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James Levine was a powerful maestro, but an even more powerful myth

James Levine in rehearsal with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2004. (Steven Senne/AP)
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If you had asked childhood me to draw you a picture of a conductor, I’d have sketched a silhouette, a shadow in the shape of a man: He’d have his back to you, his arms outstretched as if conjuring some consequential spell and, where his head should be, a stormy scribble of disheveled hair.

That is, you would have ended up with an amateur portrait of James Levine.

For a kid raised in part by PBS (and, subsequently, its broadcasts of “Live From the Metropolitan Opera”), James Levine — whose name I did not know — was the shape and form assigned by my mind for what a conductor looks like. Levine, who died earlier this month at age 77, was the symbol for maestro.

The death of the Met’s longtime artistic director and conductor, reported Wednesday, brings with it the expected trove of retrospective takes on his storied career. It also invites the now-requisite public dilemma over how (or whether) to salvage an artistic legacy from the corrosive effect of a toxic artist: Levine’s career ended in disgrace after multiple reports surfaced in 2017 alleging decades of sexually abusive conduct against students and colleagues.

James Levine, acclaimed Metropolitan Opera conductor who faced abuse allegations, dies at 77

The response then sure seemed quick and decisive — especially in the context of the burgeoning #MeToo movement inspired by multiple abuse allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.

The Met cast him out. The Boston Symphony Orchestra (where he’d served as music director from 2004 to 2011) vowed never to work with him again. Guest engagements vaporized. Radio stations pulled performances with him at the podium from their playlists.

But the seemingly swift action against Levine also belied years of chatter across concert halls and conservatories about his reportedly abusive behavior. A wave of public disgust — at both the conductor and the institutions alleged by many to have shielded him from accountability — relegated “America’s Maestro” to the increasingly crowded margins of American culture.

When the news of his death hit, I don’t know what it was I felt. It was mournful but not quite mourning, shocking but familiar. It was as if I had already grieved over him, though not for him.

The kind of reckoning Levine faced toward the end of his life (however belated) can so easily (and eagerly) be reduced to a function of “cancel culture”: That Levine got #MeToo’d, or busted by the woke mob. That he hailed from a different era and came outfitted with a different set of values. You can all have a fantastic time together in the comments.

But for those who have experienced, endured or survived sexual abuse or harassment — and indeed, for anybody who cares for someone who has — it’s impossible to overstate the damage, the cascading destruction of agency, self-worth and trust that can accompany abuses like those alleged against Levine. Powerful men falling from grace have become part of the daily weather report. But for individual victims, the pain of each offense can be a burden borne for lifetimes.

When I think of Levine as a conductor, my mind goes first to the electrical sense of the word — the music as a raw current of energy that he channeled through his body into his limbs and fingers. Levine as a source of power. Indeed, it was his mastery of the material, his uncanny ability to become the music, that made it so easy to succumb to him — as a listener and (I imagine) as a musician.

Read the accounts of those who came forward to speak about their experiences with him and you’ll see that while he took the shape of a conductor, he assumed the role of a god.

Think of him this way — as many of his “Levinites” did — and it becomes easy to make him a symbol. Easy to imagine that submitting to his demands was a service to the music. Easy to mistake him for the art itself.

There’s a unique twinge of betrayal at the core of whatever Levine’s death has left me holding.

When I go back to revisit a 1981 performance of “La Traviata” at the Met (with his fellow outcast from the upper echelon, Plácido Domingo, playing the role of Alfredo), it’s not as if the music has been tainted, or the narrative haunted by either of them. Even Levine — as powerful as he was — can’t ruin Verdi (nor did he ever). But his presence can puncture the sublime.

It remains to be seen whether death plus time will ever liberate his musical legacy from the darkness of his personal life. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine another American conductor reaching such heights from which to fall.

But in actually losing Levine, I’m realizing that I processed his mortality and its attendant failings years ago. Today it feels more like I’m mourning a myth — a shadow stuck in the shape of a man.

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