Monday, March 19, 2018

the case of James Levine cont'd

In our last post, I was reading Molto Agitato, Metropolitan Opera press officer Johanna Fiedler's 2001 history of the company, to see what it might say about their pre-#MeToo awareness of former artistic director James Levine's record of sexual abuse. I found four things of note:

1. The Met was well aware of the charges. It wasn't, as some have implied, just one anonymous letter tucked away in one-time general manager Anthony Bliss's office files. Tales being raised were like a car alarm that went off on a regular basis from 1979 on, and rumors about Levine's misbehavior in Cleveland in the '60s were known even when he was first hired in 1971 - and the summary of that matches the recent Boston Globe investigative article about it.

2. And it wasn't just the recirculation of '60s stories. When the Met fired Levine last week, it referred to events happening during as well as before his Met employment. What these might be has puzzled some commentators, since recently-published stories have only been about the '60s events, but details about Met-era charges are right there in Fiedler's book, including a story that the Met board had paid off one boy's parents.

3. The Met's response whenever something was publicized was to deny it vehemently, including the claim that there was a payoff. It seems to me that they did so because Levine was so artistically valuable to the Met and so clearly beloved, but Fiedler's working theory for the persistent rumors - and Levine's, the one time he was forced to talk about it - was that some poison-pen types just mysteriously had it in for lovable, hard-working, talented Jimmy. Whether anybody at the Met actually believed this is an unanswered question, though I have some thoughts.

4. These denials seem to have worked. Despite the charges' presence right there in print, they've been ignored, even by people investigating the Levine stories who have, or ought to have, read the book. I compared this to the treatment of the health problems of Levine's later years, which had cropped up early enough to also make a cameo appearance in Fiedler's book, and which, like the sexual abuse charges, were brushed aside for years until they grew so massive they could be ignored no longer.

Lisa Hirsch, who has also weighed in on the case again, has been looking into the Fiedler book's reputation as an explanation for its being ignored. She told me she vaguely recalled it having been written off in reviews for having too much unsubstantiated gossip. But what's in the book that could be considered unsubstantiated gossip is the "rumors" about Levine.

But in fact it's worse than that, as Lisa has now found by digging out some of the actual reviews. Here's Allan Kozinn in the NY Times and Joshua Kosman in the SF Chronicle. Kosman's review is a particularly amazing document, accusing Fiedler of sneering bitchiness towards one singer, by misrepresenting what Fiedler writes so thoroughly that, by Kosman's standards, he convicts himself of the mysterious "personal animus" he attributes to Fiedler.

But what do they say about the charges against Levine? Kozinn: "She offers an admiring portrait of Mr. Levine as well, but she acknowledges a few foibles," though he doesn't list this glaring feature among them. Kosman does mention "Levine's absolute secrecy about his personal life, which has helped spawn all sorts of lurid rumors and innuendo over the years," but that's as dismissive of the charges as it sounds, for he also describes Fiedler's portrait as a "fawning kid-gloves treatment." Isn't that remarkable? Fiedler not only gives attention to the charges, she details them extensively. It was only the Met’s success at denying the charges that washed off all this mud that Fiedler threw at her beloved Levine, and kept everyone else's eye off it.

That context makes more curious this article that Lisa also sent me, by Ben Miller, who was the 12-year-old son of a Boston Symphony player when Levine began his tenure there in 2004. His parents warned him about the stories about Levine and told him to avoid the conductor personally, which he did. But Miller wound up not believing the rumors, basically because he valued Levine's musicianship so much. Which pretty much puts him in the same category as Fiedler, so that may answer for her sincerity as well.

Miller also refers to Alex Ross's review of Fiedler, which I found in the 5 Nov 2001 issue of The New Yorker, p. 94-96. Ross, who likes the book as a reading experience much more than Kozinn or Kosman do (as also did I), does address the rumors, "curious stories [that] have followed the conductor from the beginning of his career." But he too falls for the party line: "Fiedler, who ought to know, systematically dismantles them." Oh dear. I noted her statements that Levine was not in Pittsburgh and never takes the NY subway, so couldn't have molested in those places, but otherwise she offers no evidence, just denials. On his own hook, not Fiedler's authority, Ross says the rumors are mysterious legends that attach themselves to some celebrities "for no discernible reason." Oh dear oh dear oh dear. I think nowadays we can think of a reason: that they're true? And then he says Levine's "most effective response has been his performances, which make all the gossip sound bitter and small." Which amounts to 1) attributing the charges to professional jealousy, 2) claiming that a great musician can not be a bad person. What? How can one say that in a world which once contained Richard Wagner?

Miller says that Ross has since apologized for writing this, and I hope he has. But it illustrates my point: the charges can be right there in cold print, and yet not there at all.

Both Kozinn and Kosman cite what they consider a much better opera gossip book, Cinderella & Company: Backstage at the Opera with Cecilia Bartoli by Manuela Hoelterhoff (Knopf, 1998). Kozinn says it has "a sharper scalpel." Kosman says it's "a sheaf of wonderful tales" where Fielder offers "a glowing press release." Ross doesn't mention the competition. I went and read this one too. Ross has better judgment, and Kosman is completely off.

Hoelterhoff's is an entirely different kind of book, so in one way a comparison is unfair. Fiedler was writing a history of an opera company; Hoelterhoff was a journalist following then-young mezzo Bartoli around on tour for a couple of years. It's a more close-up book, with more reported conversations and more detail on trivial day-to-day matters. I also found it cluttered and hard to read where Fiedler's prose is clear.

But on dishing the dirt, as opposed to relating the trivia, Hoelterhoff is nearly inert. On the firing of Kathleen Battle by general manager Joseph Volpe, for instance, Fiedler tells the story, and the backstory, in full (p. 283-88, and that's just a sequel to earlier material on Battle), while Hoelterhoff tells it much more briefly, circumspectly, and more sympathetically to Battle (p. 41). (It has to be circumspect if it's to be sympathetic.) Hoelterhoff asks Volpe about it, but he doesn't tell her anything (p. 53).

As for Levine, he is barely a character in Hoelterhoff's story, despite the fact that he conducts much of the music in it. His avoidance of publicity must have kept him away from her, and Fiedler must somehow have overcome this. Interestingly, Hoelterhoff is critical of Levine professionally where Fiedler emphatically is not. Hoelterhoff thinks he's too weak at leading the company to be artistic director (p. 78). (Fiedler acknowledges this weakness, though only by implication, and doesn't consider it fatal.) He arbitrarily overrides directors' visions, even if musically he's right (p. 95). He degrades his talent by conducting the Three Tenors (p. 162-3). (Fiedler thinks it's charming that he does this.) And she finds Levine's giant anniversary gala, the one that Fiedler trills over so loudly, to be a huge waste of time as well as a logistical nightmare to prepare for (passim).

But the rumors? Just this: "Mortified by unsourced rumors about his personal life, Levine long ago found refuge behind a beaming podium facade that shielded him from any possibly unpleasant scrutiny." (p. 134) That's it. Some sharp scalpel; some wonderful tales.

Unless you want to read about why Cecilia Bartoli keeps coming down with colds and cancelling performances, I don't find this a very worthwhile book for any purpose.

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