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.