I was a freelance critic, but not on duty, when I attended a matinee performance of Wagner’s sprawling comedy “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” on Saturday at the Metropolitan Opera in December 1995.
The cast was almost ideal. The elegant Bernd Weikl as the wise shoemaker Hans Sachs. A shining Karita Mattila as the young Eva. The heroic Ben Heppner as Walther, who falls in love with her. And Hermann Prey, a respected veteran, as Beckmesser, the bustling body of the city.
But the star was James Levine.
It was often the case when he conducted the Met during his decades-long reign, which ended in disgrace a few years ago on worrying allegations of sexual abuse and harassment – and then for good with his death on March 9 at the age of 77.
If the Met Orchestra sounded radiant and played with vigilance and ease in this long-ago “Meistersinger”, this was largely due to Levine’s leadership, which was already over 20 years old. I particularly remember Hans Sachs’ monologue when this generally tolerant character suddenly complains angrily about the selfishness he witnesses in his neighbors. Levine used the gentle harmonic richness and the melancholy sharpness of the music, almost as if he were giving Sachs consolation, as if he were urging him not to lose his trust in people.
Now, of course, it’s impossible to ignore that it was Levine who was selfish, someone who could make you lose your trust in people. His fans, colleagues, and the critics who covered him all had to reconcile his significant artistic legacy: “No artist in the Met’s 137-year history has had such a profound influence as James Levine,” said Peter Gelb, general The company’s manager said in a statement – with the allegations that stain this legacy.
It is impossible to think about Levine in the same way after making these horrific allegations. Acknowledging one’s accomplishments does not mean minimizing the real suffering of one’s victims. But it’s still worth taking a moment to consider how he changed the Met in ways that will outlive him.
He built his orchestra – which has never been the fame of a company that wanted to present singers – into an ensemble that can compete with the great symphony orchestras in the world. He maintained a relationship with his players in the most direct way: by performing with them in chamber music programs both as a pianist and as a conductor. He started a young artist program that has become a role model for businesses around the world. (Even that program is tarnished, however: after Levine sued the Met for firing him on the abuse allegations, the company said its investigation revealed that he had drawn victims from among the program.)
He set about placing milestone operas of the 20th century at the center of the Met’s repertoire, including Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande”, Berg’s “Wozzeck” and “Lulu” and Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress”. (He even tried his best to seduce the company’s audience with Schönberg’s 12-note “Moses und Aron”.) Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito” and “Idomeneo” were no longer overlooked as historical curiosities in the Levine years. He introduced the Met with great success in Weill and Brecht’s “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny” and the “Porgy and Bess” of the Gershwins. A Stravinsky evening showed “The Rite of Spring”, “The Nightingale” and “Oedipus Rex”.
Since his big break in opera came early, when he made his Met debut at the last minute at the age of only 28 under the baton of Puccini’s “Tosca”, he was transported into the still important twilight of the greats of the Golden Age and learned from Renata Tebaldi, Jon Vickers and Leontyne Price, Christa Ludwig, Birgit Nilsson and others as they form close ties with emerging greats like Jessye Norman, Teresa Stratas, Hildegard Behrens and Plácido Domingo.
Like other American musicians after World War II, he brought a fresh, carefree approach and clear musicality to the scores of the European past. When he spoke of operas he loved, like Verdi’s “Otello”, Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte” or “The Rake’s Progress”, he often said: “It’s such a great piece.” The last word was decisive, I think . “Tosca” can’t just be a moment-to-moment drama; it must also have the unstoppable swing of a symphony, a piece. Levine conveyed this at his best.
He strived for naturalness, for music that was created without effort. I once watched him rehearse the overture to “Così”. He wanted this familiar music to pass by with clear clarity and appear to float at the same time. He didn’t want the players to sound like they were trying to accurately execute note streams.
Shrewd serialist Milton Babbitt once told me of his amazement when he heard Levine, only in her early twenties and assistant to the Cleveland Orchestra, playing the piano at a rehearsal for the premiere of Babbitt’s “Relata I,” an intimidating score, with polyphonic complexity.
“Jimmy knew the entire score,” said Babbitt, “and he could play any part.”
This intellect often worked to Levine’s advantage on the podium. In operas like “Pelléas et Mélisande” and “Wozzeck” he was drawn to their balance between extravagant emotion and structural rigor. He turned out to be an ideal conductor of such works.
However, his attraction to the intellectual elements of music, particularly in contemporary works, limited his reach, particularly during his tenure as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 2004 to 2011. Eventually, he had the opportunity to make a name for himself around living composers promote with a large ensemble. But he seemed most interested in great creators like Elliott Carter, Charles Wuorinen, and Babbitt. These were numbers emerging. But what about the new generation?
That he didn’t make the Met a cultivator of new operas, especially by younger composers, was a complete failure. The Met’s record of commissioning operas during the Levine era was unfortunately inadequate. Late in his tenure, the Met presented premieres by Thomas Adès and Nico Muhly – composers in whom he showed no interest.
You’d think a music director would like to put his name on new works and get his company to promote the future. During an interview with Charlie Rose in 2013, Levine turned down the suggestion that the Met should present a new opera each season. “I wish I really thought there was a new opera every year that was good enough for the Met,” he said. It was a startling comment.
His accomplishments are documented in a huge catalog of recordings and videos that were ubiquitous on the Met’s schedule of free nightly streams over the past year. Tragically, his influence also plays out in the lives of the men he is supposed to exploit.
At the end of this “Meistersinger” in 1995, after the cheering scene of cheering townspeople, Levine’s arms fell on his side. For a moment there was silence in the opera house. Then the ovations broke out and went on and on.
With all the extraordinary singing, Levine and the orchestra were the heroes of the afternoon. This orchestra spent the pandemic without pay. About 40 percent of the players left the New York area. More than a tenth retired.
The ensemble was embroiled in a tense battle for its future with the management of the Met. The musicians recently voted to accept reduced paychecks in exchange for returning to the negotiating table, where the company is seeking permanent wage cuts it deems necessary to survive the pandemic.
One way for the Met to honor the best elements of Levine’s hopelessly tarnished legacy would be to save the great orchestra he built.