The saying goes that one shouldn’t speak ill of the dead. If that is true, I should say nothing about the late James Levine — and there are probably many who think I should do just that. But in the case of the Metropolitan Opera and Boston Symphony Orchestra’s defrocked former high priest, I believe speaking ill of the dead is not just justified, but necessary.
In a leaked e-mail that Met general manager Peter Gelb sent out to Met Opera company members shortly after news of Levine’s death broke Wednesday, he wrote that “no artist in the 137 year history of the Met had as profound an impact as Jim.” That is true, but not in the hagiographic sense that Gelb intended.
Until his death, Levine was perhaps the music world’s most staggering living testament to the dangers of genius-worship culture. That culture nourished his ascent and enabled his alleged serial sexual abuse of young men, whom he had the power to make or break.
For generations raised on PBS opera broadcasts and “Fantasia 2000,” Levine was the ur-conductor, a charismatic sparkplug with an iconic shock of frizzy hair — and every stage of his half-century-long career has been tarnished by these allegations.
The earliest public allegations date from the late ’60s, when Levine maintained a stranglehold on a circle of acolytes at Cleveland Institute of Music. The ensuing decades don’t get much better, with a pattern of alleged abuses against young men, often underage, reaching into the ’90s. No one dared go public, and Levine was fiercely secretive about his private life.
However, musicians gossip like middle schoolers, and whispers proliferated. For years, it was impossible to pin anything down, or disentangle genuine concern from homophobic panic. Only after the fall of cinema titan Harvey Weinstein in 2017 and the ensuing #MeToo movement did survivors feel emboldened to come forward with their whole Levine stories, and those on his periphery also began to openly share what they heard. In an essay for VAN Magazine, published days after allegations first surfaced publicly against Levine, writer Ben Miller described how his father, a BSO cellist, sat him down at the age of 12 to inform him about the “serious rumors” about the new music director being inappropriate with young boys. Don’t be in a room alone with Levine, Miller’s parents told him. Walk the other way if you see him coming.
It is true: Levine brought new life to the BSO amid the slumping post-Ozawa years. It’s also true that he elevated the prestige of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, from a midtown pit band to one of the best opera ensembles in the world. It is also true that parents were warning their children about the man, because they knew nothing would be done to stop him. And those children were telling their friends and stand partners.
But he was a genius, the best thing to happen in the history of American opera — or so the Met would have us believe. It continues to promote that image of Levine to this day, and will continue to do so as long as it’s profitable. Reading Miller’s essay and hearing so many similar tales, one can almost imagine Mark Ruffalo screaming, à la “Spotlight:” They knew, and they let it happen!
Shortly after Levine’s death was announced, the Met splashed his grinning face across its homepage and linked a short obituary. The final paragraph strains under the weight of the passive voice: “Despite his undeniable artistic achievements on behalf of the Met, his relationship with the company frayed in the wake of allegations of sexual misconduct.” (After he was fired from his role as music director emeritus at the Met following an investigation, Levine sued the house to the tune of $5.8 million. Following a countersuit and settlement, he emerged with $3.5 million.)
This is the way the Met operates right now, the environment in which Levine thrived for almost a half century. To hell with the little people — the choristers, the young artists, the staff, the orchestra members who haven’t been paid for a year during this global pandemic. Defend the deities, until it’s too embarrassing (and costly) to do anything but cut them loose.
It happened with Levine. It happened with Plácido Domingo. It’s still happening as the Met heaps lauds on Anna Netrebko, the soprano who proudly dons blackface for roles such as Aida and posts anti-mask views to social media.
News of Levine’s death went public just a few hours after a white man murdered several Asian-American women in Atlanta, and Asian-American musician Jennifer Wu set the opera corner of Twitter afire by impersonating the Met with a bland statement condemning violence against Asians while simultaneously advertising a streaming production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” starring Netrebko with Levine on the podium.
So many thought Wu’s tweet was real that the Met was compelled to respond from its own account, directing its followers to “disregard all information.” (I don’t blame anyone for falling for it; the least believable thing about that tweet was that Netrebko would sing Butterfly, a role she’s famously rejected. Wu’s account was suspended as of Thursday.) This is Levine’s legacy, more than anything: that all human failings can and should be buried in the name of The Art.
Getting large institutions like the Met to make radical changes to their modus operandi can be like steering the Titanic. But it’s time to grab the wheel. Levine, the individual, is just the tip of the iceberg here; under the surface lies a culture of intimidation and silence that elevates a few to genius-savior status and leaves everyone else to either fall in line or fall to the bottom. And we all know what happened when the Titanic met an iceberg.
A.Z. Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.