Amid Tension, Met and James Levine Mull Last Bow

The music director James Levine returned to the Met in 2013 after experiencing health problems. He is weighing retirement.
KARSTEN MORAN FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

By MICHAEL COOPER

FEBRUARY 13, 2016

The question of when and how to say farewell to a leader is one that bedevils all kinds of institutions, from Viacom, where the aging chairman Sumner M. Redstone recently stepped down under pressure, to the Denver Broncos, who will soon have to decide whether to ease out their quarterback, Peyton Manning, if he does not retire willingly.

Now the Metropolitan Opera is weighing the future of James Levine, 72, its music director of four decades. Mr. Levine is struggling to hold onto a position that has defined his life — and shaped the company — after continuing health problems have made it difficult for many performers to follow his conducting.

The question of Mr. Levine’s status has exposed tensions at the Met, dividing supporters who would like to see him stay on and members of the company and board who believe it is time for him to relinquish his role. They fear that the lack of a strong musical hand could leave the house adrift as opera struggles for relevance and the Met’s finances remain precarious.

Several current and former Met employees and a member of the board said in interviews this week that while Mr. Levine was a beloved figure, they hoped he would soon take on an emeritus position that would keep him involved in the company as part of a graceful exit. Given the sensitive nature of the matter — Mr. Levine desires to stay — most declined to speak publicly.

“Certainly, the performers are hopeful that this transition will go with dignity for Jimmy,” David Frye, the chairman of the Met’s chorus committee, said. “But we see that it’s time for the transition to take place.”

The situation is bringing to a head the complex relationship between two of New York City’s most important cultural figures, Mr. Levine and Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met, who has assumed more artistic control in recent years.

Managing the next steps smoothly will be crucial for the company, which, with its $300 million annual budget and its global reputation, is the largest performing arts institution in the United States. More clues to Mr. Levine’s future could emerge soon, with the Met expected to announce its 2016-17 season shortly.

The Met was on the brink of announcing Mr. Levine’s retirement last month when a doctor told him that his most pressing problems stemmed from the drug he was using to treat his Parkinson’s disease, and that a new regimen could help, Mr. Gelb said. The announcement was postponed.

“Running the Met is always a balancing act,” Mr. Gelb said in an interview. “I’m trying to weigh what is best for Jim and the institution.”

By taking the unusual step of speaking publicly about Mr. Levine’s health issues and his possible retirement, the Met had hoped to signal to the company and operagoers that it was addressing the complicated situation, while trying to accommodate Mr. Levine as much as possible — and to prepare them for the possibility that for the first time since Gerald R. Ford was in the White House, the Met could soon have a new music director.

Delaying a decision on Mr. Levine’s future for too long carries risks and leaves potential successors hanging, including the most talked-about candidate, the charismatic and popular music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Coincidentally, Mr. Levine withdrew on Friday from a guest appearance this week with the Philadelphia Orchestra, which said that “the physical demands of travel, rehearsal and concert performance would be detrimental to his current medical treatment.” Mr. Levine’s next test will come early next month, when he is to begin rehearsals of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” at the Met.

Mr. Levine has long suffered from a series of ailments, including what his doctor described as a “benign,” very slowly progressing form of Parkinson’s, and he missed two Met seasons after injuring his spinal cord in fall 2011. But after two promising seasons back at the Met, he seemed to take a turn for the worse in the autumn. So after Mr. Levine finished a run of Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Die Fledermaus” last month, Mr. Gelb met with him in the general manager’s office and broached the delicate subject of his retirement.

The two men discussed having Mr. Levine step down at the end of the season to take on a new position of music director emeritus, which would allow him to keep leading the young artist program that he began in 1980 and to continue to conduct operas when he was able. The talks progressed to the point that a formal announcement of his transition was being planned, and a news release was even being drafted.

Then, on Jan. 28, days before the announcement was to be made, Mr. Levine and Mr. Gelb visited Dr. Stanley Fahn, the neurologist who is treating Mr. Levine for the Parkinson’s. Dr. Fahn delivered some startling news: He said he believed that Mr. Levine’s recent problems were caused not by the Parkinson’s itself but by the dosage of L-dopa he was taking to treat it. A lower dose, Dr. Fahn said, should ease the worst problems affecting his conducting within weeks. So Mr. Gelb agreed to postpone the planned announcement.

“I’m very mindful of how important it is that the right decision be made for the good of Levine and for the good of the company,” Mr. Gelb said. “And that’s why I stood behind Jim during those two years when he couldn’t conduct, and that’s why I’m trying to help him to find the right path at this critical point in his career.”

The relationship between Mr. Levine and Mr. Gelb has always been the subject of scrutiny and gossip, and now, as they enter into their most difficult negotiation yet, they are proceeding without the guidance or intervention of the powerful figure who influenced both: Ronald A. Wilford, the manager who closely steered Mr. Levine’s career and served as a mentor and employer to Mr. Gelb, died in June at 87.

Mr. Gelb said he would wait and see how Mr. Levine does. And the Met, attuned to the importance of public perception, took the step this month of granting The New York Times an interview at Dr. Fahn’s office to discuss with him, Mr. Gelb and Mr. Levine the conductor’s health and the deliberations over his future. Mr. Levine, who tends to keep his private life very private, indicated that he was conflicted about the idea, noting that “it’s not my nature to tell the general reader my medical problem.” But in the interview, he made it clear that he hoped to continue as music director for as long as he could do the job.

“Sometime in the foreseeable future I have to stop, but I would hope that we could decide it in a way which wasn’t rushed by the fact that I wasn’t giving them what they need,” he said at the doctor’s office. He added that he was optimistic that the new regimen, which Dr. Fahn said seemed to be yielding improvement, would allow him to continue, saying, “I want it to get, again, the way it was, because I think our collaboration isn’t finished.”

Mr. Levine’s years of health problems have left him an uncertain commodity for audiences. His first two seasons back after his spinal injury were largely free of the cancellations that had previously plagued him, and he ended last season conducting a rare doubleheader: a Saturday matinee followed by an evening performance. But his withdrawal this season from the Met’s new production of Berg’s “Lulu,” an opera that he brought into the company’s repertoire in 1977, disappointed ticket buyers and left the Met scrambling for replacements. But his transition, whenever it occurs, could put the company in a tough position. Mr. Levine, who transformed the Met’s orchestra from an uneven ensemble to one of the best in the world, is beloved by many audience members and subscribers, who see him as a link to an older, golden age of opera. He has provided reassuring continuity during a period when Mr. Gelb has often served as an agent of change, trying to bring in new audiences with more theatrically daring modern productions, more new works and popular live simulcasts of operas at movie theaters around the world.

The modern Met is, to no small degree, the House That Levine Built. After becoming music director at 32, Mr. Levine put his musical leadership and energy to work to help save the company after financial and managerial crises in the 1970s and a bitter labor dispute that canceled the beginning of the 1980-81 season. In lean years, he collaborated with John Dexter, then the director of production, on spare (and economical) but artistically distinguished productions.

In more flush times, he was in the pit for lavish spectacles by directors like Franco Zeffirelli and Otto Schenk. He championed 20th-century operas by Berg, Schoenberg and Stravinsky that had previously been rare or unknown at the Met; he became known as a Mozartian; and, by leading the company’s first complete “Ring” cycles in decades, he helped make the Met a top Wagner house. Along the way, he conducted more than 2,500 performances, more than twice as many as anyone in Met history.

“He has made this institution as great as it has been musically,” Mr. Gelb said. “He’s largely been the architect of its great international standing and success. So that certainly makes it all the more important that we support him.

NYTimes.com

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