(Laurence Arnold’s article appeared on Bloomberg, 3/17; Photo:  James Levine leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in 2010. Photographer: Hiroyuki Ito/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.)

Elevated opera company into the ranks of the world’s elite

He was fired in 2018 for sex harassment, abusive conduct

James Levine, who polished New York’s Metropolitan Opera into a world-renowned institution during four decades as conductor and director until he was fired for sexual harassment, has died. He was 77.

He died on March 9 in Palm Springs, California, according to the New York Times, citing Dr. Len Horovitz, his physician, who confirmed the news Wednesday morning. No cause was given. Levine’s health problems had included Parkinson’s disease.

A child prodigy on the piano, Levine became an ambassador for opera in the U.S. and was often compared to another American-born world-class conductor, Leonard Bernstein, who died in 1990.

His marathon tenure at the Met elevated the opera company into the ranks of the world’s elite. He made his debut in 1971 conducting “Tosca” and became principal conductor in 1973, music director in 1976 and the company’s first-ever artistic director in 1986. He led more than 2,500 performances of 85 different operas.

The Met had “blundered through seasons of painful disarray” before Levine became chief conductor in 1973, and he “moved decisively to remold the orchestra and chorus into proudly energized ensembles,” Joseph Horowitz wrote in his 2005 book, “Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall.”

Levine inaugurated the “Metropolitan Opera Presents” television show for the Public Broadcasting System, founded the Met’s Young Artist Development Program and, in 1991, began leading the Met’s orchestra on world tours.

His reputation plummeted in late 2017 when the Metropolitan Opera suspended Levine amid accusations of sexual abuse. An outside law firm investigated the allegations, which Levine called “unfounded.” He was fired in March 2018 for “sexually abusive and harassing conduct,” according to a statement from the opera company.

He conducted his final performance in the orchestra pit as the Met’s music director in May 2016. Because of his reliance on a motorized wheelchair, he couldn’t make it from the pit to the stage for the audience’s prolonged ovation, the New York Times reported.

His health issues over the years included chronic back pain from spinal stenosis, which compresses the spinal cord. In September 2011, the Met said Levine had suffered damage to one of his vertebrae in a fall and withdrew from performances.

Boston Symphony

Starting in 2004, while still leading the Met, Levine took on the added responsibilities of music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He resigned that post in 2011 as his health problems worsened.

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