with a high gloss that helped to disguise their dissonance.

Contemporary opera barely got a look in during the Levine years: John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, commissioned in 1980 to celebrate the centenary of the Met, was not actually heard until 1991. The conservative nature of the repertoire was safeguarded by Levine, who demanded and got complete artistic control – at least until the appointment of Joseph Volpe as general manager in 1990. Volpe was responsible for introducing four world premieres and 22 Met premieres during his tenure (1990-2006), while his successor, Peter Gelb, chose a more commercialised path of modernisation.

The repertoire favoured by Levine was no doubt intended to play to his strengths, though his stylistic authority frequently came into question. His Mozart demonstrated little trace of historically informed performance, while his Wagner frequently had a synthetic, machine-tooled quality. His Parsifal (recorded also with Bayreuth forces by Philips in 1985) was both portentous and glutinous; his Ring similarly aspired to monumentality but often achieved its big effects at the expense of acute psychological observation. With Verdi he seemed on surer ground: his Don Carlo (recorded also for Sony in 1993) was tautly projected, often electrifying, while his Otello (twice recorded with Domingo) was an intense, moving reading.

Beyond the opera house, Levine also had a distinguished career. He had a close association with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and for two decades (1973-93) served as music director of the Ravinia festival, north of the city. From 1975 he appeared regularly at the Salzburg festival, developing a close relationship with the innovative director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, all the more surprising given Levine’s conservative tendencies.

He endeavoured to establish a further European base at the Bayreuth festival, where he first appeared in 1982 with his tendentiously spacious reading of Parsifal. He had hoped to succeed Herbert von Karajan at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic on the latter’s death in 1989, but was passed over. He was better favoured by the Vienna Philharmonic, whose traditional approach to Mozart made him the orchestra’s popular choice for a complete set of the symphonies. He also held the post of chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra (1999-2004), but otherwise was an irregular guest on European podiums.

After serving as artistic director at the Met from 1986, in 2004 he reverted to the role of music director, in order to take the job of music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He was initially credited with revitalising that orchestra with a European tour, a recording programme and new commissions. Physical problems that began with a fall in 2006, however, resulted in an inordinate number of cancellations, though it was another five years before he finally bowed to the inevitable and resigned in 2011.

Whatever criticisms may have been levelled at Levine during the course of his long career at the Met, no one could deny his commitment. Nor was he an obvious vehicle for the image-obsessed public relations industry. Indeed, once advised by his father to lose weight, have a haircut and exchange his spectacles for contact lenses, he retorted that he would prefer to go to the opposite extreme so that he had “the satisfaction of knowing that I’m engaged because I’m a musician, and not because the ladies are swooning in the first balcony”. And indeed the “creature comforts” on which he once admitted spending his generous salary were not clothes, but fast cars and good meals.

Features on Levine habitually referred to his companion Sue (Suzanne) Thomson, a former oboist who shared his Manhattan apartment; they married last year. A profile in Time magazine in 1983 hinted at “liaisons with people of every age and hue, with both sopranos and tenors”. Levine was undoubtedly a man of voracious appetites and his non-appearance in the UK in the latter part of his life was said to be a result of past misdemeanours.

Certainly his indiscretions and abusive behaviour were an open secret in the musical world. “I was brought up to take responsibility for myself, to obey the natural laws of my personality and gifts,” he once declared. It was that attitude of self-exculpation, combined with his victims’ fear of discrimination and legal action, that allowed traces of his activities to be covered until history finally caught up with him.

In December 2017 he directed a Saturday matinee performance of Verdi’s Requiem at the Met. That evening press stories broke that the company would be opening an investigation based on a 2016 police report, and Levine’s plans to conduct a new production of Tosca that New Year’s Eve, with more Verdi to follow in 2018, were shelved.

Levine’s brother, Thomas, acted as his assistant; he died last year. Levine is survived by his wife and his sister, Janet.

• James Levine, conductor, born 23 June 1943; died 9 March 2021


Barry Millington

The GuardianTramp

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