Hey, Baby, It’s Jimmy

Photo: Michael Edwards

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.”

Levine is certainly generous with his time when it comes to young musicians. He’s less available to the press—or so goes the conventional wisdom—preferring to lie low within the precisely superintended world of the Met. He insists claims he’s hard to pin down for an interview are false (“I’ve got a stack of magazines to prove it”). But even as he’s being interviewed, he’s wary of being written about. Largely it’s a desire to maintain some control over his personal life, which is much gossiped about but which he keeps defiantly, successfully offstage.

Levine lives with his closest friend, Sue Thompson, a former oboist whom he met in 1967. They share an apartment on the Upper West Side with two Bösendorfer pianos and a vast collection of music books and composers’ letters and, of all things, dinosaur bones (which Levine first got into as a teen). Of Thompson, who attends most of Levine’s performances, he says, “She’s unique in every respect. She played oboe beautifully, but she also gardens, she designs furnishings. It just seems she excels at whatever she approaches.” Levine gushes about Thompson, but he’s also quite protective of her and of himself.

His reticence comes not just from his almost charmingly unmodern conviction that one’s private world should remain just that, but also from a horror of being misquoted. Years ago, Levine submitted to a long interview with the Times that left him spooked. “There,” as he recalls it, “on the first page of the ‘Arts & Leisure’ section, the very first sentence, I was quoted as saying, ‘Everything I do is to achieve the maximum impression.’ But I said ‘expression.’ Two letters, but the meaning was completely different.”

His awareness that writers can get things wrong may explain the care he gives now in explaining the state of his health. He suffers from sciatica, for which he does stretching exercises daily. He also sits on a stool to conduct. A more difficult distraction is what he calls “intermittent tremors” on his left side, which began in 1994 and vary in intensity from day to day. The conductor states flatly that the condition is not Parkinson’s disease, as people had speculated in “that silly Times piece.” He won’t go into too explicit detail about his health, though. “People will get worried, and I’ll get letters.”

But people already worry. “Some days I see that he has the tremors,” says David Chan, a violinist and concertmaster of the Met orchestra, “and I’m concerned for him.” Chan does not, however, “buy into the idea that his health has made him less effective as a conductor. I don’t see that at all.”

In terms of getting through a performance, Levine insists it’s his back trouble, not the tremors, that poses the problem. “You are moving and whacking your body for hours. All those Wagner operas that start at six o’clock and finish at midnight.”

So, he’s begun, in recent years, to temper his rhythm. “The real trick is having five or six days in which I don’t have a rehearsal or a performance. So I can study, I can sleep, I can walk, I can be interested in other people. It is important not to have week after week of the little voice in back of me controlling how you eat or what you do with your muscles in order to have it when you’re supposed to give it to the audience.”

Levine has been giving it to audiences since he was a boy. Born in Cincinnati in 1943, he grew up in an artistically inclined household, his father a clothing manufacturer who’d been a big-band leader, his mother a housewife who’d acted on Broadway. When he was 2 or 3, “his father used to hold him in his arms and sing to him before bed,” says 90-year-old Helen Levine, who can often be seen at her son’s performances. “He would wake up the next morning and pick out the tunes on the piano he had heard the night before. I guess I thought all babies were like that.” Mrs. Levine used to practice with Jimmy on the piano “until he got better than I was, which was when he was 6. We also read plays together. I’d read the women’s parts, and he’d read the men’s. We read Shaw that way.”

At 10, Levine made his professional debut, playing Mendelssohn’s second piano concerto with the Cincinnati Symphony. His mother was “petrified. I suddenly thought, What am I doing to this child? What if he makes a mistake, and I let him do it? Of course, he never did.”

At 18, Levine cruised through Juilliard, after which he apprenticed with the legendary Hungarian conductor George Szell. Having abandoned early dreams of being a pianist, a composer, and, he confesses, a singer, he made his major opera debut conducting Tosca at the San Francisco Opera in 1970.

Today, Levine spends a lot of time with his brother, Tom, a sculptor, particularly on the road, where Tom will act as de facto assistant. Levine’s sister, Janet, a marriage counselor, also comes to many performances. Last summer, I saw Tom and Helen at Tanglewood, and in the conductor’s rustic dressing room, I mentioned to Levine that he seems to have a particularly close family. How important is that in terms of allowing him to do what he does, I asked. “The truth? I’m very lucky that it is like that. But if it weren’t, I’d be sorry, but … ” He trailed off and shrugged. “What could I do?” In Levine’s mind, one imagines, true feeling comes from Wagner, from Mozart; to idealize one’s family life would be mawkish.

Even now, when Levine’s performances are perhaps more acclaimed than ever, not everyone raves about the maestro. To some critics, his single-minded devotion to a composer’s conception is a liability. New York’s own classical-music critic, Peter G. Davis, though he believes Levine’s “raw musical gift is extraordinary,” nevertheless finds that in his performances, “there doesn’t seem to be any there there. I don’t get a point of view. Karajan and Bernstein—you could talk for hours about their interpretations. You don’t have that with Levine.”

“People will say, ‘Oh, Jimmy—he’s so fanatic.’ But there are so many contemporary productions that just destroy the piece, for nothing.”

Levine, for his part, doesn’t worry about such criticism, content to focus wholly on making music, on finding new revelations in his favorite works. Five minutes into our first interview in his memento-bedecked Met office—with its series of photo-collages on the wall of Levine’s close friend Tatiana Troyanos, the mezzo-soprano who died in 1993—the conductor suddenly asks his assistant to bring him the vocal score of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito.

Mozart is a particular Levine specialty, and I’m hoping to get a Levine-Mozart comparison out of him—the two child prodigies. But he wants to talk about a fermata.

In musical notation, a fermata is a pause of unspecified length that can be placed over an individual note or rest to break time, to give added weight to a particular moment in the score. A fermata can pose knotty interpretive questions, and Levine wouldn’t want to go against what Mozart willed. We spread out the score, and he takes me through a passage to which he’s devoted considerable thought ever since he first performed the opera as a young man in Salzburg with Troyanos in the pants role of Sesto. The passage lasts about twenty seconds, tops, in an opera more than three hours long.

“Look at this. This is ‘Parto, parto,’ Sesto’s aria in the first act,” he begins. “Now, notice here, a fermata. And there’s another one on the rest. And there’s one on the chord. And there’s one on the rest. And there’s one on the chord. How many are there? What do they mean? Are they all the same length? Are they different? What are they there for anyway? I found that such a thorny interpretation problem when I did the aria with Tatiana. I made them completely arbitrary. Long, short, okay. Enter Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. He was the stage director for this production in Salzburg, and he’d also seen those fermatas. What could Mozart have wanted? Well, he realized what Mozart must have visualized. Sesto pleads and begs and tries to get [his love interest Vitellia] on his wavelength, but she centers on complete scorn, complete silence, complete hauteur.

“So what did Jean-Pierre do? He brought Vitellia downstage, right in front of the prompter box, where she stood, looking completely forbidding. Sesto came up one side: ‘Guardami’ [Look at me]. Nothing from the lady—a pause. He went around the other side. ‘Guardami.’ Nothing from the lady—another pause. He backs up, looks down—a pause. The point is, by putting the crisis on the stage, Ponnelle had a way to use the time, reconverting what the fermatas had been put there for.”

Levine too pauses for a moment. He lets sink in this idea of Mozart as both musician and dramatist, and of the ability of subtle musical details to reflect human feeling. “That gives me chills.”

When Levine likes a work—whether as a conductor or an audience member—he returns to it over and over. “When you do a piece for the first time, you are so far from what you will be able to do with it if you keep doing it. If you like a film, see it again—it’s completely different.” Describing his ever-growing relationship to La Clemenza di Tito, he says, “It was like what happens if you love somebody, and then you discover a characteristic of theirs you didn’t see before that makes it even more marvelous.”

Apart from music, theater is his favorite art form. While in London on vacation once, he had tickets for an entire week of shows. “But the thing I saw the first night was so compelling that I saw only that performance seven times. It was the last thing Noël Coward did onstage, a piece called Suite in Three Keys.” Two years ago, he saw Elaine Stritch’s one-woman show fourteen times.

Levine responds strongly to what he calls great communicators, with their devotion to craft and to revealing the core of a theatrical piece. This goes a long way toward explaining why one thing that really worries him in the classical-music world right now is what he sees as opera’s current tendency toward radical interpretations of standard repertory. Whereas singers and conductors have dominated previous periods in opera history, this is the age of the director, and Levine, by opera standards a comparatively progressive musician with his preference for Schoenberg over Puccini, is nevertheless a dramaturgical traditionalist.

“The crisis of how to enact opera onstage visually has some alarming facets,” he says. “I’m referring to productions the composer and librettist would denounce. I’m speaking of a production that uses a piece instead of presents the piece. People will say, ‘Oh, Jimmy—he’s so fanatic.’ But a lot of people are willfully rearranging what happens onstage in order to make some original point, which has nothing to do with the way the composer and librettist imagined it. I’m not talking about anything as simple-minded as whether the period was changed. I’ve been to performances where the period was changed and it was very good. But there are so many contemporary productions that just destroy the piece, for nothing. In Europe especially, the reaction to a performance is often, ‘Well, wasn’t that interesting … ?’ ” he says dryly. “I’m tempted to say, ‘Okay, the next time I come to your theater, whatever the opera is that we’re doing, I will have the wind players play the string part and the string players play the wind part—and it’ll be very interesting.’ ”

Levine’s traditional leanings set him up, some believe, as a conductor who may have difficulty coming to grips with Peter Gelb, the Met’s incoming general manager. Gelb doesn’t traffic in the avant-garde, per se, but he has already announced that iconoclastic director Peter Sellars and filmmaker Anthony Minghella will helm productions. And many classical-music purists fear he has a penchant for the dread crossover. Norman Lebrecht, a writer with a reputation as something of a classical-music conspiracy theorist, has gone so far as to write that “unless Gelb has undergone a Damascene conversion … his contempt for artistic values and his adulation of mass entertainment point to an historic shift in Met priorities.”

Gelb says, however, that he’s not out to turn the Met into a venue for Il Divo or Josh Groban. “What I did [at Sony Classical] was appropriate for a record label,” he says. “Now I’m running an opera house, and different aesthetic rules apply.”

And if there is a looming controversy over the change in Met leadership, Levine seems unfazed. “When I came to the Met, Rudolf Bing was the general manager,” he says. “I’ve worked with all of them since then. There were things to learn and like and things not to learn and not to like.” Indeed, Levine seems hopeful that Gelb can turn around the ticket slump. “Peter has a lot of experience in this difficult area.” (Last week’s $25 million gift to the Met from Sid and Mercedes Bass is also a welcome development.)

Still, in 2004, Levine downgraded his duties and title at the Met, from artistic director (a post he had held since 1986) to music director, in order to accept the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s music directorship, replacing Seiji Ozawa, who had the job for 29 years. “Honestly, it’s been one of the most marvelous periods of my life,” Levine says of his first Boston season. He’s wasted no time reinvigorating the orchestra, but in order to do so, he’s leading fewer Met performances this season than he has in years. Might he scale back further, escaping the relative turbulence at the Met in favor of an adoring Boston audience? “I signed a contract to do my Met work until 2011,” he says, seeking to put this line of speculation to rest for good. “Maybe there’ll be some time in the future where, for whatever reason, I need a time adjustment or something, but I don’t see that coming. I’ve been here for 35 years—all of it of my own free will!”

The day after a Falstaff dress rehearsal this fall, the production’s major singers have assembled in List Hall, adjacent to the main theater, for a rundown of what needs to be improved before opening night. The space seats about 150, and on the back of each red-velvet seat is a wooden fold-up desk, as in a high-school auditorium. The cast is crammed into the first two rows.

The classical-music world has a reputation for being impossibly highbrow, but its dramatis personae tend to be, with some exceptions, surprisingly down-to-earth. As the cast waits for Maestro Levine to arrive, Bryn Terfel, the great Welsh bass-baritone who’s singing the title role, eats Twizzlers. The excellent American soprano Patricia Racette excuses herself, announcing, “I have to tinkle.” Soprano Heidi Grant Murphy, in an aquamarine shirt and black leggings, looks as if her next stop is to pick up her kids from school. A few minutes later, Levine shuffles in, a rehearsal pianist in tow. He walks gingerly and has to hoist himself onto a stool behind a piano, but his physical limitations are quickly forgotten once he starts in with his notes for the cast.

“Heidi, it’d be good to make her more physically active,” he says of Murphy’s character. “I need to see her vitality. I don’t mean mugging, but you want to make sure she’s energized all the time.” I think of something Levine told me about his approach with singers: “You may hear me say I want something that isn’t exactly what I want—it’s what I use to provoke what I want. I may say to somebody, ‘It just has to be really jolly.’ And that may be an exaggeration, but it isn’t for the singer. To give a singer an effective critique can be very tricky.”

Right now Levine is focusing on the singers’ timing on what he calls Falstaff’s “mercurial, quicksilver articulated movement”—speedy passages that can run a vocalist ragged. He singles out Racette. “Pat, you sound so beautiful and you look so beautiful,” he says. “But in some places your entrances are late.” He wants her to run a phrase and cues the pianist, who launches at once into a bit of filigree keyboard work. “Don’t be hectic with her,” Levine tells the pianist. And to Racette, who’s behind the beat, “Start on time.” They try again. She nails it.

He turns to Stephanie Blythe, a spectacular mezzo-soprano with an enormous voice. Her attack on a particular phrase is too staccato, not focused enough; her entrance needs to be strong but not harsh. Blythe is having some difficulty understanding what he means. “I’m sort of disappointed,” she says, “because I’m really working hard to get it the way you want. Is it coming across too choppy?”

“A touch.”

As tricky as the solo singing can be, Falstaff’s lightning-quick ensemble passages are especially brutal to master. Levine asks the group to sing a problematic sequence. In their street clothes, pressed shoulder-to-shoulder like schoolkids at assembly, the performers, on command and en masse, unleash massive, radiant tones far too large for the space, as if they’re kids with some freakish, otherworldly gift. The effect is comical to a guest like me, but not to Levine. The articulation is just as he’d like; the singers are rhythmically in sync; the vocal lines are precise but relaxed, unforced. But he has one more directive. Breaking from the language he usually uses in such instances, Levine does a riff on Duke Ellington, albeit with grammatical emendations: “Remember, folks—it doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t have that swing.”

Hey, Baby, It’s Jimmy