‘Sexually abusive’: legendary conductor James Levine’s career ends in disgrace, fired by New York’s Met Opera
Investigation by opera company concludes that Levine sexually abused and harassed vulnerable young artists
James Levine, whose 46-year career at New York’s Metropolitan Opera established him as a towering figure in classical music, was fired by the company on Monday after an investigation found evidence of sexual abuse and harassment.
Levine made his Met debut in 1971 and became one of the signature artists in the company’s 135-year history, conducting 2,552 performances and ruling over its repertoire, orchestra and singers as music or artistic director from 1976 until he stepped down two years ago due to Parkinson’s disease. He became music director emeritus and remained head of its young artists programme but was suspended on December 3 after accounts in the New York Post and The New York Times of sexual misconduct dating to the 1960s, including allegations involving a 15-year-old boy.
The Met hired former US attorney Robert J. Cleary 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.”
The Met did not release specifics of the evidence.
Tim Fox of Columbia Artists, who represents the 74-year-old conductor, did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Levine has not been charged with any criminal offence. The Lake County state’s attorney’s office in Illinois said in December it investigated a sexual abuse allegation of misconduct dating to the 1980s but concluded “no criminal charges can be brought” and cited multiple factors, including “the relevant age of consent in Illinois at the time of the alleged incidents.”
In an investigative piece published this month by The Boston Globe, former students at the Cleveland Institute of Music described Levine as a cultlike figure who not only coerced them into sex but controlled their lives.
Quoting former students, the newspaper said that Levine would pressure them to cut off ties with the outside world and pledge loyalty to him as he led meetings that involved everything from studying opera scenes to sex.
“I thought it was sex for my improvement, sex to make things better,” violinist Albin Ifsich, who was a 20-year-old student when he said the abuse took place in 1968, told the newspaper.
“Obviously that’s not what it was, but we were led to believe that.”
Levine’s downfall began in December, when the New York Post reported on a 2016 police report which alleged decades of abuse by the conductor, supposedly starting when a victim was 15 at the Ravinia Music Festival near Chicago – one of a number of classical institutions that has since cut ties with Levine.
The conductor in an earlier statement called the allegations against him “unfounded,” saying he was not an “oppressor or an aggressor.”
The Met said in its statement “the investigation also found that any claims or rumours that members of the Met’s management or its board of directors engaged in a cover-up of information relating to these issues are completely unsubstantiated.”
Following the death of Leonard Bernstein in 1990, Levine was regarded as the top American conductor and was given a starring role in the film Fantasia 2000. Many of his performances were televised by PBS, and singers rearranged their schedules to appear in his performances or even to audition for him.
He was revered by the Met’s orchestra, board and patrons during a reign as chief conductor (1973-76), music director (1976-86 and 2004-16) and artistic director (1986-2004). In addition, he was music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Ravinia Festival from 1973-93 and the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 2004-11, and chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic from 1999-2004.
Instantly recognisable by his bushy frock of hair and towel draped over a shoulder during rehearsals, he regularly conducted at the Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, Bayreuth Festival and Salzburg Festival.
His power waned only because of health problems.
Fittingly perhaps, his final Met appearance was conducting Verdi’s Requiem in December.
Yannick Nezet-Seguin was hired two years ago to replace Levine as music director starting in 2020-21, but last month the Met said it had moved up the start of his tenure to next season.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse