“My list of Desdemonas is even longer,” James Levine says brightly. We’re playing a kind of opera-history parlor game, and the 62-year-old conductor has just gotten through the illustrious roster of singers he’s led as Kundry in Parsifal. Now he’s on to the heroine of Verdi’s Otello. “Let’s see, there’s Renata Tebaldi, Renata Scotto, Mirella Freni, Kiri Te Kanawa, Renée Fleming, Teresa Stratas, Pilar Lorengar, Teresa Zylis-Gara, Katia Ricciarelli, Margaret Price, Gilda Cruz-Romo . . . It just amazes me. Is there anyone else on the planet with the good fortune to work with that many generations of great singers?”
Actually, no. To an opera fan, these names form an almost comically starry pantheon of some of the most important sopranos of the past half-century. Levine has worked with all of them—and that’s just in one role. To the general public, of course, many of these names will signify little. But even as doomsayers continue to sound the death knell of classical music, the man best known as the longtime artistic director of the Metropolitan Opera bats away such fears. “I just don’t get it,” says Levine.
Sure, the Met isn’t selling as many tickets as it would like, and it’s facing projected deficits, and the Bass family just came to its dramatic rescue. But during Levine’s 35 years with the company, the Met orchestra has become one of the world’s best, its expertise extended beyond Puccini and Verdi standards into the more provocative terrain of Berg, Schoenberg, and Weill.
And as of September 2004, the conductor has been doing double duty, continuing as the Met’s music director at the same time as he’s started a new—and much-coveted—job leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The response has been overwhelming. Reviewing a recent BSO concert, the New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini wrote, “Perhaps sometime soon, music-lovers and critics will tire of remarking on the thrilling revitalization James Levine has sparked . . . But not yet. It’s still too momentous a story.”
In other words, even taking into account his rich career, with its long trail of megasopranos, James Levine may just now be at his absolute peak. So why won’t people in the classical-music world stop whispering, or worrying, about him?
For one, there is the matter of Levine’s health, first raised publicly a year and a half ago in another Times story, scattered with anonymous comments from orchestra members concerned by tremors on Levine’s left side. Then there is Peter Gelb, the commercially inclined former chieftain of Sony Classical now working with the Met’s general manager, Joseph Volpe, until Volpe’s retirement this August, at which point Gelb will seize the managerial reins himself. Just how simpatico will he and Levine turn out to be, many wonder. And then there is the fear that Levine’s commitments in Boston may distract him from his work here, even lure him away—to which Levine responds with a mild exasperation that seems to sum up his feelings on all these topics, “I haven’t the faintest idea what they’re talking about.”
As conductors go, Levine is something of an iconoclast. He’s got the requisite wild hair, but it doesn’t move in violent sway with his baton. Up on the podium, he’s a minimalist, shunning all histrionics. He’s often compared to his great American precursor Leonard Bernstein, but whereas Bernstein was flamboyant, galvanizing his players by means of personal magnetism (in addition to musical intelligence), Levine is known for quietly establishing an extraordinary rapport with his musicians. And unlike old-timers of the Toscanini variety, he’s no bully.
He will obsessively puzzle out a composer’s most likely intentions for a piece. But as soprano Deborah Voigt told me, “He doesn’t care about a mistake”—or at least knows to gently correct for them. Almost fifteen years ago, Voigt, then only recently engaged by the Met, was in rehearsals for Strauss’s Elektra when she got a worrisome call from her manager. “ ‘Maestro Levine is concerned about the way your middle voice is developing,’ he said. ‘He sees you as a Wagnerian, Straussian soprano, and you’re going to need a bulkier, meatier, better way of using your middle voice.’ This was in the middle of final rehearsals, and I, of course, had a good cry. And then I went to my voice teacher and we worked over a couple of days, and I went to the next musical rehearsal.
“About two hours after that rehearsal, I’m at home and the phone rings. ‘Hey, baby, it’s Jimmy.’ ‘Maestro . . . ?’ He said, ‘I’m just calling to tell you that it was much better, and you’re right on—that was exactly what I was talking about.’ And I thought, you know, Thank you for saying something and for knowing that I was not going to have a meltdown. I don’t think people realize how generous Jimmy’s spirit really is.”