James Levine, one of the most renowned conductors of the modern era, whose career at the helm of the Metropolitan Opera crashed amid sexual abuse allegations in 2018, has died at age 77.
He was reported Wednesday to have died at home in Palm Springs on March 9. No cause of death was given, nor was there any explanation for why the passing of such a world-renowned figure was not revealed for eight days.
Levine was one of the few conductors since Leonard Bernstein and Leopold Stokowski to become a household name — borne out when Disney updated its classic “Fantasia” film as “Fantasia 2000” and it was Levine brought in to fill the on-and off-screen conducting role occupied by Stokowski in the original movie.
In 1983, he made the cover of Time magazine, venerated with a headline that declared him “America’s Top Maestro.” He was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2002.
Although his 21st century career included leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra as well, Levine had his greatest renown conducting the Metropolitan Opera from 1971 through 2017. That’s where his career ended when scandal erupted in 2017.; the Met fired him in 2018, following an internal investigation that “uncovered credible evidence that Mr. Levine engaged in sexually abusive and harassing conduct toward vulnerable artists in the early stages of their careers.”
The New York Times reported last year that Levine had received $3.5 million to leave in a confidential settlement following a lawsuit and countersuit. Levine had sued the Met for breach of contract and defamation for $5.8 million after he was fired in March 2018, and the opera company countersued.
In the countersuit, the Met said its own investigation had showed that the abuse continued from the ’70s through 1999 and that Levine had “used his reputation and position of power to prey upon and abuse artists.”
Despite the scandal and rift, the Met released a statement commemorating his death Wednesday. “No artist in the 137-year history of the Met had as profound an impact as James Levine,” Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said. “He raised the Met’s musical standards to new and greater heights during a tenure that spanned five decades.”
Levine had suffered from poor health for years, sometimes vigorously conducting from a wheelchair after undergoing spinal surgery. He had denied suffering from Parkinson’s disease. In April 2016, the Met announced that he would step aside as music director and take on the role of music director emeritus, but he continued to conduct there until Dec. 2, 2017, when his final performance, of Verdi’s Requiem Mass, roughly coincided with the public revelation of charges being made against him.
Helping lend Levine fame outside of traditional concert halls, aside from his frequent appearances on public television outlets, was his conducting of “The Three Tenors” — Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and José Carreras — for a hit live CD and DVD that led to a national tour.
Levine started with the Met in 1971 and became known for premiering new works as well as conducting the classics, equally adept in the realms of classical music and opera. In the 2000s, he became music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for eight years as well.
He was born in 1943 to dance-band conductor Lawrence Levine and an actress mother, Helen, who had acted on Broadway. He was prodigy enough that at age 10 he made his first appearance as a piano solist with the Cincinnati Symphony. He went on to work under the legendary George Szell at the Cleveland Orchestra.
Levine also had a stint as conductor of the Munich Philharmonic in the late ’90s and early 2000s and worked with the Chicago Symphony and Vienna Philharmonic, among many other orchestras.
In December 2017, the Met Opera suspended him after three men alleged in New York Times articles that they had been sexually abused by Levine at points dating back to 1968. One of the men had made similar allegations in a police report the year before. Two of the men said that they had been 17 when the sexual encounters occurred and another said he had been 16. The Times reported at the time that “speculation surrounding Mr. Levine’s private life has swirled in classical music circles for decades as he rose to a position of unprecedented prominence at the Met.” Soon after, the Times reported that a fourth man had come forward with a similar story, though he had been a student of 20 when the alleged abuse began.