Conductor James Levine, who ruled over the Metropolitan Opera for more than four decades before being eased aside when his health declined and then was fired for sexual improprieties, has died. He was 77.
Levine died March 9 in Palm Springs, California, of natural causes, his physician of 17 years, Dr. Len Horovitz, said Wednesday.
Levine made his Met debut in 1971 and became one of the signature artists in the company’s century-plus history, conducting 2,552 performances and ruling over its repertoire, orchestra and singers as music or artistic director from 1976 until forced out by general manager Peter Gelb in 2016 due to Parkinson’s disease.
Levine became music director emeritus and remained head of its young artists program but was suspended on Dec. 3, 2017, the day after conducting a Verdi "Requiem" in what turned out to be his final performance, after accounts in the New York Post and The New York Times of sexual misconduct dating to the 1960s.
He was fired the following March 12 and never conducted again. He had been scheduled to make a comeback performances of Brahms’ ”Ein Deutsches Requiem” this Jan. 17 and 21 in Florence, Italy, but the concert were canceled due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“No artist in the 137 year history of the Met had as profound an impact as James Levine,” Gelb said in a statement. “He raised the Met’s musical standards to new and greater heights.”
Known for bushy hair an an ever-present towel draped over a shoulder during rehearsals, Levine greatly expanded the Met’s repertory and was especially praised for his performances of Wagner, Verdi and Berg. He was closely associated with Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and Birgit Nilsson, who spoke on stage at close to 2 a.m. near the end of Levine’s 25th anniversary concert, which stretched on for about eight hours at the Met in 1996.
Levine was beloved by singers for forcing orchestras to bend to their needs.
“Confidence is a tremendous part of an artist’s performance, especially singers, because a singer cannot evaluate what’s happening,” he told The Associated Press in 1996. “It’s in her body. It’s not out here where the piano keys are, or where the cello is. To me, singers are heroic in that respect.”
He became on dominant figure in the media age, making hundreds of audio and video recordings that have been released commercially or distributed by the Met and its media partners.
In addition to his lengthy tenure at the Met, Levine was music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Ravinia Festival from 1973-93, the Munich Philharmonic from 1999-2004 and the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 2004-11. He conducted at the Richard Wagner Festival from 1982-98, including a new production of “Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung)” in 1994. He was a regular with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic.
Levine was regarded as the top American conductor following the death of Leonard Bernstein in 1990.
Born June 23, 1943, in Cincinnati, the grandson of a cantor and the son of bandleader Lawrence Levine and Broadway actress Helen Goldstein, Levine began taking piano lessons at 4 and made his professional debut with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at 10 in Mendelssohn’s" Piano Concerto No. 2."
That same year, he began piano lessons with Walter Levin, the principal violinist of the LaSalle Quartet. By 18, Levine became the first piano-conducting double major ever at the Juilliard School in New York City.
He studied piano with Rudolph Serkin at the Marlboro Festival and with Rosina Lhevinne at Juilliard, spending 13 summers at the Aspen Festival in Colorado. After three years at Juilliard, he reached the postgraduate level, then dropped out to become an apprentice to George Szell at the Cleveland Orchestra, where he spent six years.
Levine made his Met debut in “Tosca” with Grace Bumbry and Franco Corelli on June 5, 1971. The following February, he became principal conductor for the Met’s 1973-74 season, assisting music director Rafael Kubelik, and became music director with the 1976-77 season. By the 1986-87 season, he was promoted to artistic director — in near-total control of the repertoire and casting — and drew criticism as other major conductors stayed away.
He led upward of 110 performances in a season in the 1980s, including tours. Levine was downgraded to music director when he joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2004.
Levine was known for restoring cuts in operas that had long been shortened. He favored a central core of Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, Mozart and Strauss, such as Mozart’s “Idomeneo” and “”La Clemenza di Tito,” and Verdi’s "I Vespri Siciliani.”
“If you do the `Ring’ and it has flaws, it’s such a complex undertaking that there can be a lot of good things it,” he said. “But you cannot do a bel canto opera with a weakness in the cast. Because there’s nothing there except that... It would be a waste of everybody’s time.”
Levine also pushed and led the Met premiere of the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess.” He was criticized for a lack of contemporary music — he said the Met was such a large institution that commissions came only slowly — and as a symphony conductor he championed composers Elliot Carter, John Corigliano and Charles Wuorinen.
While he upgraded the quality of the orchestra to the highest level since the company began in 1883, his health became an issue for more than a decade.
Levine started conducting from a chair in late 2001, and when tremors in his left arm and leg became noticeable in 2004, he said they began a decade earlier. His health worsened in 2006, when he tripped and fell on the stage of Boston’s Symphony Hall during ovations that followed a performance and he tore a rotator cuff, which required shoulder surgery.
He had an operation in 2008 to remove a kidney and another in 2009 to repair a herniated disk in his back. He then suffered spinal stenosis, leading to surgeries in May and July 2011. He had another operation that September after falling and damaging a vertebra, an injury that sidelined him until May 2013, when he returned and conducted from a motorized wheelchair that he would use for the remainder of his career.
With Levine shifting to emeritus, Yannick Nezet-Seguin was hired in June 2016 to succeed him as music director starting in 2020-21, a timetable eventually moved up by two seasons.
After the allegations of sexual improprieties became public, the Met hired former U.S. Attorney Robert J. Cleary of Proskauer Rose to head its investigation, and the company said more than 70 people were interviewed.
“The investigation uncovered credible evidence that Mr. Levine had engaged in sexually abusive and harassing conduct both before and during the period when he worked at the Met,” the company said in a statement. “The investigation also uncovered credible evidence that Mr. Levine engaged in sexually abusive and harassing conduct towards vulnerable artists in the early stages of their careers, over whom Mr. Levine had authority. In light of these findings, the Met concludes that it would be inappropriate and impossible for Mr. Levine to continue to work at the Met.”
Levine sued the Met for breach of contract and defamation, seeking at least $5.8 million in damages. New York Supreme Court Justice Andrea Masley dismissed all but one of the defamation claims and the suit was settled in 2019.
His brother Tom, an artist who was his longtime aide, died in April 2020 at age 71 of leukemia.
Levine is survived by wife Suzanne Thomson, his longtime companion whom he married last year, according to Andrea Anson of his agency; sister Janet Levine and her husband Kenneth Irwin.
Donations in his memory may be made to The James L. Levine Charitable Foundation, P.O. Box 3542, New York, NY 10008.