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Subject: Article in New York Times re Levine
From: EJ Michel <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Sun, 21 Apr 1996 10:27:25 -5
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NYT-04-20-96 2025EDT
  NYTviaNewsEDGE
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
   Met debut.

   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
   happened.''

   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
   demanding schedule.

   ``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
   grows.''

   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
   overproduced.

   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
   Verdi's ``Stiffelio.''

   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
   Francisco Opera.

   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
   to endure.

   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
   expressed approval.

   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
   fruition.

   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
   option.

   ``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
   childhood.

   ``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
   up.''

   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
   other disciplines.

   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
   Development Program.

   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
   voice.

   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
   values.''

   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

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