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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Editorial: In Times Like These

Some thoughts on the James Levine scandal.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
James Levine (center right) at his return to the Met pit conducting Cosí fan tutte.
Photo by Naomi Vaughan © 2016 The Metropolitan Opera.
There are times when this profession, that of a full-time commentator on classical music and opera, can be the greatest in the world. I go to a lot of concerts. Occasionally I get to fly around the world. I bathe (daily in pools of aestheticism, picking over the work of great artists in an attempt to keep the fires of inspiration burning and feed the cycle of the news.

And then there are times when those fires goes out, doused by the cold waters of harsh reality.

Such a time is this. A sex scandal has rocked the Metropolitan Opera. Yesterday afternoon, conductor James Levine, the company's music director emeritus and long-term artistic guiding light, was suspended. He is accused of inappropriate sexual contact with minors. The three men who came forward in yesterday's article in The New York Times, had harrowing stories to tell. They all center around Mr. Levine, the conductor who in the 1970s, put the weight of the Met on his back and brought America’s biggest opera house to a higher artistic standard.

Now is the time of panic. The Met will engage in a serious in-house investigation of Mr. Levine. The ugly whispers are now a shout. Ticket sales are already bad, and the company's unfortunate situation, caught between the tail end of the Levine era and the coming dawn under incoming music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin would be a challenging period even if the Levine scandal had remained under wraps.

As a journalist working in this business for two decades, occasionally within the depths of the Met itself, I had heard the rumors. Friends who attended conservatories (I did not) told stories over drinks. On the job, interviewing singers, conductors and composers, there were things you didn't talk about. There were questions you simply never asked. Trains of thought that would suddenly (for lack of a better phrase) go out of service. Sure, it was gossip. Cattiness. Jealousy of a conductor’s success and his miraculous talent, perhaps. However, the ugly rumors never quite went away.

In the last decade, I read Molto Agitato by former Met publicist Johanna Fiedler. Ms. Fiedler’s book included an earlier story of allegations against Mr. Levine, pulling no punches as she described an incident that rocked the opera company more than thirty years ago. And still the musical gravy train rolled on. I "sucked it up", held my nose at these tawdry secrets and went back to work, covering performance after performance. As a member of the press I was perhaps complicit in our knowledge but without proof beyond rumors, it was impossible to go to press.

In 2011, Mr. Levine faced a health crisis that forced him to vacate his position with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Whispers and speculation resumed. They were shushed by the spectacle of the conductor’s 2013 comeback, now using a high-tech wheelchair and a specially built, motorized podium that held him in place. The Carnegie Hall concert was the start of that comeback and that triumph was in itself the story. Whispers and scandals had been again quelled.

They are whispers no more. The story is out in the open and so is my own culpability. I can only promise to you, the reader that this blog will continue to offer coverage to the high journalistic standard to which I was trained and keep publishing our brand of “critical thinking in the cheap seats.” Superconductor wishes  all success to the Metropolitan Opera in the long hard task of putting its house in order and determining the truth in this discouraging story.

We now return to normal service. 

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.