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. 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.
[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.