James Levine’s Final Act at the Met Ends in Disgrace

James Levine’s Final Act at the Met Ends in Disgrace

Even before the accusations, the Met had been moving toward a post-Levine era. After years of ill health, he stepped down as music director two seasons ago. The company announced last month that Mr. Levine’s successor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, would take on his new role next season, two years ahead of schedule.

But his termination has dealt the Met a serious blow at a moment of vulnerability. The company, the largest performing arts organization in the nation, costs close to $300 million a year to run, making it highly reliant on the generosity of donors — a dependence that has only grown as it has faced a box-office slump. Now the Met finds itself forced to court both philanthropists and audiences as it faces difficult questions about what it knew, or should have known, about its star conductor.


Bows after Saint-Saëns’s “Samson et Dalila” in 1998, with, from left, Mr. Levine, Plácido Domingo and Olga Borodina.

Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

The Met suspended Mr. Levine and opened its investigation in December after The Times reported on-the-record accusations of four men who said that Mr. Levine had sexually abused them decades ago, when they were teenagers or his students. Mr. Levine called the accusations “unfounded,” saying in a statement that “I have not lived my life as an oppressor or an aggressor.”

But some questions arose early on about how the company had handled the case, including the fact that it began its investigation more than a year after Peter Gelb, its general manager, was first told that the police in Illinois were investigating an accusation that Mr. Levine had sexually abused a teenage boy there in the 1980s.

The Met said that its investigation, which was led by Robert J. Cleary, a partner at the Proskauer Rose law firm who was previously a United States attorney in New Jersey and Illinois, had determined that “any claims or rumors 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.”

The accusations against Mr. Levine reported in The Times went back decades, and shared marked similarities.


James Levine, right, in 1997, with Schuyler Chapin, a former Met general manager who was New York’s cultural affairs commissioner under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Bill Cunningham/The New York Times

Chris Brown said that Mr. Levine had abused him in the summer of 1968, when he was a 17-year-old student at the Meadow Brook School of Music in Michigan and Mr. Levine led the school’s orchestral institute. Mr. Brown, who went on to play principal bass in the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, said that one night in the dorms, Mr. Levine had masturbated him and asked him to reciprocate — and then punished Mr. Brown when he declined to do so again, ignoring him for the rest of the summer, even when he was conducting him.

James Lestock, a cellist, said that he, too, was abused that summer when he was a student, and said that the abuse continued in Cleveland, where a tight-knit clique of musicians followed Mr. Levine, who was then an assistant conductor at the Cleveland Orchestra on the cusp of a major career. He said that at one point Mr. Levine had the group don blindfolds and masturbate partners they could not see. (Another participant confirmed this in an interview.)

Albin Ifsich, who went on to have a long career as a violinist in the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, said that he had been abused by Mr. Levine for several years, beginning at Meadow Brook and continuing after he joined the group of young musicians who followed Mr. Levine to Cleveland and later New York.

Ashok Pai said he had been abused by Mr. Levine for years, beginning in 1986 near the Ravinia Festival in Illinois, when he was 16. Mr. Pai grew up near the festival, where Mr. Levine was music director, and wanted to become a conductor. Three decades later — after, Mr. Pai said, therapy had helped him realize how destructive those encounters had been — he detailed his accusations in the fall of 2016 to the Lake Forest Police Department in Illinois. Law enforcement officials said last year that they would not bring criminal charges against Mr. Levine, noting that while the state’s age of consent is now 17 — and 18 in some cases — it was still 16 in 1986.


In 1995, Mr. Levine, left, and Joseph Volpe, center, general manager of the Met, waking the baritone Thomas Hampson, who was discovered catching a nap in the opera house.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Mr. Levine’s focus on and influence over the Met was rare in an era of jet-setting maestros: He conducted more than 2,500 performances with the company, far more than any other conductor. Since suffering a spinal injury in 2011 that caused him to miss two seasons, Mr. Levine has conducted from a wheelchair. It was only with great reluctance — and after a battle erupted behind the scenes when performers complained that it had grown difficult to follow his conducting — that Mr. Levine stepped down as music director in the spring of 2016. That year he acknowledged that he had Parkinson’s disease, which he had previously denied, and said that his difficulties on the podium were related to his medication.

Rumors about Mr. Levine and sexual abuse swirled throughout his career. Johanna Fiedler, a former press representative for the Met, wrote in her 2001 book “Molto Agitato: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera,” that such stories had circulated since at least 1979.

“Each time, the Met press office would tirelessly point out the cyclical nature of the gossip and the complete lack of substance,” she wrote.

In 1987, The Times reported that there were “conflicting rumors about his private life and an imminent resignation” without getting specific. Mr. Levine dismissed the stories in an interview with The Times, saying that he had been told years earlier that there were “reports of a morals charge in Pittsburgh or Hawaii or Dallas.”

“Both my friends and my enemies checked it out, and to this day, I don’t have the faintest idea where those rumors came from or what purpose they served,” he said at the time.

Mr. Gelb said in earlier interviews with The Times that Met records showed two instances when complaints about Mr. Levine’s behavior had reached top company officials. In 1979, he said, Anthony A. Bliss, who was then the Met’s executive director, got a letter from a board member asking about an anonymous letter containing accusations about Mr. Levine. Neither the board member’s letter nor the anonymous one could be obtained, making the exact nature of the accusations unclear. But a copy of Mr. Bliss’s response obtained by The Times shows that he dismissed them.

The second time, Mr. Gelb said, was the 2016 call he got from the Lake Forest Police, who were investigating Mr. Pai’s account. Mr. Gelb said that after the call, he briefed the leadership of the Met’s board and spoke with Mr. Levine, who denied the accusations. Mr. Gelb said that the company took no further action, waiting to see what the police found. It was a year later, in December, as the company learned from media inquiries that more accusers were coming forward, that the Met suspended Mr. Levine and opened its investigation.

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