Why are Opera Fans so Fascinated with James Levine?

Saturday, May 18, 2013 - 12:00 PM

In the Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin, Wagner depicts a vision of a Grail descending to earth. This Sunday, it will come with a special dramatic touch: an elevating podium, which will lift conductor James Levine and his motorized wheelchair from the stage at Carnegie Hall.

The 69-year-old music director of the Metropolitan Opera has been away for two years, following an accident in 2011 left him partially paralyzed and unable to walk. Levine says he can’t wait to pick up the baton with the Met Orchestra.

Undergoing therapy was "the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life, to get back all of the feeling and motion in my legs," said Levine on WQXR’s Operavore show. "And, now, I'm actually walking."

Levine hasn’t conducted at the Met since May 2011, and after two years away, his absence has been widely felt, especially among singers. They say he has a Zen-master’s way of getting them to deliver their best performances.

Scott Carlton sang in the Met chorus for 16 years and now sings at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany. "Levine has a kind of calm about him," said Carlton. "He knows the material so thoroughly, and is so convincing what he wants. I have to say that he communicates a lot of what he wants in his body language. Just a way he holds a little tension in his shoulders and everyone understands, 'this is where the line needs to be sustained,' or 'this is where I don’t need you to flag in your energy.'"

Levine became the Met’s principal conductor in 1973 and musical director two years later. He’s been credited with building the company’s orchestra into one of the finest around. He’s also introduced more 20th century opera, including works by Stravinsky and Berg. For his efforts, the company pays him about $2 million annually – making him the second-highest-paid maestro in the U.S.

Critics say he’s worth the money, especially because he provides artistic focus, and acts as a gentle counterbalance to Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager.

"Some of the Gelb regime has coincided with Levine not being as present in the theater," said Ken Benson, a veteran artist manager who’s guided the careers of many top opera singers. "And now it might be interesting with Levine coming back and being a real presence again – perhaps there will be more of that balance. He may make his presence felt in that way."

Gelb has put on some controversial new productions during Levine’s absence, including a Las Vegas-themed Rigoletto and a malfunction-plagued Ring cycle directed by Robert Lepage. Ticket sales have been down slightly this season.

"Certainly, [Levine] was up until very recently very involved with every detail of long-term planning, of repertoire, of new productions, of casting and so on," said Benson. "It will be interesting now that he is returning to see if he resumes that."

Levine is also a famously private figure. Despite the focus on his health, the stocky, frizzy-haired conductor gives few interviews and maintains a close inner circle — even as opera's gossip mill has often churned around his personal life.

David Patrick Stearns, a classical music critic at the Philadelphia Inquire and for Operavore admits there’s a certain intrigue around Levine the man, but he seems to be just a workaholic. "He’s a very congenial guy," he said. "You see him on the street and he says, 'Hi, call me any time.' Of course, that doesn't work out. I know that in conversations with him, he tends to go on to the next thought before he’s verbally finished the previous one. He’s sort of Wagnerian that way."

Stearns says that like many conductors, Levine stands to get better with age, “because he’s really at that point in his life where he stands to give his best performances.”

The maestro also wants to make sure his return is the real deal this time.

"I didn’t want to do a season where I’d wind up cancelling or – or, you know, somehow, I – I didn’t want to overdo the first year," said Levine in the Operavore interview. "I wanted to be able to find out what shape I was in and what I could really do. But I’m thrilled to be able to work with them again and with the three pieces that we’re doing I’ve got a very beautiful array of repertoire."

James Levine’s schedule for next season includes a new production of Verdi's Falstaff plus revivals of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte and Berg's Wozzeck.

Photo: Wagner's 'Das Rheingold' in the Robert Lepage staging (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)


Gisele Regatao and Wayne Shulmister


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Comments [5]

Jack Frymire from Bellingham, WA

Levine is fascinating because because of his incomparable legacy at the Met: nearly 2,500 performances over 40 years. the molding of the Met orchestra into the opera world's greatest ensemble, his unique fusion of joy
and spontaneity with meticulous attention to detail. The Met boasts only one other career of comparable duration
and stature: that of Placido Domingo. These are the two greatest careers in operatic history. Nominations closed;
election by acclamation.

Sep. 25 2013 04:00 PM
New Yorker from NYC

Levine is fascinating to Opera fans because of the constant rumors of his boyish preferences!

May. 21 2013 12:55 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

I mistakenly wrote 1938, when I should have written the summers of 1935 and 1936 for the Salzburg Festival productions of FALSTAFF, FIDELIO and DIE MEISTERSINGER, all conducted by ARTURO TOSCANINI. Maestri FAUSTO CLEVA and LASZLO HALASZ were designated by Toscanini who personally selected them as his assistants to select the personnel of the orchestra and chorus and to pre-rehearse them from his directions detailed to them in joint discussions in private so that there would be sufficient time allowed for Toscanini to SVENGALI-like make his customary magic. A member of the Wagner family attending the DIE MEISTERSINGER initial performance at the Festival raved to the press about "the most inspired performance of the opera that I have ever seen."

May. 19 2013 12:44 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner

JAMES LEVINE's fabulous career as a caring maestro who does not emphasize the orchestra''s potential might to cover singers unable to project sufficiently sets him apart from many otherwise symphony conductors turning yto opera. His integrity, knowledge and experience militate in his favor when he proposes scheduling, interpretation, and artist relations. No one that I have known of celebrated singers ever complained of his suggestions, but finding him objective and willing to meet with their concerns for the best outcomes. I studied with maestri Fausto Cleva and Laszlo halasz, both assistants to Toscanini at Salzburg in 1938, and known for their meticulous demand for precision. Maestro Levine whom I have been told studied with Cleva, has all the positive qualities of Cleva with a personality that is sure to obtain theb full cooperation of his performers. Levine nuances and adjusts orchestral and vocal resources to satisfy the tastes of all and especially insure that the composer's intentions are realized. WELCOME BACK MAESTRO LEVINE !!!

May. 19 2013 10:25 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

I'm fascinated by him because he's so consistently reliable when it comes to presenting fully rehearsed and convincing performances of so much varied repertory. In short, he doesn't specialize or take the easy way of preparing and conducting the same few works again and again. He's one of the few maestri today who understands and adjusts orchestral balances, the better to allow singers to show themselves to best advantage, which is why I think so many have been and are eager to perform under his direction. The orchestra sounds bright and alive under his direction. I can only hope that his belief and influence will extend to eliminating all of the Eurotrash and concept garbage of many of the active stage directors who are thriving today that have nothing at all to do with what inspired the composers to write their opera in the first place.

May. 19 2013 09:30 AM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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