Classical music conductors have not often graced the cover of Time magazine. But in 1983, James Levine, whom the magazine dubbed “America’s Top Maestro,” sporting his signature bushy hair, clunky glasses and black tuxedo, made the grade. It underscored the fact that Levine, conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, had transcended that rarefied world, much like Leonard Bernstein before him.
Levine, 74, served as the music director of the Metropolitan Opera for 40 years, until he stepped down in 2016 because of health problems, and became its music director emeritus and artistic director of its young artists program. During his long run, he conducted more than 2,500 performances. From 2004 to 2011, he simultaneously led the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He was not only one of the classical music world’s most acclaimed figures, but also one of its best compensated. By 2006, he was earning $3.5 million in a single season, the most of any American conductor.
His fall from the heights of American culture began several months ago as allegations of a history of sexually abusing male musicians surfaced in the New York Post and the New York Times, the newspaper whose reporting ended the career of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.
It was completed Monday when Metropolitan Opera fired Levine after a “thorough investigation conducted by outside counsel” found “credible evidence” that he “engaged in sexually abusive and harassing conduct both before and during the period when he worked at the Met,” according to a news release from the Met.
The investigation included interviews with 70 people. Many of those he abused, the statement said, were “vulnerable artists in the early stages of their careers, over whom Mr. Levine had authority.”
The inquiry found no evidence to support “any claims or rumors that members of the Met’s management or its Board of Directors engaged in a coverup of information relating to these issues.”
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who was named Levine’s successor in 2016, will begin leading the country’s most distinguished opera next season.
A spokesman for Levine did not respond to inquiries from The Washington Post. He gave a “no comment” to the Times.
The Met first suspended Levine pending an investigation in early December after the New York Post and the Times published reports in which three male musicians accused the conductor of sexually abusing them as teenagers. The allegations dated to 1968.
The Met appointed former U.S. attorney Robert J. Cleary, who is now a partner at the Proskauer Rose law firm, to lead the investigation, according to the Associated Press. Cleary’s report was not released.
But two men — bassist Chris Brown and cellist James Lestock — told the Times that when they were 17-year-old students at the Meadow Brook School of Music in Michigan during the summer of 1968, a then 25-year-old Levine, a faculty member, masturbated both of them, then “coaxed them to reciprocate.”
Violinist and pianist Ashok Pai said that Levine sexually abused him for years, beginning in 1986, when Pai was 16 years old. Levine was then the music director at the Ravinia Festival in Illinois, close to Pai’s home.
Levine would invite Pai to a darkened hotel room, instruct him to take off his clothes and proceed to touch Pai’s penis, before masturbating himself, according to a report Pai made in 2016 to the Lake Forest Police department in Illinois, as reported by the Times.
“This pattern repeated itself hundreds of times,” Pai said in the report, according to the Times. He said he waited so long to file a complaint because he “only recently realized” that this was affecting his life “in a negative manner.”
The Lake Forest Police Department concluded that there were no grounds for a criminal case against Levine, because the age of consent was 16 in Illinois at the time, The Post reported.
When the story with these allegations broke, Levine vehemently denied any wrongdoing.
“As understandably troubling as the accusations noted in recent press accounts are, they are unfounded,” he said in a statement. “As anyone who truly knows me will attest, I have not lived my life as an oppressor or an aggressor.”
After Levine’s suspension, however, more accusations came to light.
Violinist Albin Ifsich, who also attended the Meadow Brook School of Music in 1968 when he was 20, told the New York Times that Levine came to his dorm room one night, exposed himself and engaged in masturbation.
The Boston Globe reported even more accusations in an exposé published less than two weeks ago that painted Levine as a controlling megalomaniac who “developed a provocative cultlike following among a small group of students” at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where the conductor taught in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This group became known as the “Levinites.”
Nearly two dozen of Levine’s former students were interviewed by the Globe, including Ifsich and Lestock. They claimed Levine encouraged them to cut off relationships with people outside the school. He also “discouraged them from reading newspapers, watching television, or going to the movies with outsiders.”
He would test his students in various ways, from quizzing them about music to blindfolding the male students and telling them not to get erections as female students came on to them, the newspaper reported. He also allegedly led them in group masturbation.
“We’d have a mutual masturbation session where we’d have to blindfold ourselves and pair off in twos,” Ifsich told the Globe. “The test for us would be: Can you tell if it’s a girl or a guy?”
He would also allegedly ask controlling questions of his students. Ifsich gave the Globe an example of a question Levine asked: If he had to save one person, would it be his mother or the conductor?
“If you pick your mother,” Levine said, according to Ifsich, “you will walk out this door and never see me again. If you pick me, you will close the door, step into this house, and be with me forever.”
Although this recent spate of news coverage led to Levine’s demise, talk of his alleged history of sexual abuse has been around since the late 1970s, according to a 2001 book by the Met’s former chief press liaison Johanna Fiedler, “Molto Agitato: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera.”
But, she wrote, “each time, the Met press office would tirelessly point out the cyclical nature of the gossip and the complete lack of substance.”
“Everybody in the classical music business at least since the 1980s has talked about Levine as a sex abuser,” Greg Sandow, a faculty member at the Juilliard School, told the Associated Press in December. “The investigation should have been done decades ago.”
A few times over the years, allegations did bubble to the surface. In 1987, for example, rumors that he was going to resign because of unspecified aspects of his private life surfaced in the New York Times. But he would deny them.
”I don’t have any idea why people start these rumors, but they’re a 100 percent fabrication,” Levine said at the time. ”Maybe it’s just jealousy.”
Levine’s fall follows that of several other classical music stars. The most prominent was Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit, who recently stepped down as the principal conductor and artistic director at London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra after multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, which ranged from groping to rape. He denied the allegations.
The prevalence of sexual abuse in the world of classical music, as in so many other industries, is not news to those in the business.
Blair Tindall, a classical musician and journalist who wrote “Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music,” has long spoken about sexual harassment in the classical music industry, which she told Deutsche Welle in December “has become so widespread that it has become ingrained.”
She blamed a culture that views certain male industry leaders as “geniuses.”
“A lot of the reason that this has happened with these men in power in classical music — and I am sure we will come upon a least one case of a woman in power somewhere — but much of the problem is that so many of these people are regarded are ‘geniuses,’ ” Tindall told DW, and somehow “above” questions of moral behavior.
“I cringe when I hear the term ‘genius’ applied to a musician,” she said.
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