No-one was in any doubt that James Levine was a rare talent. His Met debut in June 1971, aged 27, led to him being appointed principal conductor the following winter and music director in 1976. No conductor has enjoyed so long or intimate an association with America’s greatest opera house.
Levine created the best – and best-paid – opera orchestra in the country. He attracted the finest singers and won their total confidence. He gently nudged the static repertoire into the 20th century.
He was, in many ways, the making of the Met.
But his horizons were narrow. Outside of music he had few interests. Outside of the Met, few friends. He was protected from the world by a tough agent, Ronald Wilford, and an expensive personal entourage. He required record fees to pay for his retinue.
His musical ability was greater than his emotional intelligence. When Wilford died, he failed to make an appearance at the memorial service, unaware of how demeaning this appeared.
Severe illness impaired his capacity to conduct. He clung on with something like desperation, pleading with the Met’s manager, Peter Gelb, to let him keep the job.
He will now have to build a new life, from scratch. At 72, that will take some doing.
For New Yorkers, the change is epochal. Alan Gilbert, music director of the Philharmonic, tweets: Wow–still processing news of Levine’s impending retirement. Not just an end of an era, it’s the end of THE era.