James Levine gets candid about Parkinson’s

The music director of the Metropolitan Opera keeps much of his life under wraps, including the fairly open secret that he has been suffering for several years from Parkinson’s Disease. The tremors have been noticeable.

But when Peter Gelb suggested that now was the time to make way for a younger man Levine, 72, took the New York Times to see his doctor in a bid to prove that, with an adjustment of medication, he was still up to the job.

Michael Cooper describes a desperate and peculiar situation in today’s Times:

Mr. Levine said he had feared his Parkinson’s was getting worse. “I was surprised, and I was worried,” he said, noting that for a while he played “telephone tag” with his doctor and was not seen. “I didn’t want to be doing substandard performances and stay working too long, but I felt so good about the way I was able to work — other than this gestural thing.”

Dr. Fahn, who is an expert on Parkinson’s, said in an interview with Mr. Levine present that Mr. Levine had Parkinson’s disease, but that it did not seem to be progressing and that his involuntary movements, or dyskinesia, seemed to result from too high a dose of the medication L-dopa…

james levine wheelchair

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  • I’m truly sorry for Maestro Levine that he has had all these health problems over the past years and wish him the very best!

    At the same time this year is the 40th anniversary of him becoming Music Director at the MET. While the musical world is grateful for his unique and tireless contribution to the MET and music in general it would make sense to give the main job on to a younger colleague and remain in an emeritus role at the MET. This would be more consistent with the number of operas he conducts these days anyways.

  • I’m sorry for James levine. He’s done some pretty shameful things throughout his life which only his celebrity maestro status has enabled him to get away with. But he is one of the few truly great conductors of the last 50 years- a supremely gifted musician.

    • Not even the most astute and well-connected crime reporters who have connections in every precinct in NYC, DA’s office, US Attorney’s office etc. could find a smidgeon of evidence to support these idiotic “allegations” (i.e. baseless rumors) about Levine. But the all-knowing Mr. Mortimer is apparently privy to all secrets (real and imaginary). Could people please lay these nonsensical rumors to rest ?

      • Gladly!!

        It’s a terrible thing to be faced with reduced physical prowess as a result of aging and infirmity. I can only feel total empathy with Maestro Levine. Health would seem to dictate that he steps down but that doesn’t mean to say he cannot continue in a mentoring role with up and coming musicians and conductors. That would be a valuable job in itself.

        All the best, Maestro Levine. We wish you well.

      • Unfortunately those “rumors” are not “baseless” at all. But if you choose not to believe the information that comes from well-informed sources, it is certainly your prerogative. Revealing the names at this time is not an option – at least not for me.
        In any case, James Levine was probably the finest American conductor for several decades, until his health problems became too severe a few years ago.

        • I am only just now reading comments posted some nine months ago; so mine may not be read (or responded to) by anyone. So be it.
          Regarding comments about Mr. Levine’s behavior: From my reading, the allegations seem to be rather vague and non-specific; and they are not substantiated by identifying persons who are said to know the facts. Granted, we are not in a court of law where every accused has the right to confront the accusers. Most emphatically, granted that facts may validate the allegations. Nevertheless, in my antiquated view, it is morally reprehensible to make the statements I have read here. Unless the persons who claim to know detrimental facts identify themselves and provide supporting information, I maintain they have a moral obligation to be silent. Quaint, isn’t it?

  • Frankly I don’t get it about conducting.

    Otto Klemperer’s gestures were spastic and at least 1 beat behind, and Karajan’s gestures, with his eyes closed and his hands hovering in the air like a Jedi master, were all but inscrutable.

    Yet their orchestras continued to get the intentions of their maestros and execute perfectly.

    It’s cruel, just when one reaches a certain level of zen mastery of conducting, his body betrays him. But can’t musicians adapt? Do they really need a clear beat for every bar from the conductor?

    • Yes, they do near clarity, especially in the opera pit. Someone has to synchronize between the singers and the orchestra, and it’s not easy to do. Opera conductors tend to have extremely fine technique with a baton – and they need it. There have been some conductors, good ones, with lousy stick technique that caused a lot of problems – such as Solti at Bayreuth. The musicians hated him because he was so hard to follow. On the concert platform Karajan often seemed to conduct while asleep, but when he was in the pit he was most alert and attentive to the action on stage.

    • In his last years, Klemperer’s miminalist gestures became very difficult for the New Philharmonia to follow and they certainly did NOT execute perfectly. Yet they were unmistakably Klemperer’s performances and still contained many of his great insights. This was true of the Tannhauser performances that Levine directed last fall. They took a lot of work from everyone because Levine’s beat had become so wide and undefined, but Levine’s wonderful intentions, especially as regards the large architecture of the work, were realized. The really sad part about all this is that Levine’s interpretations have really deepened in the past fifteen years or so, but unlike some conductors who are not only active into their 80’s but do their best work then, he will not have that opportunity. Parkinson’s does not get better.

    • You’ve made excellent points here. I’d recommend the Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert hall interview with Christian Thielemann on the art of conducting and what’s possible. It’s very interesting and he speaks about conveying instructions to the orchestra with the minimum of gesture, just as von Karajan did!!

    • yes, I sang in performances with Dr.Klemperer in the ’70’s and the hand gestures were pretty wild back then – but the music was magic – who knows, the aura of fame, respect, the maestro concept? But it worked.

  • Conducting performances aside, what are James Levine’s music director duties at the MET and to how has he been performing at them in the last ten years?

  • Most people will wish him the best of health…but Boccanegra with Domingo !!!!?????
    One wonders if the lunatics have not taken over the asylum .

  • The Maestro has contributed to the internationally status of The Met as a prime orchestra + singer’s praise for development + Zankel Hall chamber music iniatives + insightful master classes whereI learned so much for making the singer sound better. He is a workacholic & this focus on Parkisons
    may be a + for the disease. no-winer but has hung in the “sentence”! Leon Fleisher Nine Lives has begun a 10th!
    Boulez didn’t conduct w/baton as well as Kurt Mazur — as Beecham used to say musicians know more than he did!
    Also remember Richard Strauss — asleep or bored (no stick). Think this private life “tell all” is not gracious & Gelb was no help, downright mean! This orchestra sounds much better w/The Maestro just as NY Phil still miss “Lennie” “We always did better w/Him” Perhaps kind scheduling for operas could be more helpful as 4 hours R a strain on all! Teaching will soften a hard blow & that includes the top accompanists–even his knowledge of placement of piano which enhances the singer’s performance is extraordinary (master class @ Zankel Hall & he was in great pain! This Maestro road to enhance his place among “The Greats” is secure just like Lennie @ more so! Give him a break–he was a child prodigy & has much still to give this world!

  • Yet another potential disaster waiting to happen. Levine’s health has been deteriorating for some time now. Prudent management would suggest stepping down with dignity and putting proper succession in place. But, management does not seem to be Mr. Gelb’s stock in trade, and not much more can be said for the Board. Declining revenues, dwindling attendance and box office receipts, letting Fabio Luisi commit to more outside appointments instead of licking him firmly in place at the Met — these are just a few of the issues that need careful attention. Do Peter and the Board appreciate the serious of things? Do they even care? NYCO’s management and Board let that institution self destruct. Sounds like the Met is not much better

    • With all due respect to Maestro Luisi, who is a highly competent and unimpeachably professional conductor, his performances never had the majesty and passionate commitment of Levine’s best work. See The Ring DVD and compare Die Rheigold and Die Wakure (Levine) and Sigfried and Gotterdammerung (Luisi). If Levine is to retire, he should be replaced by a figure of similar stature.

        • With the power of management & agents, music critics, and “market forces” being what they are, even Dudamel could be “buffed up”, presented as someone of “similar stature”. For what it’s worth, the Met seems to be grooming Yannick Nezet-Seguin. The honeymoon with Luisi is about over.

          • If “buffing up” is involved, then Gustavo is not the only option. But my hope is that the MET is interested in genuine quality in which case YNS is not a bad alternative to be seriously considered.

  • So does the upper management of the Metropolitan Opera House actually give cents worth a darn about Mr. Levine, or are they trying to do yet again another filthy attempt at a PR stunt? I understand for health reasons why Levine is stepping down but to replace him with another mediocre conductor, is unacceptable. Starting to think that “image, image, image” is more than enough for the Met (despite them losing 4/5s of their general populace and an already lower seat intake,) they still have the audacity to want to brag that they’re doing “fine”? Metropolitan haven’t been doing fine since they released Callas in 1958, Milnes in 1996, Price in 1985, and they keep using and rehashing Domingo with old productions and making him continue to bastardize his voice in “Baritone” roles.

    Seriously when do we as fans, take a step and tell them to shape up or else we’re killing you? Perhaps this is part of their agenda to get more “gay-friendly” but if that’s the case that they seem to want to ignore what Opera is, then I’m done with the Met. And people should all be ashamed for continuing to support a product that could care less about the people who pay to see it.

  • The Met needs to have a SUPERB conductor at all times. It is one of the greatest opera houses in the world. Levine has left his mark in history.

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