Friday Playlist: The Arrested Development of James Levine
Apparently conductors are well known enough in Japan that comics can make a living on conductor humor. Well in any event, this cheery Levine impression (4:50) is about thirty years dated. The once boyish and enthusiastic wunderkind of the Met has gradually morphed into something vaguely resembling Verdi’s Grand Inquisitor, or at least Pagliacci’s Tonio. As late as twenty years ago, James Levine still looked like a kid in love with opera who couldn’t believe his good luck to be running America’s greatest opera house, but he’s long since come to look forlorn; as though he’s fighting against the bulk of his baggage, physical and emotional, to give the best possible performance.
You’ve all seen James Levine, whether you realize it or not. Every time you’ve flipped past PBS you may have caught a bit of a Metropolitan Opera broadcast. If you flip past during the overture, you’ll see a man fat enough to burst through his white tie, with a huge jewfro that went out of style in 1978, and the same aviator glasses he wore 40 years ago that look creepier with every new ailment. With his right hand he beats time with a baton so large that you wonder how he hasn’t impaled himself with it on his protruding gut. His left hand shapes the phrases, and he it out in the air as though he can feel the texture of the sound with his hand like a piece of silk. He used to conduct with a perpetual 1000 watt shit-eating grin on his face, as though he couldn’t believe anyone could have so much fun. In recent years, he looks as though he’s undergoing an endurance test, full of downcast looks, concealed panting, and painful grimaces.
Other conductors build their reputations on photogenic grandstanding. They go from city to city, charm and inspire orchestras into doing their bidding, and leave before the orchestras tire of them with $30,000 in their pockets for a week’s work. But James Levine tried to work with the same few ensembles for the entirety of his career and came amazingly close to fulfilling that goal. In this way as in so many others, James Levine is the uncoolest great musician in America. A truly gifted conductor so completely cut off from any new influence that he is the Great American Conductor of 1953. For forty years, Levine seems to have followed an inner voice which tells him he can bring the Met ever closer to his ideal operatic performance. It’s a luxury available to only one musician in America, made possible only by the fact that his opera house sits on a $240 million endowment.
Opera, once the most populist of all art-forms, is New York’s ultimate elitist pursuit - where Upper-East Side bad plastic surgery and combover cases take shelter against the ruffians whom they fear will mug them on the way back to their Mercedes, a Koch brother gets a whole Lincoln Center theater named after him, and a production of an opera written after the beginning of the Great Depression is considered dangerously edgy. Opera, once the most dangerous artform in the world for which imperial censors guarded like hawks against implications of treason, became a safe relic of a culture so alien to us that no one but those with vast quantities of money and leisure time can possibly hope to appreciate it.
Surely Levine must notice that the distance between the sort of opera he loves and the opera his audiences crave grows larger year by year. It was already beginning when he took over in 1973, and it’s only become more true as the decades wore on. The Italian immigrants who grew up on this music died out decades ago. Their middle-class children who grew up playing piano and watching Beverly Sills on Ed Sullivan have long since been priced out of everything but the Met’s cheapest seats. New York’s gay community, a faithful bedrock to so many opera houses, was depleted by AIDS, and younger gay people have other enthusiasms. Opera in America is now beholden to the high-professional class: financial analysts, lawyers, industrialists, stockbrokers, with maybe a few doctors here and there. Most of them are looking for ways to dress up and appear classy to their dates. What better place to go than to the opera?
And these new audiences demand things which previous generations would never think to demand. They don’t know the plots of the great operas, and they don’t want to have to read up on them. So these new audiences need subtitles over the stage. They neither understand why people would express themselves through singing the same line over and over again, nor what makes the thrill of opera singing any different than the thrill of a Broadway show. So they need an involving theatrical experience in which the characters look plausible. If that means great singers who are wooden actors and physically unfit for the parts can’t sing the roles, that’s a sacrifice which apparently must be made. Opera is theater now, not music.
So as the years went on, the Great Compromise was struck. The Metropolitan Opera would spew its money onto the stage with theatrical productions lavish enough that not even Broadway could compete. Whereas European opera houses would mount radical productions which rethought (and sometimes didn’t) every aspect of the staging, the Met would only hire directors like Franco Zefferelli and Otto Schenk, who truly know and love the operatic tradition, and would sooner retire than ever stray outside the boundaries of what conventional operatic taste would deem acceptable. The Metropolitan Opera became “conventional opera +,” nothing new, nothing shocking, but all the comforting old operatic paradigms rethought and replenished in newly vibrant productions and performances that teach you more about what you already knew.
It can’t be denied that for a time, this approach worked rather brilliantly. Levine’s Met was opera’s great conservative organization (the two terms are not mutually exclusive). The American singers Levine trained may not have the charisma or distinctiveness of Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi, they may not speak fantastic Italian or German; but they always sing and act competently well at a time when not even that can be guaranteed at the opera house. The singers at the Met rarely sounded as though they had much understanding or passion for what they sang, but they were consummate professionals who tried to fulfill Levine’s gentle requests and Zefferelli’s searing demands to the dotted i. Those who didn’t, like Kathleen Battle, were shown the door. Opera in New York may not have been the place to expect conceptions of the world to be turned upside down, but at least the artform was taken seriously.
And at least there still was enough of an audience to appreciate what Levine was doing. It wasn’t just the ABC’s of opera that were selling out (Aida, La Boheme, Carmen), it was performances of Don Carlo and La Forza Del Destino, Idomeneo and Cosi fan Tutte, The Italian Girl in Algiers and L’Elisir d’Amore, Elektra and Ariadne auf Naxos. Levine may have stuck to opera’s tried and true composers, but he gave every one of them their full due with lavish productions featuring the best possible singers and America’s greatest orchestra in the pit - most of them preserved for posterity through PBS’s series: Great Performances, a federally-funded (at least partially) series meant to cover the best of opera, theater, music, and dance in America - one which like Levine’s Met, justified its grandiosity and pomp by never feeding audiences fare that’s too challenging.
By the standards of yesterday, Levine is as close to the ideal opera conductor as the world has ever seen. Unlike the podium tyrants of the mid-20th century, Levine never browbeats singers, he works with them, mentors them, persuades them of his conceptions. He’s become the most sought after mentor to half-a-dozen generations of opera stars. He’s even trained the pit orchestra, historically the bane of every opera house in the world, to the highest standard of any orchestra in America - often playing six first-class performances every week.
But unfortunately, the world no longer needs James Levine, and it’s hard to think he doesn’t know that. He was the perfect conductor for the era in which he began his career, but opera today demands something very different from what Levine gives... assuming that it demands anything from us at all. The 20th century has passed Levine by, and while like all dutifully musicians of his age he voices a passion for high atonality, the greatness in of 20th century operas after Turandot and Wozzeck completely seems to elude him. Janacek, Schrecker Prokofiev,Hindemith, Martinu, Britten, Stockhausen, Henze, Carlisle Floyd, Philip Glass, John Adams, all pass him by. One can’t completely blame him, the greatness in many of these composers eludes me too. But to find so little of value as to avoid all of them is unacceptable for the world’s great opera conductor. Furthermore, to venture so little into opera before Mozart and Gluck is a concept just as dated. The world of opera, indeed, the whole world of classical music, is no longer music from 1720 to 1910. It’s now music from 1200 to the present day. Much of that new/old music sucks, but we have to sift through the bad stuff to find the good ones.
But it is under Verdi’s name that Levine has lodged his legacy. Since Arturo Toscanini, no superstar conductors have been so completely devoted to Verdi as Riccardo Muti and James Levine. Neither is Toscanini’s equal in this composer (has any conductor ever performed a composer so well as Toscanini did Verdi?), but both have rendered their services for him, for better or worse. Muti is perhaps the one conductor since Toscanini who demands the utmost fire and brimstone from Verdi performances, but he does not have Toscanini’s naturalness of pacing and drives the music to the limit of human possibility with very little repose in between. He is well-known for insisting on Verdi’s urtext: under Muti, singers are prohibited from interpolating notes that Verdi didn’t write, substituting louder dynamics, or bending rhythms. Yet Muti consistently permits himself all those things he disallows from others (not for nothing is he nicknamed Mutollini). Levine’s Verdi, while certainly dramatic, is more understated. Under Toscanini, Verdi took on all the power of a Shakespearean drama. Not a single moment was milked, and every detail of the piece was in its perfect place to make the whole work. Listening to Toscanini in Aida the Requiem or Otello or Falstaff is like listening to perfection itself in which every detail sounds precisely the way it was meant to sound. Other Verdi performances are better as opera, but only Toscanini can make you understand why Verdi is one of the world’s greatest dramatists. No one since Toscanini got closer to that level of understanding than Levine, but Levine’s Verdi is not quite so insistent on following the score to the absolute letter of the law (though closer than virtually everybody else). If Toscanini is classical drama, then Levine’s Verdi is a classical epic - exciting in spite of its dry passages and with an increasing tendency to be too slow going.
Indeed, slowness has come to be Levine’s most definable quality as a musician. At the beginning of his career, James Levine was known as a fleet, ultra-dramatic conductor who went for clean linear interpretations with razor-sharp ensemble. Today, he’s known for ultra-slow, ultra-lush performances that critics charitably call ‘massive.’
He is the perfect conductor for the era in which he began his career. But even Leonard Bernstein, dead for 22 years, is still a more current, meaningful figure to music today than James Levine. Lenny showed today’s musicians how to talk to audiences, how to engage other genres, how to hold off routine, and how to stay in love with music you’ve played a hundred times. The old Lenny became a sad figure himself on the podium, equally if not more prone to massively slow tempos and painful grimacing in his dotage. But Lenny grew old, fat, and sad because the times were so clearly behind him. Jimmy’s grown sad because he stood still while the world clearly moved on.
There is something about Levine that refuses to move on from things as they once were. I don’t know what it is, and I think very few people do. When he began his career, he was known as the most loquacious interviewee in classical music, happily chatting up journalists for hours at a time. Today, he rarely ever gives interviews, and even other musicians say that he will rarely if ever discuss anything non-musical.
Clearly, things changed with him, probably sometime around the early-to-mid 90’s. We finally learned that Levine’s hand-tremors were in fact what everybody had assumed and what Levine had denied for years and years: Parkinson’s Disease beginning in 1994. But why wait so long to tell everybody? Why the secrecy? As has clearly been proven in the last few years, they’ll keep him as music director of the Met until they need to shovel him in the ground. It should certainly strike people as odd that an admittance was so long coming, but not half as odd as the fact of the particular week it happened. Just a few days before, Kurt Masur disclosed that he had Parkinson’s Disease. Masur, sixteen years older than Levine, is a defiantly old school German conductor without Levine’s singular talent. His performances, particularly in recent years, can be quite generic. But as has been seen so dramatically in the past when Masur was one of the heroes of East Germany’s fall, Masur is a much braver man than Levine. After Masur released his secret to the acclaim of many in the music world for his bravery, Levine announced just a few days later that yes indeed, he has Parkinson’s too, has since at least 1994, will never walk again, and must now use an electric wheelchair to get around. And oh, by the way, he’s planning to return again to conduct at the Met after three years absence.
And then, there are the ‘dark secrets.’ I don’t know when the rumors began surfacing of Levine’s sexual peculiarities, but I first read them in Norman Lebrecht’s 1997 book, Who Killed Classical Music, in which a barely disguised pseudonym was used that could clearly not have been anybody else. The book contained a blatant allegation that Levine was molesting younger musicians of both sexes - not children, perhaps not even teenagers, but certainly far younger than him and without consent. Anyone would become sad after hearing allegations about themselves like those, because even if the allegations aren’t true, the damage to his reputation is automatically done. Other rumors started popping up, of the Met board hushing up his arrest in a public men’s room, of aides cruising to procure him male lovers, of chamber music sessions in the nude. I used to frequent a music shop in DC where the owner claimed that he got a creepily suspicious leer from James Levine when he was younger and working as a Lincoln Center Intern. From the beginning of his career, Levine has had a live-in girlfriend whom he never married, (and now refers to, simply, as his ‘closest friend’). It always felt like a ruse which gay men use to conceal their real sexuality, probably for potential wealthy donors in this case. Even so, rumors like these are dangerous (I’m almost uncomfortable discussing them) and have a way of doubling in on themselves. Until definitive proof is brought, James Levine must be considered innocent until proven guilty, and even if even one of these rumors is true, surely all of them can’t be - the nude chamber music one is actually kind of charming...
But whatever the truth about his emotional life, his physical decline got more and more pronounced, perhaps sadder too. The happy-go-lucky kid seemed all too beset by worries. He began to branch into orchestral life, but the branching out was all too late. Levine was always a talented conductor of orchestral concerts with whose abilities seemed to center around late-Viennese composers like Mahler and Schoenberg. But by the time he took over Sergiu Celibidache’s Munich Philharmonic in 1999, he seemed nearly as immobile as Celibidache was in the years before he died. By the time Levine became director of the Boston Symphony, something was clearly wrong - James Levine was looking dumpy and frail even by James Levine standards. Sixty-year-old men are not supposed to look like that, and if they do, they should not be holding down two full-time jobs. Levine’s tenure with the Boston Symphony began in a shower of praise - a great American orchestra was finally being revived and a great American conductor was finally getting his due as a star. But then came injury after injury, it became difficult to watch Levine do anything on the podium. It was clear that when he could even make it to the concert, he was in terrible pain. The cancellations became more and more frequent, and the Boston Symphony was left without even a good guest conductor, as often as not leaving their most important concerts of the year in the hands of an unproven assistant - and not every thirty-year-old is James Levine.
This is a man whose entire life has been music from beginning to end. He began life as a child prodigy pianist, mentored by a who’s who of mid-century American musical life. As many child prodigy families do, his family made enormous sacrifices to bring Levine to where he is now, and his brother still sometimes acts as his assistant. He was George Szell’s assistant at the Cleveland Orchestra for six years (and if being George Szell’s assistant doesn’t screw up a person’s psyche, nothing would). Three years after he left Cleveland, when he was not yet thirty, he was running the world’s biggest opera house. How does a person continue growing when he was already born with everything? How does a person virtually born at the top of his profession experience the world outside of it?
Rather, people like that cling to things they already know. They obsessively savor every new detail they can find of the familiar, and they make themselves ever more at home in their home. James Levine may not have much life outside music, and whatever life he has may be extraordinarily dysfunctional, but within his little sliver of music, he is the master of all that he surveys. We should be happy he’s returning to the stage. But we should also understand why James Levine is so reluctant to give up his positions, even after he hasn’t been able to conduct a concert in over two years. If he didn’t have a baton in his hand, would James Levine be anybody at all?