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How Power Works: The James Levine Case

If you don’t read The New York Times or keep up with arts and culture news, you may have missed an extremely important development the other day: the Metropolitan Opera has suspended its legendary conductor, James Levine, following multiple accusations of sexual misconduct and abuse. [1] The names in classical music don’t get much bigger than Levine’s. Excerpt from the NYT piece:

The accusations of sexual misconduct stretch back to 1968.

Chris Brown, who played principal bass in the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra for more than three decades, said that Mr. Levine masturbated him that summer — and then coaxed him to reciprocate — when Mr. Brown was 17 at the Meadow Brook School of Music in Michigan. Mr. Levine, then 25, was a rising star on the summer program’s faculty. James Lestock said that Mr. Levine also masturbated him there that summer when Mr. Lestock was 17 and a cello student — the first of many sexual encounters with Mr. Levine that have haunted him. And Ashok Pai, who grew up in Illinois near the Ravinia Festival, where Mr. Levine was music director, said that he was sexually abused by Mr. Levine starting in the summer of 1986, when Mr. Pai was 16 — an accusation he made last year in a report to the Lake Forest Police Department in Illinois.

Here’s a detailed account from the story:

Mr. Brown, the former bass player in the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, said that he had been surprised in the summer of 1968 when Mr. Levine made him principal bass at Meadow Brook, given that Mr. Brown was only 17 and had just finished his junior year of high school, while other players were older and more experienced. He said that he was initially flattered when Mr. Levine, the conductor of the school’s orchestra and the director of its orchestral institute, began to invite him to his dorm room late at night.

At their third meeting, Mr. Brown said, Mr. Levine began talking about sex.

“At that point I think it was basically a combination of fatigue and being young that allowed me to go to the bed — it was the bottom bunk — and have him masturbate me,” Mr. Brown said. “And then, almost immediately, he asked for reciprocation. And I have some very, very strong pictures in my memory, and one of them was being on the floor, and he was on the bottom bunk, and I put my hand on his penis, and I felt so ashamed.”

“The next morning I was late to rehearsal,” said Mr. Brown, who had been raised a Christian Scientist and recalled that he had received little sex education. “I was in a complete daze. Whatever happens when you get abused had happened, and it wasn’t just sexual.”

At their next meeting, Mr. Brown said, he told Mr. Levine that he would not repeat the sexual behavior, and asked if they could continue to make music as they had before.

“And he answered no,” Mr. Brown said, adding that Mr. Levine hardly looked at him for the rest of the summer, even while conducting him. “It was a terrible, terrible summer.” (That fall, after he returned for his senior year of high school, at the Interlochen Arts Academy, Mr. Brown told his roommate about Mr. Levine’s sexual advances at Meadow Brook, the roommate confirmed in an interview.)

You see what (allegedly) happened there? From a position of power, Levine began to groom the younger man. The younger man eventually surrendered to him, to the young man’s great shame, and the next day said that’s not going to happen again. After which Levine cut him off professionally.

This is how it happens. A man like James Levine had the power to make or break the careers of people in classical music. As one of his alleged victims says:

“Once I started to break down and cry, he continued to try to hurt me,” Mr. Lestock said of Mr. Levine, who was music director of Ravinia from 1973 through 1993.

But Mr. Lestock said he felt powerless to leave. “If I had left the group at the point, I would have had no career, no income, no friends, and have been totally alone in the world,” he said. After following Mr. Levine to New York in the early 1970s, Mr. Lestock, who is now 67, eventually left the group, and music.

There is now a real question about how much the Metropolitan Opera board knew about James Levine, and how much it chose not to know. A friend tells me that her classical musician pal says, “This is just the tip of the iceberg in the classical music world.”

Another friend said to me on the phone this morning, “I don’t know how these people value their careers so much that they would be willing to do these things.” Well, Lestock tells you: it might not only cost you your career, but also your livelihood and all your friends.

I’ve mentioned here before the case of a powerful Catholic bishop who was able to compel seminarians to share his bed, and able to expect silence from those within the institutional Church who knew about it, because he controlled the fates of everyone under his authority. Ought they have spoken up? Yes. Ought they speak up today? Absolutely. But it’s easy to say that from the outside, when you have nothing to lose.

The Levine story brings to mind a case that came to my attention in 2002, involving a Benedictine monk. The monk’s brother reached out to me as a journalist for help. Without violating confidentiality, I can say that the monk had come across some damning information about sexual abuse going on within his own monastery. He wanted to go to the police with the information, but the corrupt abbot ordered him not to. The monk was so grieved by the stress of it all that he had to be hospitalized. In the end, the abbot convinced him that going to the police, or going public in any way, would betray his monastic community, and leave him all alone in the world. The monk submitted, and never told his story publicly.

Again, you may wish that monk had had more moral courage, and may wish Lestock would have had more moral courage. But imagine losing everything for the sake of telling the truth — with no guarantee that people will believe you.

In the Levine case, there must be a serious investigation into what the Metropolitan Opera’s leadership knew, and what they ought to have known, but preferred not to. The only way to lessen the chances that something like this will happen in the future is to hold strictly accountable those who ought to have been exercising responsible leadership. As I’ve said here before, anybody who covered or read deeply into the way the sex abuse scandal played out in the Catholic Church cannot be surprised to see the same patterns replicated in other institutions. Power usually corrupts.

UPDATE: A very strong Wall Street Journal column on Levine today by its theater critic, Terry Teachout. [2] Excerpt:

[R]umors that Mr. Levine is a pedophile have circulated for the whole of my adult life. I first heard them in Kansas City in the ’70s. I have yet to meet anyone in the world of opera who was unaware of these rumors. In that sense, everybody really did “know” about him—and now, the whole world knows it as well.

The Times reported over the weekend that a spokesman for Mr. Levine had no comment on the specific allegations that have now emerged, and that he has twice denied to Met executives, in 1979 and a year ago, any sexual misconduct. But the company is taking the accusations seriously enough to have suspended its relationship with the conductor, who served as its music director from 1976 to 2016. Over the weekend, Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, canceled all of Mr. Levine’s scheduled performances and commissioned Proskauer Rose, an outside law firm, to conduct an investigation.

It is impossible to overstate the significance of these developments. In a very real sense, James Levine is the Met. He is the public figure most closely associated with the company, the one who has been central to its fortunes for more than four decades, and the first truly great artist to be swept up in the current maelstrom of sexual-harassment accusations. If it is proved that he did what his accusers claim, there can be no doubt that his extraordinary career will come at once to a shameful end.

Beyond that, much will hang on what Proskauer Rose’s investigation finds about Mr. Levine and what “everybody”—that is, those inside the Met—did in fact know. For this is no ordinary scandal: It is an existential crisis, one that threatens the survival of a financially beleaguered organization that had already spent years struggling with the problem of Mr. Levine’s declining health.

Will more accusers now come forward? If so, how many? And were attempts made to control, bury or cover up the damage? If the number of accusers continues to grow, it will appear increasingly likely that others, at the Met and elsewhere, knew more about Mr. Levine’s alleged behavior than has previously been acknowledged. Should this prove to be the case, then the poison will have spread beyond a single individual to the institution as a whole.

73 Comments (Open | Close)

73 Comments To "How Power Works: The James Levine Case"

#1 Comment By TR On December 6, 2017 @ 8:11 am

Matt: Some tenors not only got the girl time and again but knew very well what to do with her.

And not just tenors: back in the good old days before AIDS I knew a couple of adventurous divorcees who serviced a well known string quartet when it came to town. I think all four males were “happily” married at the time.

#2 Comment By Bob Taylor On December 6, 2017 @ 8:29 am

The matter is a totally different one in kind, but with the scythe poised to sweep through the arts communities, as we hear, I wonder if this might not be a redux, though, to reiterate, in starkly different terms, of what AIDS did to those communities in the 80s and 90s?

#3 Comment By John On December 6, 2017 @ 8:48 am

Sophistry

You mean to tell me straight people knew nothing about fornication between men and women? That they didn’t know how to sexually fulfill themselves without incurring the risk of childbirth?

Oh Please.

Gays will behave or misbehave in their way and straights will behave and misbehave in their own way. Abusers have no limits than the limits of power said abuser faces or the moral level mits that a potential abuser sets for him or herself.

The accusations we are hearing about include a lot of nonprocreative sexual conduct as well as procreative sexual conduct, straight as well as gay.

#4 Comment By Bob Taylor On December 6, 2017 @ 8:53 am

Oh, yeah, my congrats to Colonel Bogey, whose off expressed disdain for Protestants never fails to annoy the hell out of me, on a world class pun: “maestrobation.”

#5 Comment By pepi On December 6, 2017 @ 8:58 am

[Isidore the Farmer says: December 5, 2017 at 5:17 pm
The liberation and utopia promised by the Sexual Revolution is disappearing over the horizon.
When the only moral component is ‘consent’, the powerful gain an advantage over the weak, who often feel compelled to grant consent, even against their deeper wishes.]

This is NOT driven by the sexual revolution – it was driven by patriarchy, by power. For example, there is an article about 60 Minutes and Mike Wallace with this quote:

“The treatment of female co-workers by Mr. Wallace, the show’s signature correspondent, was also often insensitive. “What would now be called sexual harassment was par for the course back in the ’50s and early ’60s,” Mr. Wallace said in a 1996 Playboy interview. “And I would indulge in it.” In the same interview, he admitted that he had once had a habit of “snapping a bra” in the “60 Minutes” office.”

[3]

Back when women worked “in service” in the “big houses”, the preying on them by the master and his sons was legendary. It has been going on forever.

I would just love to see some people actually talk about how we change this, how we protect the vulnerable, how we limit the power to abuse others.

#6 Comment By Potato On December 6, 2017 @ 9:06 am

[NFR: I know of one figure. As I’ve said, I have no direct knowledge of it, only a large number of stories by those who do. As a matter of law and professional ethics, I can’t report that. Believe me, it’s not that I’m afraid of this creep. I have a feeling that knowledge of at least some of this man’s behavior — which is widely known within clerical circles — is weighing heavily on the minds of at least some of these people, and that they may soon feel emboldened to come forward. I hope so, anyway. — RD]

I do sympathize, Rod. I had a similar experience. In the course of my work I discovered evidence that a certain up-and-coming Catholic clergyman had shielded a pedophile priest who was working with children. For months. As a result this creep had unrestricted access to children at a boarding school, for some months after this was discovered. To me this is worse, if anything, than being a pedophile oneself. Pedophiles are sick. What sickness afflicts a man who lies to protect a pedophile, “for the good of the Church” or to protect the power structure, and sacrifices real children in the process?

However, the circumstances under which I gained this information brought it under attorney/client privilege. I struggled with this. If the abuse had been present tense I would have spoken out in any case, but these events were long in the past. No present day child was at risk. I ended up deciding that just because the man I am discussing was an unethical piece of slime was no excuse for me to violate the principles of my own vocation and join him down there in the mud.

He would be unwise to come at me now with his customary unctious smile, but it isn’t likely. I have removed myself from that context.

#7 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On December 6, 2017 @ 9:51 am

I heard the stories about Levine for decades. My father heard them as well—along with stories about the great Caruso. Which I won’t repeat, they’re so weird.

#8 Comment By Neguy On December 6, 2017 @ 10:00 am

@AB, Cokie Roberts called Trump voters “morally tainted”, yet she knew about Conyers and didn’t report it. Who’s morally tainted now?

#9 Comment By Neguy On December 6, 2017 @ 10:15 am

The main thing that’s different now is that accusation are treated as proof of guilt. We know that many recent high profile accusations – mattress girl, Duke lacrosse, UVa rape cast, “hands up don’t shoot” – were actually false. I always find it interesting that so many people who claim to have been a victim of a serious crime go to the media to tell their story, not the police. In fact, they usually try to avoid the police. (Campus sex tribunals are another perfect example of this).

That doesn’t mean they are all false. But if you’re accusing someone of a horrific crime, you need more than just an accusation. Normal Lebrecht says he looked into multiple Levine allegations that were shopped to him over the years, but he was never able to get confirmation that would allow him to go to print. That doesn’t mean they were false, but as a journalist he needed to verify them before publishing. He couldn’t do it.

That makes me wonder what evidence was actually there against Levin other than rumors. This is definitely a case where “everyone knew”, but what did they know? The NYT suggested that the Met had investigated allegations decades ago, but discovered that some accusation (maybe not sex related at all – we aren’t sure of the details yet) were “provably false”, so they felt they could not simply accept other, unsubstantiated objections.

Listening to the commentary in the opera world, it sounds like the Levine rumors had been so expanded and weaponized over the years that this may have inadvertently provided air cover. For example, people said things like “So and so soprano only gets roles because she has dirt on Levine.” That wasn’t true, just a statement uttered by some partisan of another soprano (opera fans are extremely catty on this stuff).

There are four accusers of Levine right now. Given the massive rumors about him, there should be vastly more victims if true. This is a case were there seems to be way too much smoke to not have a fire, but we’ll have to see what the investigations show.

#10 Comment By PeterK On December 6, 2017 @ 10:19 am

“Bacha Bazi arose out of an environment of extreme sex discrimination, which were imposed based on heterosexual norms, Mike Pence norms if you will”

this is nothing more than an outright smearing of Mike Pence

#11 Comment By PeterK On December 6, 2017 @ 10:22 am

Cosimano wrote “If Levine had real power he would not have been suspended.”

no what happened is that the Met could no longer ignore what they knew because of all the other stories in the press. as long as there were no other stories about sexual abuse in the press Levine was safe.

#12 Comment By Robert Levine On December 6, 2017 @ 12:06 pm

@Autreck:

How do we know Levine is guilty? Has there been a trial? Aren’t we jumping the gun a bit here in presuming his guilt?

In my case, no. I worked with Chris Brown for 8 years in St. Paul, and it’s inconceivable to me that he would be lying about this.

Levine, on the other hand (and no relation, by the way), has been followed by rumors about this kind of conduct for virtually his entire career. And I’ve heard worse rumors than what’s been made public to date.

It is literally impossible that the management of the Met and the Boston Symphony were not aware of these rumors when he was hired. It is almost as impossible that real due diligence by either management would not have uncovered something solid. They weren’t interested in such due diligence, and it’s now come back to bite them on the ass.

Of course, it’s came back to bite Levine too. I doubt he’ll ever conduct a professional orchestra again. But that, at least, is just.

It’s not going to do any good to the hundreds of people who work for the Met and the Boston Symphony, who will suffer from any drop in public support due to this scandal, even though most of them had no ability to do anything about the situation. That’s not just.

@catbird says:
What’s missing from this picture? Hollywood, politics, stand up comedy, music, academia — what’s missing? Well the vast ranges of boring, uncool, ticky-tacky, man in the gray flannel suit managerial capitalism.

After 35 years of marriage, my wife just shared with me a story of being sexually harassed in her “gray flannel suit managerial capitalism” job when we were first married. I think it’s fair to say that such behavior is rampant everywhere.

The fact that my wife was too embarrassed to share her story with me until now speaks volumes about why victims have stayed silent for so long. She wasn’t afraid of my reaction. She hadn’t done anything wrong, and she knew I wouldn’t blame her. She was simply ashamed it had happened to her.

Chris Brown, the bassist in St. Paul, never ever mentioned that he played for Levine during the 8 years we spent working together. In our business, that’s really telling – musicians are big name-droppers. His experience is something he clearly tried to keep buried from those around him, and probably from himself as well for as long as he could.

For what it’s worth, the orchestral workplace – which is to say where orchestra musicians work, and not the opera world onstage, or the orchestra management world, or the soloists/conductors world – appears remarkably free of sexual harassment. I’ve been working in orchestras for 40 years, and have been an activist for just about that long, and have only heard of a bare handful of such cases, or even of orchestral musicians being sexually harassed by conductors or staff.

I suspect that the very flat power structure within orchestras is why – no orchestra musician has much power over any other, with very, very rare exceptions. Sexual harassment is mostly about power.

#13 Comment By Jonf On December 6, 2017 @ 12:18 pm

Re: This is not a popular opinion, in fact it’s wrongthink to a big part of the US population, but this is exactly why known homosexuals should be kept away from young men and boys.

And we should not be similarly concerned with heterosexuals like John Conyers and Harvey Weinstein? This is hardly just a “gay” problem.

#14 Comment By pbnelson On December 6, 2017 @ 1:07 pm

Yeah, so, in 1968 this guy Levine was (allegedly) molesting over in St. Paul.

But, meanwhile, across the river in Minneapolis… The Moppet Company (later Children’s Theatre Company) had hired a *convicted* child sex offender in 1961.

Cue decades of abuse. Multiple perpetrators. A culture of abuse.

The same attorney who has been suing the Minneapolis/St.Paul Catholic Archdiocese is on the case, Jeff Anderson.

Just last month a judge awarded one plaintiff $2.5M.

[4]

[5]

#15 Comment By Robert Levine On December 6, 2017 @ 2:28 pm

@pbnelson:

Yeah, so, in 1968 this guy Levine was (allegedly) molesting over in St. Paul.

Go read the article. The abuse happened at the Meadow Brook School of Music in Michigan.

And what would prove it for you? Photos?

#16 Comment By Oakinhouston On December 6, 2017 @ 4:47 pm

“When the only moral component is ‘consent’, the powerful gain an advantage over the weak, who often feel compelled to grant consent, even against their deeper wishes.”

Forced consent is not consent. Just like you “giving” me money at gunpoint is not you giving me money.

Consent is not just saying the words “I consent”. It’s also being able to freely and knowingly consenting. Hence children can’t consent, and nor can people in fear.

#17 Comment By jp On December 6, 2017 @ 4:57 pm

People are quite willing to believe whatever a man says about being sexually abused by another man, but women are not granted the same deference. Yes, if the alleged perp is gay, he’s immediately vilified. A straight man will always be able to count on people making excuses for him and having doubts cast on his accusers.

#18 Comment By Antonia On December 7, 2017 @ 12:19 am

@Robert Levine
Unfortunately, your supposition regarding orchstras being less involved with sexual harassment is not correct.
[6]

#19 Comment By Robert Levine On December 7, 2017 @ 4:42 pm

@Antonia :

@Robert Levine
Unfortunately, your supposition regarding orchstras being less involved with sexual harassment is not correct.
[6]

I read that article.I think that’s a rather questionable result. Surveying a self-selecting population is always problematic. And how orchestras hire and fire in the UK is rather different than in the US; protections against discrimination in hiring in US orchestras are probably the most robust of those in any American workplace.

Having said that, there was an interesting figure in the report; a large majority of those who said they’d been harassed were freelancers and not members of full-time orchestras. The few reports I’ve heard from American orchestras (and I’m in a better position that most to hear those reports) have almost invariably involved freelance musicians who have been hired to sub with full-time orchestras.

#20 Comment By Youknowho On December 8, 2017 @ 12:39 pm

@JonF

So homosexuals should keep away from young men and boys.

Problem solved.

And heterosexuals can continue sexually harassing women as much as they like?

#21 Comment By JonF On December 8, 2017 @ 4:17 pm

Re: People are quite willing to believe whatever a man says about being sexually abused by another man, but women are not granted the same deference.

Actually, people often discount such stories when the claim is preposterous or sounds like the ramblings of a bigot. This is especially true of claims of gay sexual harassment. Just today a Republican congressman fretted at great length over another touching him “inappropriately” and it’s being laughed to scorn on the Intrnet.

#22 Comment By Mel Profit On December 9, 2017 @ 10:13 am

Gay perversion in the opera world? Unimaginable.

#23 Comment By Mel Profit On December 9, 2017 @ 10:22 am

When men claim sexual impropriety, the usual response is hooting cries of “lucky bastard!” and “what’s not to like!?”
Nothing is taken less seriously, since men are presumed to welcome any sexual interface, be it with beast, object or (more or less) fellow human.