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What’s wrong with James Levine?

La Cieca was just sent an announcement about “James Levine: 40 Years at The Metropolitan Opera,   an extraordinary insider’s view of the legendary conductor’s Met career, illustrated with vivid historic photographs…. Marking the 40th anniversary of Met Music Director James Levine’s company debut on June 5, 1971, the book celebrates his unparalleled artistic achievements through commentary by the maestro himself, as well as anecdotes and tributes from many of the great artists who have performed with him.”

So it’s safe to assume that what we’re talking about here is a tongue bath suitable for coffee table display—but that’s not what’s on La Cieca’s mind here. 

The press release also mentions that the book will touch on “the singular low point of his career in 1980,” which strikes La Cieca as curious. That year marked the launch of the Met’s Young Artists Program, which some certainly regard as the beginning of the end of the art of singing in the United States, but that’s hardly what Levine would think, or at least say in public.

One of La Cieca’s correspondents asked, “1980? Wasn’t that the year he was arrested?” But whether he was arrested or not, that’s an unlikely subject to broach even in “an extraordinary insider’s view,” so let’s put that aside.

No, La Cieca is pretty sure that what this is about is the 1980 orchestra labor dispute that ended up costing the Met three months of performances that fall. And now, moving beyond reasonable supposition and branching out into sheer guesswork, she’s going to say that the reason this subject is suddenly coming to the fore 30 years after the fact is that the Met is afraid that history is about to repeat itself.

It’s no secret that the company is negotiating with AGMA and Local 802 for new contracts beginning in the fall of 2011, and La Cieca has heard rumors that a strike of 1980 magnitude is a distinct possiblity. So distinct is the possibilty, La Cieca hears, that members of the Met’s musical staff are already making contingency plans for what is to be done if or when the orchestra goes out on strike and the fall season is canceled.

Again, that’s all rumor. but let’s say there was significant concern at the Met that a labor action might close the house. How could that concern be addressed without directly acknowledging the terrifying possibility of a strike?

One way, perhaps, would be to remind everyone forcefully of just what the last strike cost in terms of artistic quality, financial stability and—really to drive the nail in as firmly as possible—just how much the last strike broke Baby Jimmy’s heart.

Now, you might ask, doesn’t this seem a particularly devious way of accomplishing what would seem to be a pretty straightforward task, i.e., addressing the still-nebulous concern about a possible strike? Why all the subterfuge and indirection? Why not just approach the issue head-on?

Because “head-on” is anathema to James Levine, particularly if it in any way involves bad news. He notoriously is incapable of doing or saying anything that might make him disliked. One quick example will suffice, and then La Cieca will throw the discussion open to the parterriani.

Looking back a little over five years, we find an interview with Levine in New York magazine, a terrifically flattering account that gives the maestro a forum for advoating his side of the story about then-recent concerns about his health and workload. (The author this exercise in reverence is Matt Dobkin, who surely by coincidence soon after was hired on by the Met as their Director of Editorial and Marketing Promotion.)

Perhaps unwittingly, Dobkin presents a sterling example of Levine’s passive-aggressive managerial style:

Almost fifteen years ago, [Deborah] Voigt, then only recently engaged by the Met, was in rehearsals for Strauss’s Elektra when she got a worrisome call from her manager. “ ‘Maestro Levine is concerned about the way your middle voice is developing,’ he said. ‘He sees you as a Wagnerian, Straussian soprano, and you’re going to need a bulkier, meatier, better way of using your middle voice.’ This was in the middle of final rehearsals, and I, of course, had a good cry. And then I went to my voice teacher and we worked over a couple of days, and I went to the next musical rehearsal.

“About two hours after that rehearsal, I’m at home and the phone rings. ‘Hey, baby, it’s Jimmy.’ ‘Maestro . . . ?’ He said, ‘I’m just calling to tell you that it was much better, and you’re right on—that was exactly what I was talking about.’ And I thought, you know, Thank you for saying something and for knowing that I was not going to have a meltdown. I don’t think people realize how generous Jimmy’s spirit really is.”

Levine was in rehearsal with Voigt, and if not directly coaching her, certainly had the opportunity to call her in for a private session. But instead of directly approaching her with his concerns about her vocal technique, he had someone else deliver the uncomfortable news. The likely chain of communication: Levine tells an assistant, the assistant contacts the manager, the manager tells Voigt, who, unable to get clarification on what these scary words mean, dissolves into tears. Then, after Voigt does her best to approximate what she guesses the sound Levine wants might be, he phones to accept her gratitude.

So, to answer the question, Levine’s most important problem is not his health. His real “back issue” is that he’s got no spine.


  • antikitschychick says:

    wow. So Levine is Jewish…and gay…and was involved in a sex scandal!!???
    This site is great! LOL Love all the insider info on here…not that I’m that into scandals or gossip, but as a huge (yet young) Opera fan I wouldn’t want to be perceived as ignorant or naive…
    good to know that the allegations/conspiracy claims were never substantiated.
    Makes me feel more at ease. I really do think he is a great conductor, though he does or did seem to be over-exerting himself and his abilities at this stage of his life/career.
    I really just hope everything will get sorted out and the Met will find a suitable replacement for him.
    As far as him not having a backbone, well, that is a problem but I don’t think he is solely accountable for that. The people/colleagues that put up that type of behavior are just guilty as he is I think.

  • antikitschychick says:

    the statement about me not being into scandals or gossip is of course meant to be taken sarcastically, since this site is inundated with both :P
    in all seriousness though its nice to hear from people with real experience and who have been directly involved with many aspects of this art form (even dedicated their lives to it) or have observed it keenly for much longer than I have.

  • papopera says:

    -No need to answer my curiosity any further, read it all here above about his probable pederasty.

  • grimoaldo says:

    “No need to answer my curiosity any further, read it all here above about his probable pederasty.”


    Well I should probably stop reading this thread now but it is getting me rather irate and indignant.
    Please read the very cogently argued posts of mrsjohnclaggart on this thread and what you will see is that what is probable is that this is unfounded innuendo and gossip based on homophobic hate from years ago.

  • DonCarloFanatic says:

    Gossip about Levine’s personal life is hardly going to be a stick the unions can use to break him or the Met can use to push him into retirement. His health will do the job instead. With all these retrospectives, the Met is positioning him as someone whose life work is complete. It’s a passive-aggressive method of saying he’s done. How appropriate, considering his own record of management. As mentioned way up thread, few managers have the ability to confront employees or coworkers directly and to do it in a positive, useful manner. Levine appears to be one of the many who can’t bear to deliver bad news in person, but who still intends on having his way. I agree it is cruel, but I have seen it repeatedly. The truth is, many powerful and people are cowards.

    This of course is why he isn’t resigning: he does not want some other artistic director to tell him who is going to sing and who is not. He still wants to call the shots. I don’t think he’s going to win the battle with his uncooperative body, and that will be the excuse for his forced retirement—he exhibits no interest in going willingly.

    • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

      What goes ’round comes ’round and he deserves every slap in the face, broken promises and crap he dealt to others for more years than I care to remember.

    • Harry says:

      DonCarloFanatic: The one word that seems to be missing in this Levine discussion is any evidence that in the MET position he holds, he ever showed clear DECISIVENESS (please excuse the caps!) in any crisis action that took place in his 40 year tenure… Something that every artistic director of an opera house is supposed to show and have, in such situations. To place their stamp of authority on what they control. Otherwise confusion gathers and finally a form of blind administrative chaos, descends and reigns.

      I also agree with La Cieca about her mentioning of ‘Young Artist programs’ in opera houses: and how they can dumb down the intended results. This important point La Cieca brought up -- I notice others have simply ignored -- can have a far greater effect long term on Opera itself. Long after Levine and other like him elsewhere, has left the building, so to speak. It may be heralded initially as providing wonderful opportunities for promising singers. Connected to grants / benefactors /donations etc, to assist the young singer’s tenure and added training. It makes the benefactors feel good with this personalized style approach for sponsorship. When it is in fact, simply another form of opera funding by another name. In the mind of opera house fund raisers: it is just ‘the way you sell things that matter’ to those, that what to give money. But the opera houses though, forget the moral obligation they also take on, as part of such rosy -- feeling programs. Too often the singers find they become ‘trapped’. Molded and shaped into what a particular opera house wants: as regards ‘planned needs’ to safely plug and fill cast requirements. Generally too often in lots of cases, as understudies or minor supports. To serve the path, that particular house chooses to go down regarding opera repertoire choices. I:E Before long a young soprano though, may become a ‘young star’ -- finding herself stuck in a rut- too often being over used, doing too many Mozart Susanna’s, for what are ‘financial peanuts’. Being still locked into part of the ‘Young Singer’s contract’ that she first signed. Precious time in their career simply flies by. The chance for versatility or flexibility, by learning more daring adventurous roles or branching out ‘elsewhere in the opera world’….lost. That point- is not on the opera management’s radar. Singers can then easily become lulled into a false sense of security- by the simple fact they are are presently appearing to have some sort of continuous work (for the moment). Any individual distinctive vocal qualities singers had, are being -ironed out of them as part of the deal. There is no challenge, no stretching or laid down plan for their personal advancement. It becomes a matter of sheer chance accident, if it ever happens. As they mature more: being locked into that oppressive framework, they are spat out without the full training flexible experience’ to properly take on a life long career as -- was first promised. Their career potential -stunted. Because, hey presto!- an opera house then has a new bunch of ‘young singers’ to start this program -- exploiting game ….all over again.

      A young singer is better to hold out -- well away from getting caught in such ‘training’ traps. Certain singers -- I have watched -- did avoid that path of such dubious offers. Instead, with their own efforts, finished up -- keep getting engaged by various opera houses around the World. They are gaining wide regarded reputations and are actually growing, as artists. They do HAVE a career.

      I ask forgiveness for this lengthy reply.

  • Melots Younger Brother says:

    This is all so silly. Everyone knows that on the night of his alleged “arrest,” Levine was with Charlie Sheen.

  • manou says:

    Interesting to read this lengthy Time profile of Levine from January 1983,9171,951886-1,00.html

    but above all I would like to say “Io non impugno mai quel che non so”

    • phoenix says:

      Hark! All ye that are interested in “Die Leiden des jungen [alten] Levine” should definitely consider taking the time to read the above article. I had totally forgotten how he was put up on such a God-like pedestal even in those days. Muchas gracias to manou for digging this up from the archives. There is even a hint of “scandale” rumours at the bottom page 9 & the top of page 10, plus some backup for his management “techniques” pointed out previously by commenters on this blog.
      -- Yes, I actually heard the gossip I referred to in my comments above BUT I never mentioned it to anyone else (other than the person who first told me about it) until yesterday BECAUSE: (1) it didn’t interest me that much anyways; and most of all (2) I got fed up years ago with this kind of partisan crap. I met Marilyn Monroe when I was 15 years old when she was making a movie in Phoenix during the rodeo season. Believe me, in real life she was no sex bomb… or even close to it… no matter how she appeared to be in those films she made. There are certain things you instinctively intuit about some people when you meet them. With her, that perception stayed with me for the rest of your life. The media sometimes has a greedinspired tendency to feedoff vicious lies & false leads. After M. Monroe passed away all those lies (that still keep popping up in the media to satisfy the “pearl clutching” brigade) were totally off the mark. The fact that JFK, Frank Sinatra or whoever visited her home doesn’t mean anything of a sexual nature occurred. That is pure conjecture and to see it blown up masqueraded as truth taught me a lesson about “don’t believe everything your read”.

  • Cocky Kurwenal says:

    I realise many of us probably don’t have the stomach for another Voigt-focussed thread, and that I am supposed to be speculating wildly about Levine’s private life and whether Jesus existed, but does anybody else feel like they’ve just discovered the real beginning of the end of Voigt? Perhaps the surgery etc exacerbated problems that had their origins in over-weighting the middle voice way back then at Levine’s request, and she managed short-term great results with it thanks to youth.

    • armerjacquino says:

      Quite. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

      Callas is another one where there are all kinds of arcane theories for where her voice went- tapeworms, weight loss, Onassis etc.

      I suspect the answer is more to be found in the fact that she sang Leonore at 17 and aged 26 she sang Brunnhilde and Elvira in the same week.

    • phoenix says:

      Kurvenal, I thought the same thing when I read the 1st part of that story you are referring to. I thought to myself “Levine should have just left it at that” and let her come to a concious realization of what she was going to have to face inevitably. I was surprised that Levine was so perceptive (no wonder he got to where he got).
      >> “After certain scarcely noticeable signs of decay have appeared, they go on increasing until final dissolution comes.” — from the Wilhelm-Baynes translation of “The I Ching or Book of Changes” <<

  • Harry says:

    Boash: I accept it is probably a nicer place to be, to not know whether ‘this or that’ rumor, one may come across: is true, false, or some planted malicious innuendo seeking to do harm to some public figure. Looking back over decades, many of us I am sure including myself, know of situations far worse than anything previously, being suggested here. Not gained from some made spread rumor: but from actually speaking to people also directly and closely /personally involved, shall we say. In what were then, potentially destructive situations , had the information ever seen the light of day. Even to being confided in , with the graphic nature of those private encounters : the ‘in’s & outs’ of what and where, these things took place….or the private ‘personal feelings’ of the person from public life.
    We decide instead to just ‘to draw the line’ and say nothing. Artists, politicians and royalty are no different to the rest of us in private life.
    The only benefit is; listening to perhaps some recording some artist made: to the aware listener, gives them a possible added quiet dimension in understanding their work.

  • don warner saklad says:

    Who’s the physical therapist, exercise physiologist or coach assigned to Conductor James Levine?… preventative health measures should included in conductors’ contracts!

  • Hans Lick says:

    1. I think Levine should retire because I’d prefer to hear other conductors do a great many of the things he insists on doing. The spring he had the accident in Boston and had to pull out of everything saw some very refreshing music-making at the Met. That said, yes, he can do a great job when he’s in spirits: The recent Das Lied von der Erde at Carnegie was fabulous.

    2. There have been rumors about Jimmy and young (usually black) boys for at least thirty years now. There have never been any public charges. AT ALL. I’m inclined to disbelieve rumor without substance.

    3. He did turn a mediocre orchestra into a first-class one; it cost a bunch of money, but the work was mostly his. He ignored the casting department, and in the absence of a general manager who gave a damn about voices all sorts of horrors have befallen us, in the seventies, the eighties and now. I mostly blame Joan Ingpen, that utter monstrosity. The sacrosanctity of the five-year-old contract. But Jimmy was frying other fish.

    4. No one here ever seems to recall WHY Scotto was tossed out on her ear. She was singing atrociously, and she was singing parts no one in his right mind (i.e. only Jimmy) would give her, and she had no judgment whatsoever about what she could and could not sing. Remember the year the Met’s subscription department, in its calls to coax, had instructions to say, “And Renata Scotto is only singing one role this year,” as an inducement to return? I remember that. It was pretty startling, glad though I was. The Met Board (I learned 20 years later) had called Jimmy on the carpet and told him she had to go. Okay, he’s not very good at telling friends when they’re in dutch. He delegates. Scotto was pushing it, and Battle certainly was pushing it. I wish SOMEONE would do it to Voigt and Gheorghiu now, and the reason someone has to shove Voigt is because she’s apparently too lost in her ego she doesn’t hear what she sounds like any more. A nice lady, I know nothing against her, but she can’t sing.

    5. Bing, in his memoirs, wondered how the Met would survive without the scouts he had on retainer in Europe, keeping track of rising young voices. He was right, you know. (He wasn’t ALWAYS right.)

  • don warner saklad says:

    …preventative health measures should be included in conductors’ contracts!