The End of an Era at the Met
James Levine, who debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 1971 and became its musical director in 1976, will step down from his post at the end of the current season, the company announced yesterday. In 2011, Amadeus Press published James Levine: 40 Years at The Metropolitan Opera, a collection of the maestro’s reminiscences from his remarkable tenure, as well as the personal stories and recollections of some of opera’s biggest stars and the journalists who covered his career. In this excerpt, Richard Dyer, for 33 years a music and arts writer at The Boston Globe, describes Levine in an essay called “His Own Best Pupil.”
Two little stories tell you a lot about the kind of conductor James Levine is because they tell you the kind of musician he is, and the kind of man.
The first dates back to the mid-1960s, when he was the assistant conductor of The Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell. One of Levine’s first assignments was to rehearse Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto, and he vividly remembers a little oboe solo near the beginning: “The oboist played it more beautifully than I could ever have imagined on my own. There was nothing I could have done that would have made it any more beautiful. I realized immediately that it was not my job to control every element of the performance, but to allow the musicians to bring the best of themselves to an overall conception of the piece.”
The second revealing incident took place 40 years later at Tanglewood, when Levine was supervising reading rehearsals of Mozart’s Don Giovanni with fellows of the Music Center—singers, conductors, and orchestra. No performance was scheduled; this was a learning experience. The conducting fellow was propelling an ensemble at an exciting tempo that
was flustering the Donna Elvira. Levine stopped him. “What are you doing that for?” he asked. “Can’t you imagine how well she could sing it at a slightly slower tempo? What do you have to gain by making her uncomfortable? What does Mozart have to gain?” Once again, Levine was talking about enabling performers to give their best, about how a conductor’s job is not just to lead but also to listen. (“Jimmy hears everything,”
a player once said to me, with mingled admiration and panic.)
The statistics of Levine’s tenure at the Metropolitan Opera are staggering: 40 years, nearly 2,500 performances of 85 different operas, and counting. But the significance of his service lies behind and beyond the statistical record. Statistics define quantity, not quality, and they don’t tell anything about the process through which quality is achieved.
Everyone comments on how the orchestra, under his direction, has become one of the great ensembles of the world. One of his strategies has been to encourage the members to
play chamber music, and to turn them loose on the symphonic repertory—just as in posts he has held with symphonic ensembles, Levine has programmed operas. He doesn’t believe in specialization, for himself or for the institutions he works with; all music unfolds on a continuum, and different parts of the continuum inform and instruct one another. An orchestra must emulate the phrasing, breathing, colorations, vibrancy, and emotional impact of a great singer in full flight; a singer should emulate the precision, ensemble skills, and coloristic range of an instrumentalist.
Another great legacy is Levine’s widening and freshening of the Met repertory, from less-performed works by established composers to 20th-century masterworks to brand-new compositions. And he adds to his own repertory all the time—in the last few years he led his first Madama Butterfly and first Don Pasquale. There are works one wishes he would conduct—Der Freischütz, Boris Godunov, Capriccio, La Gioconda,or La Fanciulla del West, for example—but their absence is as much a question of timing or availability of suitable singers as it is of personal taste. One of his strengths is utilizing the changing interests and abilities of each generation of singers as it comes along. Of course, he also knows better than to conduct works for which he feels no real affinity, or that he feels others can do better.
Like a clerk in a Dickens novel, Levine maintains elaborate ledgers of his performances; the ledgers reinforce his instincts about when to return to central works for his own artistic development, when they have grown in his subconscious and it is time for new insights to assert themselves. And he strategizes repertory for the orchestra the way he strategizes for himself—how often it needs to ground itself in Mozart, for example. He didn’t program Berg’s Lulu before he brought back Wozzeck, and he didn’t attempt Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron before the orchestra had played both Wozzeck and Lulu.
Levine’s formal musical education was as comprehensive as he could make it—general studies under Walter Levin of the LaSalle String Quartet, famous for its mastery of the
Second Viennese School and contemporary music; solo piano instruction with Rosina Lhevinne; chamber music with Rudolf Serkin and others; French repertory with Jean Morel
at Juilliard; German repertory with Szell. At the Aspen Music Festival and School he sought out composers like Darius Milhaud and established singers like Jennie Tourel and Phyllis Curtin. One of his early idols was Toscanini, and he made it a project to work with as many singers as possible who had performed under Toscanini. Levine has coached countless singers, but it is equally important to point out how many singers he has made it a point to learn from. He is his own best pupil.
From the beginning Levine knew what his core repertory would be. Back in Ohio, he created an orchestra at the Cleveland Institute of Music and gave concert performances of Don Giovanni, Don Carlo, and Simon Boccanegra. Mozart and Verdi—Wagner came later, first at the Met, and then at the Bayreuth Festival. To these composers one should add Berlioz and Berg, as well as The Bartered Bride, Pelleas et Melisande, and Strauss’s Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, and Ariadne auf Naxos. Anyone who has heard Levine conduct these works must have indelible memories of his way with them.
Of course, Levine wants each performance to be as good as it can be, but he is at least as interested in process, in the whole movement from developing a conception prior to rehearsal, building on what happens in rehearsal, and watching interpretation develop through a series of performances—even foreseeing what might happen in future seasons that will build upon the present. He is not afraid to say “Sorry, my mistake” in rehearsal, and he knows when he has not operated on his own best level. I once heard him muse ruefully about a Sirius re-broadcast of a Mozart opera, “What a great cast, and I let them down.’’
Singers love Levine. “It is never easy to sing,” the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson told me, “but James Levine makes you believe you can do things you never thought you could.”
There are very few singers of the front rank over the last 40 years who have not worked with him, and his collaborations continue today with a younger generation.
For all of Levine’s presence in a starry firmament, he lives in the real world and works within the complex conditions of a major modern opera house. The curtain does not invariably rise on an ideal cast in an ideal production, and vocal cords are subject to the various physical and emotional ills the flesh is heir to. But he has the imagination, ability and true grit to make the best of every situation so no one goes home after a Levine performance with an empty heart.
Often as conductors grow older, their tempos become slower, as if they are reluctant to let go of the music, or accelerate, as if they are trying to outpace time itself. Levine is a collector and student of time-pieces, and he has avoided both extremes, just as he charts a course that avoids complacency and routine at one extreme, and egocentric eccentricity for its own sake at the other. The public has learned to depend on a high level of quality when he is on the podium. But even after 40 years, the public also knows to expect surprise.