Copyright (c) 1996 The New York Times Co.
Received via NewsEDGE from Desktop Data, Inc.: 04-21-96 01:32:58
He Can't Let Go Of Mozart. Or The Met
By NANCY MALITZ
c. 1996 N.Y. Times News Service
On a recent weekend at the Metropolitan Opera, a string of ``Cosi
Fan Tutte'' performances ended, and the Mozart cast prepared to
head in all directions: Carol Vaness to Houston to sing Norma,
Dwayne Croft to Paris to sing Eugene Onegin, Cecilia Bartoli to
Singapore to give recitals.
James Levine, the Met's artistic director, was to plunge
immediately into final rehearsals of ``Andrea Chenier'' with
Luciano Pavarotti, and prepare a televised gala to take place on
Saturday evening commemorating the 25th anniversary of Levine's
So many of the world's greatest singers are appearing in the event
that competing theaters might just as well go dark.
But for the moment, a pensive Levine sat in the high-backed leather
chair in his tiny office, reflecting on the difficulties of
letting go of the Mozart. He is 52, and although his seamless face
is still rimmed by boyish curls, his attitude toward time is no
longer that of a young man.
``You could feel it in the cast last night, that thing we all go
through when we've been in something really good that is coming to
an end,'' he said.
The Mozart opera is a chastening masterpiece on the flaws of human
love, and the singers had achieved exceptional vocal and spiritual
resonance in their ensemble interaction. The audience had been
unusually quiet in a way that signified rapt attention.
``You just love it more and more,'' Levine said. ``You don't
believe how much.'' His smile brought to mind the word Otto
Schenk, the producer of the Met's latest ``Ring'' cycle, coined to
describe him, ``joyness.''
Would that everyone could express such satisfaction at such a
pivotal juncture. To students of power, the last few years might
have seemed a dip on the roller coaster for Levine. He had grabbed
ultimate authority at the Met in the mid-80s only to retreat to a
more collaborative role with the ascendance of Joseph Volpe as
general manager in the 90s.
But to hear Levine tell it, the new structure has made it possible
for him to return to the essential, creative role that has
captivated him since he was 7 or 8, when he conducted stacks of
78-rpm records with his grandmother's knitting needle while his
brother and sister enacted the singing parts.
He is a conductor and collaborator enamored of the whole operatic
experience, he said, ``music and drama and text and instruments
and voice and theater.'' He took on front-office roles, he
explained, only because he sensed a void.
Volpe concurs. ``With previous general managers, the whole
responsibility of how to accomplish something Jimmy wanted to do
was left with Jimmy,'' he said. ``Well, he simply can't do it. He
doesn't have time to go to the bathroom.''
Levine's current contract at the Met expires in 2001, when he will
be 58. Whether mindful of that date or simply of passing time, he
has renewed his relationships with important orchestras from his
past, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Symphony
and the Philharmonia of London. He still works extensively with
the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic, and his
``Ring'' cycles continue at Bayreuth.
``I could picture myself, someday, with a symphony orchestra or
festival, but when I say that, I am talking entirely in the
abstract,'' Levine said. ``I would have to come to a point where I
didn't feel this was right for me anymore, and that has not
Popular wisdom holds that the artistic director of an opera house
is a dictator of godlike remove, whose power spawns the paranoia
and insecurity that typify an entourage at a royal court.
Herbert von Karajan, who ran the Salzburg Festival with an iron
fist, fit that model, but Levine does not.
``Jim wants to make wonderful music,'' Joseph Volpe said recently,
``and Karajan wanted to do that, too, but in addition he wanted to
run the world.'' It is Volpe, the more combative one, who enjoys
making the power moves. Lately, he has argued for 30 Met
productions a season instead of the current 27; 7 new productions
instead of the usual 4 or 5, and a newly commissioned work every
two or three years. No other opera company maintains such a
``Jim agrees that we can do it,'' Volpe said. ``We'll be up to six
new productions in the next few years. You have to push, or nobody
The roles of this artistic director and general manager appear
truly complementary. ``I cannot express how much it means to me at
this time in my life that I don't have to spill over into
quasi-administrative things,'' Levine said. ``And Joe's oversight
is completely interactive where I am concerned. For two guys whose
external styles are as different as our own, we are in profound
agreement most of the time.''
But their divergent temperaments were apparent in they way they
discussed Giancarlo del Monaco's staging of Verdi's ``Forza del
Destino,'' which arrived in February, huge, leaden and
One could only infer that Levine was not pleased when, in a
discussion about directors who have inspired him, he carefully
placed del Monaco in the context of an earlier success with
Volpe was more direct. ``It was a disaster,'' he said. ``Something
more abstract, like the way John Dexter did `I Vespri Siciliani,'
was in retrospect the way to do it. And an opera like this doesn't
need a big production. It needs a great cast, and don't ask me if
we have one, because I'll take the Fifth.''
In 1993, on his promotion from general director to general manager,
Volpe moved swiftly to consolidate power at the top, establishing
a leadership quartet to set the Met's course.
Retaining Jonathan Friend, the Met's longtime artistic
administrator and a close friend of Levine's, Volpe added Sarah
Billinghurst, a seasoned artistic administrator from the San
Levine had raised the standards of the Met orchestra to the point
that it was taken seriously in the symphonic realm. And it had
long been axiomatic that if he was conducting, the performance
would reflect a high standard of preparedness and singer rapport.
Still, there were complaints about the Met under Levine's
leadership, which generally fell into two categories: that he had
done a bad job of securing great singers and conductors, and that
his production values were spotty. While some saw him involved in
a Machiavellian plot for dominance, others said he was simply
spreading himself too thin.
As well, there were negative rumors that erupted and subsided every
few years to the effect that Levine was about to be dismissed on
morals charges, a problem that, over time, the company has learned
In any case, Volpe's move to strengthen the artistic management
indicates, at the least, a desire to charge more people with the
responsibility for keeping the Met competitive, and Levine has
With the new structure, Levine said, ``we've got another fully
equipped artistic personality in the room, and you can increase
the speed at which you get at things.'' Volpe, for one, is at work
on an off-site project in a small theater, the sort of thing
Levine has long envisioned in a ``mini-Met'' but never brought to
The plan, Volpe said, is to present something, perhaps Monteverdi's
``Coronation of Poppea'' using period instruments, in a small
theater like the Lyceum on Broadway at a time when the rest of the
company is on vacation. ``I have had serious discussions with
Cecilia Bartoli about kicking this off,'' Volpe said.
Other firm plans or dearly held goals of the Met's top four include
a new ``Ring'' cycle shortly after the millennium; two
co-productions, one originating at the Met and the other at La
Scala, with Levine taking the first to Milan and Riccardo Muti
bringing the second to New York; productions of marginal repertory
like ``Norma'' shared with such organizations as the Lyric Opera of
Chicago and the Salzburg Festival, and presentations of recitals
and other events in the off-season, which would formalize a
tradition that Levine has begun.
And, of course, more commissions. ``There is now a whole public out
there that will leap to buy a ticket to something that's new,''
Levine said. The once-controversial Met Titles, which were finally
introduced last October, it turns out, have given the Met
leadership the courage to venture riskier repertory, having
removed what Volpe calls ``the fear factor.''
Although Levine opposed the projecting of English captions onto the
proscenium, he has enthusiastically endorsed the Met Titles, in
which unobtrusive individual screens are activated at the viewer's
``It was worth every bit of digging our heels in to get what we
wanted,'' he said. ``I can tell from the reactions that people are
using them. And it makes performers feel safer about adopting a
legitimate acting style rather than exaggerating or just giving
up. The rapport with the audience in `Cosi' was just amazing.''
Levine's protective attitude toward ``Cosi Fan Tutte'' springs from
a lifelong love of the work. It was one of the first scores he
owned, as a child growing up in Cincinnati. The first opera he saw
was ``Carmen,'' at the city's Zoo Opera, where the conductor
Fausto Cleva and many Met singers spent summers in the 1950s. Then
he discovered the rehearsals. ``I camped there every day all
summer long,'' he said, ``from the age of 8 until I went away to
the Marlboro Music Festival at 13.''
A piano prodigy, he performed with the Cincinnati Symphony at 10
and was awarded a trip to New York. At F.A.O. Schwarz, he
discovered the cardboard stage that became a fixture of his
``He was always on the lookout for more sets,'' said his mother,
Helen Levine, a former actress. ``We once walked past a drugstore
display for some nail polish with an Oriental name. A paper bridge
stopped Jimmy in his tracks. ` ``Madame Butterfy,'' first act,' he
said, and he pestered me until I talked the owner into giving it
At an advisory audition at the Juilliard School, the boy was
encouraged to get broad musical instruction. Walter Levin, the
first violinist of the LaSalle Quartet, who was moving to
Cincinnati, was recommended, but Levin insisted that there wasn't
an 11-year-old in the world he would be willing to teach.
Levin relented. He and his wife, Evi, a linguist and pianist,
lavished care on the young man through his adolescent and
high-school years, drilling him in orchestration, analysis and
This thorough nurturing was continued by others, including Rosina
Lhevinne, who taught him piano through high school and college,
and George Szell, who hired him as assistant conductor of the
Cleveland Orchestra. Levine was more than ready when, at 28, he
was offered two performances of ``Tosca'' during the Met's summer
season of 1971 by Rudolf Bing.
``You can't get anywhere without working very hard to overcome
deficiencies,'' Levine said, ``but you need some good, healthy
breaks, and I always had them. The right teachers, the right
chances, an overwhelming number of wonderful artists to work with
on every level.''
Nurturing others, in turn, is one of his strengths. ``He gives you
support, and then you fly,'' said Vladimir Chernov, 35, the
baritone who joined Levine in the ``Forza del Destino'' production
and a forthcoming Deutsche Grammophon recording of ``Rigoletto.''
Levine lent critical early support to Kathleen Battle, Jessye
Norman, Maria Ewing, Carol Vaness, Dawn Upshaw and Bryn Terfel. He
continues to work with members of the Met's Young Artist
If there is a persistent complaint about the Met that lingers, it
is about the lack of a visionary theatrical personality like John
Dexter, the provocative producer whose posthumously published
memoirs about troubles at the Met during the late 1970s and early
80s have raised anew the issue of backstage power plays.
Levine, who took heat from Dexter for not knowing much theater,
pointed out that Dexter, for all his brilliance, did not read
music and was ``one of the most difficult human beings I ever
worked with.'' Even so, Levine said he had told Volpe that
something was still missing at the helm, namely a theatrical
Levine himself, meanwhile, seems a throwback to the Toscanini era,
when long-term affiliations were the norm.
``Of course, the world was different then,'' Levine said, ``but I
was never able to lose my fascination with their results. I always
thought that's the only way you get them, a little bit like a
really good long marriage. Sure, there may be a quirk or weakness
that is stronger in another person, but what's important is the
flow of stimulations, emotionally and intellectually, over a long
period. It may be less typical now, but I believe in those
01:30 EDT APRIL 21, 1996
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"The finest singing, given a good voice to begin with,
comes from the constant play of a fine mind upon
the inner meaning of the music." -- Ernest Newman