James Levine: An unaffectionate tribute by the Metropolitan Opera

James Levine: An unaffectionate tribute by the Metropolitan Opera


norman lebrecht

March 17, 2021

The Metropolitan Opera has crafted these unloving words in memory of its former music director whose death was made known today:

The Metropolitan Opera honors the memory of former Music Director James Levine, who held the musical reins of the company for four-and-a-half decades.

Maestro Levine conducted more than 2,500 performances of 85 different operas at the Met, starting with his company debut in 1971 leading Puccini’s Tosca. Celebrated for shaping the Met Orchestra and Chorus into the finest in the world, he was also responsible for considerably expanding the Met repertoire. Levine conducted the first-ever Met performances of Mozart’s Idomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito, Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani, I Lombardi and Stiffelio, Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Moses und Aron, Berg’s Lulu, Rossini’s La Cenerentola, and Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, as well as the world premieres of John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles and John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby.

Levine became Principal Conductor of the Met in 1973 and Music Director in 1976. He founded the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program in 1980 and the Met Orchestra’s annual series of concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1991. He performed with virtually every major opera singer of the past half-century. A book and documentary film celebrating his 40th anniversary with the company were released in the summer of 2011.

Despite his undeniable artistic achievements on behalf of the Met, his relationship with the company frayed in the wake of allegations of sexual misconduct, and in 2018 he was removed from his position as Music Director Emeritus after a three-month investigation by outside counsel. His final appearance at the Met was leading a concert performance of the Verdi Requiem on December 2, 2017.

By way of warm contrast, the American soprano Aprile Millo writes on her social media:

In James Levine I lose personally someone who changed my life. There is often much talk about how he ran from confrontation, or wasn’t a loyal friend, it was completely the opposite in my experience with him. He gave me marvellous truths dressed in challenges, he gave me praise that I will never forget, and he was one of the truest friends I ever had. The industry that we both serve is often another place for friends because people smile at you and then they will kill you from behind your back. This is not to say I wasn’t ever disappointed but I will never forget his friendship, his vision, and ultimately his majesty as a Maestro. What colours and what beauty and what energy he could elicit from an orchestra…. 


  • Basso Continuoso says:

    He was remarkably industrious and possessed great skill and mastery. As a conductor, he seemed to follow Toscanini the most, as the orchestra, in Carnegie Hall, sounded like an old-time pit band. I had a sense of the Met being rather political and not terribly ethically run, long before Gelb.

  • Zandonai says:

    Which would you rather have – a maestro who fell victim to #MeToo frauds, or a maestro who bailed on his musicians during a (Covid) crisis?

    • Leoncavallo says:

      neither. i want someone who cares about the musicians and someone who isn’t a rapist. is that so much to ask?

    • againstbigotry says:

      I don’t know, but definitely not the maestro who may have raped underage people. That seems like it should disqualify candidates, no?

  • NYMuso says:

    Wadda you expect? He was a pretty awful man.

  • Euphonium Al says:

    I think it’s only honest for them to note how the relationship ended. If their message failed to describe the souring of the relationship, people would accuse the Met of covering things up. I also think the Met can hardly be expected to write warmly of someone who sued them.

    • Sharon says:

      Official death announcements, and an employer’s or former employer’s announcement immediately after a death qualifies as an official announcement, should be entirely flattering.

      If the Met not could not do that for political reasons they should not have said anything at this time and let only the the family, people close to Levine or someone Phramus (Levine’s company) announce the death and prepare the (official) obituary

      • V.Lind says:

        Sez who? He was fired from the Met, and they are merely noting it in what I consider rather restrained tones.

  • E says:

    Thank you for the note by Aprile Mille.
    The Met should have omitted its last paragragh, and given only the performance date for the Verdi requiem.

  • Someone says:

    No statement the Met put out was ever going to be good enough for everyone. Those who believe he did what he was accused of doing would have been furious at an “affectionate” statement. Those who do not believe he did what he is accused of doing would have been angry if he wasn’t fully praised and have felt would lthat any mention of the scandal would have been disrespectful to his legacy. The Met chose the middle ground – a simple statement of fact. An acknowledgement of both his long distinguished history with the company and the circumstances of his removal.

    The subject of James Levine is always going to set off extreme emotions and debate. No one is ever going be “right”. Having said that, I look forward to reading the comments trashing my analysis.

  • Cynical Bystander says:

    “…….has crafted these unloving words in memory of its former music director ”

    A not so faint whiff of hypocrisy about this statement given that Levine has had more than a few unloving words thrown at him over the recent years on this site. I have no doubt a more cynical person than I might wonder whether there is an implied criticism of a certain Mr Gelb in this sudden concern for a warm appreciative assessment of Mr Levine’s legacy. Well at least some of it.

  • Mecky Messer says:

    In other words, they should’ve been nicer to the rapist…

    Now repeat that but slowly…

  • Yass says:

    Met were generous to him, way too generous. First thing I thought about upon hearing of his death was the Met production where Don Giovanni is being dragged down into hell.

  • Tom Phillips says:

    This far from “unloving” tribute contains exactly one sentence referring to his removal and the causes thereof. And notwithstanding Aprile Millo’s fond memories, Levine was truly exceptional in his passive-aggressive shirking of confrontation and backstabbing of artists no longer of any use to him.

  • Presbyteros says:

    I’m sure that the Met, along with many people, are relieved at his death. He was that ugly truth over there in the corner.

  • Joseph A says:

    I will miss him. He was a fabulous conductor and pianist. Since most of the allegations were 50 years old cant we hope to forgive rather then kick a dead man’s body?

  • Stephen Birkin says:

    I once read an article about Wagner’s music and his rabid anti-semitism. Basically the question was whether it’s possible to love the music whilst disliking the man. I personally think it is (although Andre Previn once quipped that there’s too much purgatory between the good bits!). Perhaps we should be charitable and separate Levine’s undoubted achievements from his personal behaviour. It may have been reprehensible but I’m guessing there are worse cases.

  • Ernest says:

    Levine nurtured the MET orchestra, Gelb is killing it …

    Brava Aprille, thank you for the heartfelt note.

  • Nick says:

    One of the last great conductors is gone..And an Era is over.
    MET’s reaction? Excpected….so they deserve what they have now — nothing! They reap what they sow!! Deservedly.

  • Nick says:

    Thank you Aprile Millo for your wonderfully warm recollection. Maestro was indeed an artist of absolute genius as conductor and not a lesser one as a pianist!!
    R.I.P. Maestro Levine

  • MacroV says:

    What do you expect the MET to say? Great as his achievements were, his predatory behavior – which I assume the MET was well aware of for years – ultimately brought the institution into disrepute. This is the kind of statement you get when you have lawyers vetting it. Aprile Millo is not similarly constrained.

  • Save the MET says:

    Gelb will never be fit to shine Levine’s shoes.

  • Jack_Ewing says:

    Not a tribute, a very appropriate acknowledgment. As for Millo, Levine was the reason her career was over in 2007. The Met never engaged her again. She knows, so her words are dripping with insincerity, opportunism. Levine once told her to go back to coaching, probably a great advice at the time, sadly for her career she didn’t listen.