Thursday, March 15, 2018

the case of James Levine

It's less surprising news than it could have been, because he was already suspended for this in December, but on Monday the Metropolitan Opera of New York formally dismissed its emeritus artistic director, James Levine, on charges of sexual abuse of younger musicians. Leading conductor at the Met for decades, also the former music director of the Boston Symphony and many other things, including the man on the podium for Disney's Fantasia 2000, Levine is the biggest name in classical music to have been caught by the #MeToo movement, bigger even than Charles Dutoit, of whom I already wrote.

Many commentators are puzzled, not by the dismissal but because it took so long for the charges to make an impression on these institutions. Stories about Levine have circulated for years and were generally known (though not by me, since I don't normally follow gossip about musicians). Lisa Hirsch writes that the general managers at the Met must have known: "Anthony Bliss knew about the rumors, because of an anonymous letter, and he has to have passed the information along to his immediate successors." Lisa is also intrigued that the Met alludes to events that happened during Levine's time at the Met, "because the published reports are mostly from the late 60s and early 70s, before he joined the Met." She's referring, at least in part, to a horrifying investigative article in the Boston Globe that appeared earlier this month, and which reads like a bad lurid novel. Anne Midgette of the Washington Post also notes the expansion of dates as news: "His allegedly abusive conduct during his Met tenure has yet to be revealed in print."

Well, both these questions - what did the Met know, and what did Levine supposedly do while he was there - can be answered by taking a look at a book cited in the full New York Times report of the firing, Molto Agitato: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera by Johanna Fiedler (Doubleday, 2001), an institutional history by the Met's former press officer. I went to the library and grabbed it. This remarkable tome preserves - as if it were sealed under glass - the pre-#MeToo view of Levine's misbehavior.

Yes, it's there. The Met knew about it, and it continued to gain steam after he joined. There's even an index sub-entry under Levine, James: "persistent rumors surrounding." Sub-alphabetized under "P" for "persistent."

Despite being by an official of the Met, the book is not whitewashed or at least not completely so, although the lawyers did have their way with it. There are stories of prima donnas living down to the worst implications of that title, culminating in the famous firing of Kathleen Battle - by general manager Joseph Volpe, as Levine (then artistic director, and supposedly in charge of musical personnel) didn't want to do it. (In his own memoirs, which I glanced at on an adjoining library shelf, Volpe repeatedly describes Levine as utterly averse to confrontational scenes.) There's a genteel power struggle between Levine and Volpe. There's even a backstage rape-murder of a Met orchestral violinist by a stagehand, described in a context of resentment of the musicians by the stagehands, who think the musicians have a soft life.

And there's the Persistent Rumors Surrounding James Levine. They were there even when he was hired, and this is like a two-sentence summary of that revelatory Boston Globe article: "The friends who surrounded him were perceived more as disciples than as friends, and the Levanites began to take on the aura of a cult, with Jimmy as the charismatic leader. There was malicious gossip, rumors of orgies and homosexuality and chamber music played in the nude." (p. 94)

So why wasn't anything done about it? Fiedler goes on: "Thirty years later, the rumors persist, even in the absence of any evidence." Ah, that's it. No evidence. And, indeed, the Globe article explains how Levine's victims were reluctant to accuse him, for fear of the impact on their own careers and that nobody would believe them. Yet they keep coming up. For instance, when Levine was appointed music director of the Munich Philharmonic in 1997, there was a contretemps over his salary, and then "the rumors about Levine's private life crept into the press." (p. 328)

And also at the Met. "Starting in the spring of 1979, these stories came to the surface at more or less regular intervals. Each time, the Met press office would tirelessly point out the cyclical nature of the gossip and the complete lack of substance." (p. 233) All that happened was that, in 1987, when "the 'rumors,' as they became known in the company, cropped up again, this time with a virulence that the Times found impossible to ignore," the resulting news story led to Levine pulling back on his artistic authority in favor of the general manager. (This was before Volpe took on the job.)

Fiedler notes that journalistic searches of police reports at that time turned up nothing. Doesn't that sort of answer the question of why the long-supine Met was today so quick to respond once there was a formal police report?

The same page lists "vulgar stories" (Fiedler's words) that were circulating about Levine's Met years, so here's what you've been looking for. Fiedler dismisses most of these as implausible. Levine couldn't have been soliciting a child in Pittsburgh, because at the time stated he was in Boston on a tour. He couldn't have solicited one on the NYC subway, because he never took the subway. (Yep, that's the reason this was "dismissed as preposterous.")

Even if you leave those aside, though, there's one more concrete Met years accusation. "Levine, it was said, had had a relationship with a boy whose parents had gone to the Met board, threatening to expose the situation. Supposedly the board had then authorized a major payoff to the family. But Anthony Bliss, during whose tenure this reportedly took place, consistently and adamantly denied it, as did other board members." Believe that or not, that's the story, but it does give kind of a context to what Bliss might or might not have done with an anonymous letter. He clearly had a lot more in that file than one anonymous letter.

What explanation can they possibly give for this much smoke, no fire? Levine, previously silent publicly on the subject, was pushed into talking with John Rockwell of the Times for the 1987 article, and said, "I don't have the faintest idea where these rumors came from or what purpose they served. Ron Wilford [his manager] says it's because people can't believe the real story, that I'm too good to be true." (p. 234) Fiedler sort of agrees: "Perhaps the stories arose because Levine - then, as now - exudes friendliness and warmth, yet has an intense desire for personal privacy." (p. 94) So ... some anonymous poison-pen types are jealous because he's too lovable? Is that it?

But mostly, Fiedler makes unintentionally clear, it's because Levine was so valuable to the Met and so clearly beloved. Her history concentrates on recent decades during which Levine was pre-eminent, so he's a major figure in it. Despite power-plays by Volpe, which never rose to personal antagonism, he's the artistic genius of the Met. The book begins with a rapturous account of Levine's 25th anniversary gala concert in 1996, when he conducted opera highlights for eight hours. He knows all the repertoire and conducts it tirelessly and excellently. He's warm and friendly and gives lots of presents. Singers love him. Orchestras love him; they beg for him to conduct them or become their music director; that's how he got the job in Munich.

You know, we've seen the effects of this even before #MeToo. For many years, starting soon after Fiedler's book was published in 2001, the big story about Levine was his health. He had kidney problems, back problems, Parkinson's disease, all requiring surgery, all requiring time off for recuperation. It all ruined his tenure with the Boston Symphony, which began in 2004, the more because - as with the "rumors" - he was reluctant to talk about it and insisted that nothing was wrong. But he was so beloved and respected that the institutions put up with what should have been unacceptable absenteeism. Only in 2011 did his absences, combined with his insistence on continuing to schedule himself for concerts he then wasn't up for, become so debilitating to the orchestra that he resigned. But he didn't resign from the Met, he just took a leave of absence and only retired several years later. The feeling at the time was, what a shame he hung on too long.

Most aggravating was the Parkinson's, which for years Levine flatly denied he had, finally admitting at the time of his retirement that he'd had it for over 20 years, going back into his heyday. Like his sexual molestations, the evidence for this is hidden in plain sight in Fiedler's book. There's a surprising mention that "When James developed a tremor in his arm in the late 1990s," his ever-loyal brother Tom, "with utter discretion, helped cut his brother's food." (p. 268) He what? Surely having an arm tremor so bad you can't cut your food would be debilitating for a conductor, whose artistry lies in his arm movements, but he attributes it to "a pinched nerve" (p. 271) and nothing more is said of it. Levine is loved; he denies anything is wrong; it's brushed under the table.

One more thing got denied and brushed under the table, too. Levine is gay. (His molestation victims were mostly male.) He denied that for years, too. Some people thought he admitted it during his 1987 interview with Rockwell. He said: "I live my life openly; I don't make pretenses of this or that. What there is is completely apparent." (p. 234) What could he mean?

But in Fiedler's book, Levine is not gay. Proof: he's been living for decades with an oboist named Suzanne Thomson. As proof that he's not gay, that must have been quite a pretense. I haven't been able to find out anything about her in recent material about Levine. Was she his beard? Did she simply disappear? I have no idea.

In the end, there's one clue to why James Levine is the way he is. He says, "I was brought up to take responsibility for myself, to obey the natural laws of my personality and gifts." (p. 325) This is put in the context of explaining why he never cut his ridiculous hair, but a man who believes in "the natural laws of my personality" is just as likely to make others bear the burdens of his unpredictable illnesses, or to molest who he likes when he likes and deny it all the way because of the supremacy of his gifts.

Nope. It took a long time, but in the end, it doesn't work that way.

Update and supplement.


  1. The Met has had monstrous institutional failures in protecting him over the years, both regarding his behavior (the rumors, now demonstrated to be true) and his health.

  2. Did you see yesterday's Times article, which includes some comments from former HGO and SFO general director David Gockley?