James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera in Court

By · Photography NYPL (Public Domain) · Date 5/24/2018

In December, James Levine was fired from his emeritus music directorship at the Metropolitan Opera, after five men stepped forward to credibly accuse him of sexual assault when they were teenagers and young adults, over a period ranging from the 1970s to the 1990s. Some might have expected him to recede into the background. Instead, he sued in March, claiming that his contract had been unjustly terminated.

The Met, in a countersuit filed last week, provides the results of the internal investigation it said led to Levine’s firing. (Minus the names of the victims.) This investigation found that “in or around 1975 to 1976, Levine demanded and received sex acts from Individual 1 while exerting influence and control over” his employment in the Met orchestra, that he “touched Individual 2 at least seven times between 1979 and 1991” backstage, that in 1985 he “began groping and kissing Individual 3 against Individual 3’s will” in a car before placing him in “a prestigious program within the Met,” that in 1986 he abused a 16-year-old (Individual 4) before paying him $50,000 in hush money, that he propositioned Individual 6 backstage at the Met in 1994 before masturbating in front of him, that in 1999 and 2000 he inappropriately touched and engaged in coercive sexual activity with Individual 7, a member of its young artists’ program. This is the Met’s defense: that for at least 25 years, its music director used its orchestra and young artist program as his harem, and, somehow, no word of any of this ever made it to anyone in management.

During this period, the various claims and counterclaims reveal, Levine was paid an obscene amount of money. His 2009 contract specified an annual salary of $700,000, an annual “travel and entertainment” fee of $50,000, a $500,000 signing bonus (offered to an ill conductor one year after the 2008 financial crash when many orchestras were slashing wages), plus a per-performance fee $10,000 higher than the highest per-performance fee paid to any singer: $26,000 a night. (There were additional fees for television performances and for reissuing old recordings.) As emeritus music director, his annual compensation was cut to “only” $400,000, plus a $27,000 per-performance fee. This fee alone is one-fifth of the Met orchestra’s starting salary, and higher than the annual wage of many freelance musicians in New York. The Met’s general manager Peter Gelb also makes big money—almost $2 million annually as of the last available financial reports. Given the house’s increasing financial problems, conservative programming, declining audiences, and inconsistent-at-best new productions, it is often difficult to tell why. At least Levine was, when healthy, a hardworking musician and brilliant interpreter.

Levine’s defense to the abuse claims is to claim ignorance of most of them, and to provide excerpts from decades-old letters written by men which newspapers identified, after they claim he abused them. The letters are alternately kind and pleading; they share a heartbreaking desperation and vulnerability. There is a way to read these as a defense of Levine and there is a way to read them as the words of people who had interpolated his abuse. Just seeing letters begging for help (and even just a returned call) from Ashok Pai, who has accused Levine of grooming him from prepubescence and abusing him from the age of 16, is disturbing—never mind when these letters are being used as defense against these allegations. James Lestock is another alleged victim of Levine’s abuse; his friendly letters are also being cited as proof his claims have no merit. In a Boston Globe article detailing Levine’s creepy 1970s “cult,” a group Levine allegedly bullied and physically and sexually abused in order to create a “God Philharmonic” that would play music without limitations, Lestock said: “I should have said at this point you are no longer my friend, [but] it took me too long to crawl out of that hole.” This is the response of many people who are subject to abuses of sex and power, especially when their abuser is a powerful figure in an industry where many struggle to make a living. In any case, my point here is not to parse the evidence like a juror trying to determine guilt or innocence. Rather, it is to point out that these claims have credibility, detail abuse over a wide period of time, and are made by people who do not know one another or have any reason to come forward other than to seek justice.

Levine’s suit, after dismissing the abuse claims, goes on to argue that Gelb orchestrated this entire scandal as some sort of conspiracy to “erase his legacy” and replace him with someone younger. The evidence in the suits suggests that Levine’s increasing inability to do his job, never mind reports to management of sexual abuse in 1979 and 2016, were handled with the greatest possible deference to his preferences. For years he kept his position and was paid his base salary even when unable to perform, cancelling hundreds of performances, often at the last minute, and creating enormous chaos. He was kept on as music director, a term he stretched to the limits of its meaning, even after cancelling premieres of late-romantic operas (“Lulu,” “Der Rosenkavalier”) central to his repertory with no explanation offered to counter the obvious one: that he was no longer able to conduct them. An astonishing aside in a New York Times profile of former Met principal conductor Fabio Luisi revealed that Luisi and Levine had never spoken, which is ridiculous given that they were theoretically collaborating to oversee the house’s orchestra and musical program. Remember that Levine was paid a signing bonus of $500,000 in 2009, when he was already beginning to prove ill and unreliable, and would likely not have been hired for a directorship elsewhere. These are all part and parcel of the same problem: paying Levine an inflated salary, and allowing him to keep his job well after he was able to perform it, are evidence of the same culture of star worship that kept his abuses covered up for decades.

Watching this legal fight is like watching aging T-Rexes snarl at each other in the shadow of an oncoming asteroid. One ailing man and one ailing opera house are desperately trying to draw blood before they go extinct. Levine should never perform again. He also has enough money to last the rest of his life, and will likely never go to jail. (His victims have at least some small measure of justice.) The Met crashed itself against the rocks protecting its star and seems to have learned nothing from the predictable result. The house was only two-thirds full last season; its credit rating was downgraded again in the wake of this dismaying affair. Filling houses and inspiring a new generation of fans and donors will take more than covering up what is wrong and creating and protecting another star. Does the Met know how to do anything else? Thinking no one would notice, it scrubbed Levine’s performances, many of them brilliant and featuring the devoted efforts of hundreds of other performers, from its satellite radio channel. It then acted dumbfounded when this inspired controversy. Its promotions for next season include a list of its new music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s favorite restaurants, messenger bags, and luxury vacation destinations. The Met has become a symbol of the rot at the heart of the oligarch-driven and star-obsessed mainstream of classical music culture. For the sake of the many people it employs and the beauty it brings into the world, I hope it can change before it is too late. The signs do not look promising. ¶