James Levine, former Met Opera conductor, dies aged 77 | Opera


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 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 3 December 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 and never conducted again. He had been scheduled to make a comeback performances of Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem this January 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.”

Levine was regarded as the top American conductor following the death of Leonard Bernstein in 1990. 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 US 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 $5.8m 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 last year aged 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.

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