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Operavore

Why are Opera Fans so Fascinated with James Levine?

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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)