James Levine is dead

James Levine is dead


norman lebrecht

March 17, 2021

The longest-serving music director of the Metropolitan Opera has died of the effects of Parkinsons Disease. He was 77.

Levine was the Met’s dominant personality for four decades, perhaps of all time. His tenure was ended by allegations of sexual abuse of young men on the Met payroll, a pattern of behaviour that was familiar to all at the upper levels of the company, but which they chose to ignore until the public climate changed. Levine would later claim that these were loving relationships.

Levine was fired in 2016 and reached a $3.5 million settlement with the company three years later.

His achievements will outweigh this seedy episode.

Levine raised standards of orchestral playing at the Met to an historic high by a combination of extreme hard work and the best wages in the country. He had an intuitive understanding of singers and attracted the best to his casts. He extended the repertoire to include Janacek, Schoenberg and Adams and gave an assurance of high quality to all that the Met did under his aegis.

His recordings are legion, many of them outstanding. As a conductor of concerts, however, he lacked stage charisma and intellectual penetration. His spells as music director at Ravinia and the Boston Symphony were comparativel unsuccessful, they latter dogged by increasing physical frailty.

Unmarried, he was cared for by his late brother Tom and a close entourage led by his long-term flatmate, the oboist Sue Thompson.

His death was recorded in Palm Springs on March 9.

UPDATE: The dark side of James Levine

UPDATE2: Tim Page on the magnetism of Levine

UPDATE3: An unloving tribute from the Met

UPDATE4: Read John Rockwell

UPDATE5: The silence of Yannick


  • Lauren says:

    Having been an admirer of SD for many years, I have to say I am a bit shocked to read “His achievements will outweigh this seedy episode.” It really comes across as grossly insensitive and even callous to me with respect to the victims.

    Great classical musicians do not get a special pass to break societal and ethical norms. Their artistic achievements belong to a different plane altogether and do not outweigh any act of sexual abuse. Whoever commit such acts, whether a great musician, a member of the clergy, a teacher, a powerful manager – whoever commit such acts should be held fully accountable.

    I would rather make an observation that the allegations have not been proven in a court of law, which is an entirely different argument.

    Again Norman very negatively surprised at your comment.

    • appalled says:

      How can this come as a shock if you’ve been reading SD for years?

    • Nik says:

      Yes, I was astonished to read this too. It was clearly not an “episode” but a long-standing and consistent pattern of behaviour throughout his career.

    • Monsoon says:


      And practically speaking, he will in fact be remembered for his off stage behavior. I highly doubt we’ll be seeing complete box sets from DG and RCA/Sony commemorating his career, as well as anything new issued by the Met’s in-house label. Even in death, nobody is going to help prop up his artistry.

      • Stuart says:

        My guess is that you are wrong. We’ll begin to see new material, reissues and box sets in a few years. Elsewhere in this post, someone wrote “Levine’s fine legacy as an incredible conductor and a fine musician are entirely damaged by his abuse of impressionable young men whose lives were blighted by the abuse of someone who could make or break their careers.” Rightly or wrongly the focus on his bad conduct will fade and a focus on his conducting legacy will remain. It is the nature of time and marketing. There are several precedents for this pattern. In no way do I suggest that we downplay Levine’s bad behavior, but I think history will focus mainly on his musical accomplishments, which are well documented and numerous.

        • Music fan says:

          As bad as Levine’s (alleged) behavior was, I have to agree with Stuart. The labels have seen fit to reissue recordings by those with spotty personal or political histories because it’s the Dollar/Pound/Euro/Yen that drives those decisions.

          And now that Levine is dead, one can purchase his recordings knowing he won’t personally benefit.

          • henry williams says:

            what about karajan and his political past.
            he sold many box sets. i have met people
            who would not buy his cds for this reason

          • Herr Doktor says:

            Oh please….

            (I knew someone was going to come up with this hackneyed comparator; I wish I had been disappointed that no one did.)

            I’m not going to re-state what has been already said 1,000 before. If you would bother to read the scholarship done on the subject by Richard Osborne in the book “Karajan: A Life In Music,” it’s clear Karajan joined the Nazi party to get a job, and it was nothing more than that. He was a non-political person his entire life and was certainly not a Nazi in the way that Karl Bohm, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, etc., actually were. More than that, Karajan married a woman who was considered Jewish by the regime in 1942–which would have been unthinkable if he was actually a Nazi.

            You can repeat the same tired tropes ad infinitum about Karajan the Nazi, but it’s intellectually dishonest and shows either laziness to bother to read the very clear scholarship done on the subject, or it shows an agenda.

          • Stuart says:

            I grew up on Karajan recordings (70’s, 80’s) but my library today only has the 1955 Berlin Lucia with Callas and the Schoenberg Pelleas. I dumped all of the Beethoven, Bruckner and Mahler because I came to dislike how Karajan approached these scores. Has nothing to do with his politics but his smoothed over interpretations.

    • Karl says:

      A seedy episode is not a crime or even an ethical violation. It looks to me like the alleged victims are only regretting decisions they made. It doesn’t look to me like Levine forced anyone to join in his sex games. Keep in mind much of this happened during the Sexual Revolution era of free love and rebellion against long-held societal standards and rules. Ethics about sexual activity were much different in the years when these things allegedly happened. College professors openly had sexual relations with students. I remember sex education classes were students were encouraged to have sexual adventures.

  • AstorCub says:

    “His achievements will outweigh this seedy episode.” No, his seedy achievements will always overshadow his professional achievements.

  • Jack says:

    Very great conductor. R.I.P.

  • Sam says:

    “His achievements will outweigh this seedy episode.”


  • Paul Dawson says:

    The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.

  • Asleep says:

    Can’t wait for the “woke” mob to start ripping him apart…

    • David says:

      I know. It’s so crazy that people want accountability for sexual assault/harassment. Oh, these killjoy woke folks and their empathy.

    • Emil says:

      Is it “woke” to object to predatory abuse now?
      Just to be clear on where things stand.

      • Asleep says:

        Allegations. That’s all. In that is why the Met ended up paying him 3.5 Mil for firing him. So yes, it is woke.

        • Herr Doktor says:

          Not allegations. Lynn Harrell and many others described the abuse they suffered from Levine in the Boston Globe article. And there are MANY people who have made similar allegations. Was he convicted in a court of law? No. But neither was Bill Cosby, until he was.

          • David R. Moran says:

            Guessing you did not really read the Globe article, to post publicly that Harrell ‘described the abuse he suffered from Levine’. So easy to check these things.

          • Herr Doktor says:

            Your comment probably doesn’t dignify a response, but I’ll take the bait. You guessed wrong, David R. Moran. I read the article the day it was published.

      • Karl says:

        It’s woke to embrace the victim mentality which teaches people to blame others for decisions that they regret.

        • Emil says:

          Oh yeah, blaming adults for abusing kids rather than blaming kids for being abused by adults is a real “woke” idea.

          • Karl says:

            If Levine had sex with anyone under the age of consent he would have been charged with a crime. The report that accused Levine of sexual activity with a 15 year old was debunked. NYT:
            “Law enforcement officials in Illinois said Friday that they would not bring criminal charges against the famed Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine, noting that the man accusing Mr. Levine of sexual abuse there three decades ago had been 16 at the time — which was then the age of consent.”

          • Sue Sonata Form says:

            Except that Karl was referring to adults, not specifically children for whom all sexual abuse is criminal activity – no ifs or buts.

      • Brettermeier says:

        “Is it “woke” to object to predatory abuse now?
        Just to be clear on where things stand.”

        It depends on who accuses whom. 😉

    • Nutella Spread says:

      great to know that it’s only woke people who give a shit about someone being a rapist.

  • Sara says:

    “His achievements will outweigh this seedy episode.” Wow, really? James Levine was a serial abuser.

  • Lynn Becker says:

    “His spells as music director at Ravinia and the Boston Symphony were comparatively unsuccessful”. Seriously? It was so unsuccessful that he did for 20 years, creating some of the most innovative programming and great performances that have yet to be equaled, much less surpassed. I was there for his last minute booking to conduct the Mahler 2nd that was so overwhelming he was shortly after engaged to take over as Ravinia’s music director, and the following seasons were extraordinary.

  • Gustavo says:

    His Bayreuth Parsifal will always be remembered.

  • Ms.Melody says:

    RIP enormously gifted, deeply flawed, troubled man.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Today the accused would repair in haste to a ‘mental health’ facility and claim zero responsibility. It’s such a Lefty thing to do – avoiding responsibility. Bwaaa; not my fault!! The dog ate my homework; I felt ‘vulnerable’, ‘pressured’, ‘intimidated’ bla bla bla….wash rinse repeat. I’m so hewpwess.

  • Save the MET says:

    Interestingly the NY Times does not mention Parkinson’s which was well documented. They also claim he was 5’10”. Untrue, perhaps from the top of his bouffant.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      I enjoyed his performances on CD on the odd occasions when these were heard, but I found him rather pathetic of mien and decidedly unattractive in toto. That must weigh on the minds of any human being; that they’re so physically unappealing to people. Might we not extrapolate that psychological element to his later needy ‘offending’?
      Sometimes people would rather have beauty than ‘gifts’ and that is a perfectly human need.

      Shakespeare would have made much of it.

  • Herr Doktor says:

    With regards to James Levine’s tenure in Boston, he succeeded in GREATLY elevating the quality of the playing of the orchestra. Day-in, day-out, it sounded like a different orchestra and a far better one because of the standards Levine implemented. That alone is a significant achievement.

    However, as an interpreter, I give him an F. I didn’t hear a single compelling interpretation of any of the standard repertory while he was on the podium. Not once. To these ears, Levine’s interpretations lived in the moment, there was never a long line or a story that his interpretations told. Emotionally they had the warmth of an icicle. While Levine could create sonic effects, his music-making lacked the human element which makes a performance so memorable. If people talk about Stanley Kubrick’s movies as ice-cold at their center, so was Levine’s music-making, no matter what “beautiful” sonics emerged. However, he did conduct wonderful concert performances of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman and Bartok’s Bluebird’s Castle. Those were the highlights of his seasons in Boston, in my opinion, and they were wonderful evenings..

    • jim says:

      I mostly concur with your comments. The BSO had become depressingly moribund under Ozawa and the quick rebound under Levine was remarkable, but beyond that I had very mixed feelings about his tenure here.

      His performances were always well played and well thought out. I felt that he loved the music the way a math whiz loves a good equation. I often admired his performances, but I rarely loved them.

      What really turned me off to his leadership was the way he managed his illnesses. His failure to deal honestly with his limitations was a trial for both the orchestra and the audience.

      I particularly remember the notorious bit of scheduling that had him conducting one of the Ring operas at a Met Saturday matinee in NY and the Mahler 2nd in Boston that evening at 8PM. He pulled it off, but what if there had been an extended delay in the Wagner due to that damn machine or bad weather delaying his travel between the two cities? Even if the performances were in the same city that scheduling would have been ridiculous, particularly considering his health.

      One more thing. Levine never understood the acoustics of Symphony Hall. His concerts were always LOUD. Now I’m not opposed to loud music being loud, but I’m talking about everything being played louder than when other conductors are on the podium. I’ve been attending concerts in Symphony Hall for over 50 years. I know what the hall and the orchestra sounds like and Levine’s are the only unamplified orchestral concerts that I’ve ever heard there that actually sounded unpleasant.

      • phf655 says:

        I recall reading an article where he was quoted as not liking the acoustics of Symphony Hall. He thought it lacked clarity. Given his interpretative propensities, well described in other comments, it is an interesting point, though one with which I profoundly disagree.

      • Karl says:

        I don’t remember any of Levine’s BSO concerts being too loud. Maybe it’s because I also was attending concerts in Montreal at the horrid Wilfred Pelltier hall there. I just remember the awesomeness of Levine’s Mahler, Smetana’s complete Ma Vlast, Ravel’s complete “Daphnis and Chloé” and Brahms’s German Requiem.

      • Kenny says:

        OK. The BSO performance was scheduled. Then the Met moved Rheingold 2 was moved from Friday night with the cover conductor to Saturday afternoon so it could be a telecast – – has to be a matinee, but was supposed to be in April. Then Gelb and Volpe wouldn’t budge. Then it ended up that way. End of story.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      Bluebird’s Castle? I don’t know that one, will have to look it up… 😉

      • Herr Doktor says:

        You’re not familiar with it? I’m surprised. It’s about these two birds who fly into an abandoned castle in the middle of nowhere, and then strange and mysterious things start happening to them. There’s a particularly grotesque scene where they fly into a room which is filled with worms, which should make any bird’s heart flutter with joy. But this ends badly…

    • Michael Blim says:

      Agree. His BSO concerts were mostly letdowns. I remember being actually annoyed by the pounding relentlessness of his Schubert Great C Major. Two outstanding performances though: Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta and a Berlioz Symphony Fantastique.

      • Herr Doktor says:

        I also heard that Schubert Great C Major performance as you did, and it was unbearable–“heavenly lengths” of torture. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back so to speak, and after the final notes of that performance, my spouse turned to me and said in these exact words: “I’m done with Levine. Either trade out of his concerts in the future, or find someone else to go with.” We traded out of all Levine programs except for one each season, so I could still get a sense of whether anything had changed for the better. It never did. And then he was gone.

    • Kenny says:

      Go die, you’ve been saying this nonsense for years.

      • Herr Doktor says:

        Then at least give me points for consistency. Yes, I have been saying it for years, and said it in real-time while it was happening. I trust my ears.

  • Bertie says:

    For the woke brigade, even mentioning his considerable achievements, is completely unacceptable.

    • David says:

      It is certainly not unacceptable to be aware of, and respect, his many musical achievements.

      What is unacceptable was his behavior. That’s not being “woke” – that’s simple human decency.

      As “great” as he may have been musically, there have been other great conductors of enormous talent who haven’t had to be saved from decades of close calls with legal action and calls to the police.

    • Barry says:

      I’m as anti-woke as they come. But I just don’t see being opposed to the kind of behavior that Levine was guilty of for most people who consider the evidence as relayed by a number of his victims as having anything to do with being woke or not. It’s despicable behavior. Period.
      And I say that in spite of considering him one of the two greatest American conductors ever, with Bernstein being the other. I also considered him one of the two greatest living conductors, along with Haitink.

      • Karl says:

        Looks like I’m more anti-woke than you Barry. Levine was a kinky sex hog, but I don’t see any evidence that he forced anyone to join in his sex games. Some people now regret it and have been brainwashed into thinking of themselves as victims.

        • David says:

          The fact you don’t see evidence only proves that you don’t see it. It doesn’t mean it’s not there. If you’d ever been molested, or had a man three times your age give it a try, you wouldn’t have to be brainwashed; you would actually be a victim. Count yourself lucky, that you can casually blame those who were taken advantage of, rather than the bastard who took advantage. Must be nice not to be a member of that “club.”

  • Simon Funnell says:


    I’m genuinely shocked by this remark: “ His achievements will outweigh this seedy episode”. It shows crass insensitivity to his victims, as if their experiences didn’t matter when Levine was such a fine conductor.

    I’m afraid I couldn’t disagree with you more. Levine’s fine legacy as an incredible conductor and a fine musician are entirely damaged by his abuse of impressionable young men whose lives were blighted by the abuse of someone who could make or break their careers.

    I can scarcely believe what you’ve written.

    • Karl says:

      Whose career was broken by Levine? He never fired anyone for refusing to join in his sex games and he never had anyone blacklisted. The Met knew about his sexual activities and did nothing because there was no rule against it at the time. I remember when college professors were allowed to have sex with their students. It wasn’t that long ago.

  • czerny says:


  • Suggeritore says:

    Sadly, it seems that the truth is that both these points are valid. A great musician, and a deeply flawed person. RIP.

  • David Shengold says:

    “Seedy episode”? For shame.

    BTW, Janacek entered the Met repertory with Artur Bodanzky conducting JENUFA in 1924. And Levine, champion of Berg and Schoenberg though he was, never led a Janacek opera at the Met.

  • Zandonai says:

    NYT headline is grossly insensitive —
    “James Levine, the guiding maestro of the Metropolitan Opera for over 40 years until sexual abuse allegations ended his career, is dead at 77”

    Should have been —
    “James Levine, the greatest Music Director in the History of the Met, a Victim of False Sexual Abuse Allegations, Is Dead at 77”

  • Pay The Musicians! says:

    There is not such a lack of talent in the world that a conductor should be excused for being a sexual predator. Jimmy may have been good with the baton, but he was also very good at using that power and reputation to hurt others.

  • Max Raimi says:

    My brother attended a youth orchestra program he presided over at Meadowbrook, then the summer home of the Detroit Symphony, back in the 1960s. Even then it was an open secret that he was preying on adolescent boys. It is appalling how ineffectual the powers that be in classical were in addressing this for a half a century.

    I played under him quite a bit at Ravinia. I liked him as a conductor; didn’t love him. He was brilliant at organizing his time and putting together performances of complex works in impossibly short rehearsal schedules. I can’t say I ever felt that his approach was a revelation to me, as could be the case with my favorite conductors.

    This is trivial, compared to the awful trauma he inflicted on so many, but one thing that drove me crazy about him was how incoherently he spoke. We used to collect some of his more bizarre nuggets in his rehearsals at the Chicago Symphony; one of my favorites (during a Mahler symphony; I forget which one) was “OK, guys–this has gotta sound as exalted as hell!”

    • BruceB says:

      Regarding the youth orchestra section of your comment: as a student in the high-school program at Tanglewood in 1981, I remember several of the savvier, more sophisticated boys in the orchestra saying the Met orchestra would be a great job, but they were probably too old (or certainly would be, by the time they graduated from college).

      Nothing proven, of course; but when there’s 40 or 50 years’ worth of smoke, there’s probably a fire.

    • julie olbert says:

      the conductor I worked with for 10 years in germany said at orchestra rehearsals for Fledermaus, ” you must stay in your gentialia area for the whole rehearsal period”. This was before #metoo broke.

    • KANANPOIKA says:

      …and then there was… “Trombones….RAM that chord in there…….AH…! …That’s very satisfying….”

      Yeh…..I know….I was there……..

    • Ashu says:

      What’s incoherent about that?

  • David says:

    “His achievements will outweigh this seedy episode.”

    There is no “seedy episode” in this story. A lifelong pattern of abuse of the young – decades! – may be considered an “episode” only if we are talking Biblical scale. For most of us, an “episode” of any kind may last 10 minutes.

    Believing this sentence, let alone publishing it, is horrendously abusive in itself, declaring that such activity (criminal in at least some jurisdictions) should just disappear in the face of great talent and ambition and an ability to bring in enough money that the powers that be choose to cover any and all sins, in order to keep the gravy train on the tracks…after having run over how many victims?

    Before anything we are all human beings; becoming a musician (even a “born musician”) comes after, and is secondary, to life as a person in society, with all the moral and ethical responsibilities that come along with being a person on this planet.

    What you wrote is an appalling statement, and is in itself a “seedy episode” – one which I hope you may repent of, upon further reflection.

  • Nelson says:

    Great idea, Mr. Lebrecht…..throw in a flippant comment about an “episode”…..that’s a surefire way to make for damned sure there’s very little remembrance of his musical achievements and legacy in this thread. Which is not to minimize Levine’s serial abuse at all, but really? “Episode”?? I suppose at some point the music will matter again…I understand if it’s too soon for many. It is as it should be.

  • BruceB says:

    My prediction is that he will have the same kind of divided/ divisive legacy that Furtwängler “enjoys” today.

  • Tom Cloyd MS MA says:

    “His achievements will outweigh this seedy episode.”???

    First, the facts make it clear that it was a long-standing pattern, NOT an episode. For his victims, his bullying and lack of compassion is what will have a lasting impact.

    Second, you’re surely right about the lasting impact of his musical achievements. History records many such individuals and their lasting impact.

  • Ursus Bohemicus says:

    Surely it is up to each individual how they wish to remember somebody. No one needs to be told either way.

  • David R. Moran says:

    This will prove a prime opportunity to see if there is any nuance or modulation of the range of sexual behaviors and misbehaviors. Whether ‘assault’ now is to include everything.

    • Karl says:

      Regret = assault now. You need to consult with your lawyer and get a signed witnessed contract before having sex now. And don’t forget to make a video! That’s what saved some men in the infamous Hofstra fake rape case.

  • Michael says:

    “Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones” is a valid as ever. The only people on this earth who have never made mistakes or wronged others are those who have never accomplished anything. Levine was a great talent and did much for music, opera, and for many people involved with the arts.

    • AstoriaCub says:

      Here’s a reality check…Levine was a conductor in a dying and largely irrelevant art form and no one other than opera afficianos knew who he was. His accomplishments in his profession are justifiably tarnished and his legacy is now that of a lifelong sexual predator of vulnerable teenagers and young adults.

  • George Szell's Ghost says:

    Just to be clear here for the dimmer. James Levine was not Wagner or Picasso or Caravaggio or whatever “great artist/lousy man” example you people trot out time and again to moan about cancel culture. He was simply an excellent musician and performer. If we ban his recordings, the world won’t suffer grievously (whereas it would if they banned mine!). And yes, this wasn’t one seedy episode, but years and years of voracious sexual antics coupled with emotional abuse and using his power to make or break vulnerable people. And yes wake up to reality, people. This isn’t the old days when the powerful could have their way with you (Leschetizky tried to grab my nuts once). Is it so terrible that he was held to account at the end of his life? I told Jimmy years ago, this business is very friendly to the homosexuals, there’s plenty of men your own age (I tried to set him up with Schippers, Tommy looked at me like I was crazy). But just keep your hands off the kinder! Did Jimmy listen to me? No. Not about anything (listen to his Prokofiev 5th – and we spent so much time studying those scores together! SAD)

  • Pinchy says:

    Uh…”unmarried”? Levine was married to Suzanne last year. Did you miss this fact? You sure seem to miss a lot of these things…

  • Alexander T says:

    I had always thought there was something pervy and repulsive about him long before I heard of the allegations levelled at him, which is why I always avoided his recordings.

  • Ilio says:

    It is said he married Ms. Thompson last year.

  • Sharon says:

    In spite of everything his tenacity to continue in spite of very severe physical problems impacting directly on his conducting will serve as an everlasting example

  • Yi Peng Li says:

    I would like to ask a general-purpose question. I don’t mean this to stir up strong emotions. Will we be similarly ambivalent about the musical legacies of Domingo and Dutoit when they die?

  • Yon says:

    to tell you the truth, it’s still unbelievable for me Maestro Levine did sexual abuse for underage kids. he was too modest to do that thing and too unconscious with his looking…. usually abuser seems more arrogant and has vanity. thinking of his tremendous works–more than 2500 stages, wonder if he had time and interest in those things..

  • Dave T says:

    “As a conductor of concerts, however, he lacked stage charisma”
    I consider that a plus. They’ll be plenty of gymnastics in Tokyo this summer. That’s all I will need.