Asked and Answered: James Levine Takes Questions From Fans

Classic Arts Features   Asked and Answered: James Levine Takes Questions From Fans
In celebration of 40 years at the Met, James Levine has given a series of interviews on a variety of topics. For his final interview of the series, the maestro took questions from fans. Here’s what you wanted to know.


If you were going to be secluded on a desert island with a few scores—not recordings— for the rest of your life, what would be your top ten choices?

I would take ten scores of pieces I don’t know. The ones that I know, I already have in my head. I would be more inclined to take ten fairly recent complicated scores by composers I love that would require me to spend a lot of time to learn—works, for instance, by Pierre Boulez, Charles Wuorinen, Elliot Carter, John Harbison, four of my favorite living composers who are still writing wonderful new works.

There are many operas you’ve conducted dozens of times over the years. Do you try to keep your interpretation the same?

I don’t think there’s any way I could keep my interpretation the same. Every time I re-study a piece, my perspective, my life experience, my knowledge of other music has developed, and I bring it to bear on the piece at hand. I think if one tried consciously to do an opera the same every time, it’s like saying you can’t grow.

When you compare your own conducting to the work of fellow conductors, do you feel there is a “right way” or a “wrong way” to interpret any given piece?

That’s a great question. I feel that there are boundaries—there is an area in which the interpretation is something that the composer would recognize, which means as a performer you are succeeding in communicating the composer’s intent. But if a conductor is self-indulgent and injects his own attitude in place of what the composer is clearly trying to communicate— that I don’t like.

Is there any opera left that you have not yet conducted but would want to?

Oh, a great many. I think my repertoire, although it is quite large, relatively speaking (85 operas at the Met alone), is bound by the availabilities of singers and of rehearsal time, study time, company time. One has to make choices. So I could make quite a long list of operas that I love that I’ve never done, but fortunately, the ones that are most important to me I’ve done often—not all of them but most of them. If I had the opportunity perhaps I could start with Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict, Puccini’s Fanciulla del West, Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise, Mozart’s Mitridate, Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, Weber’s Der Freischütz, et cetera, et cetera.

Can you describe the process you go through when preparing for an opera?

In terms of learning a piece, I do the largest part of my work simply going through the score many, many times and discovering the way it’s written and expresses itself. But if you mean preparing it for performance, that’s another set of challenges. For example, some operas have a lot of choral material and some have none. Some operas have a small cast, some have a large one. Some operas are just one act, and others take hours. So the way you use rehearsal time varies from one work to another.

Is there an opera that you find especially challenging or difficult to conduct?

I find that every great masterpiece has a unique set of difficulties—the challenges that make it a masterpiece. In order to try and get those things communicated in the right proportion is a very big and detailed process. There are operas that are technically challenging more than interpretively, and others are the reverse. But I find the greater the masterpiece, the bigger the difficulties, perhaps because with a masterpiece there’s more at stake. What’s interesting is that a genius composer, in his early works, often gives you something of tremendous freshness, a bolt of energy and personality, without every technical problem worked out. And then if a composer lives long enough to eventually write later works that benefit from experience, those often have a more concise and subtle kind of difficulty. So the difficulties are very different from one opera to the next. Examples of extraordinary difficulty of one kind or another are Benvenuto Cellini, Lohengrin, Der Rosenkavalier, Nabucco, Falstaff, the Ring, and Moses und Aron.

Which conductors inspired you when you were young, and what message would you send to today’s young conductors?

I think the person who most embodied what a conductor should aspire to be is Toscanini. Apart from my teacher George Szell, who was a very inspiring conductor, there were a great many marvelous conductors that I heard often when I was young. But Toscanini had an ability to understand each score in all its individual greatness and detail and to inspire the musicians to communicate every bit of vitality, sensitivity, and individuality he perceived. A list of inspiring conductors of my youth would be very long, but he remains in a class by himself.

Like you, I fell in love with opera at a young age—although I also fell in love with the Beatles! When I was young, I was self-conscious about being an opera lover. It seemed “uncool” and I hid my opera recordings when friends came over. Was that ever a problem for you?

No, that was never a problem for me! My love for it was too great. To me, anyone who didn’t respond to opera was missing something so fundamental that I sort of felt sorry for them. But I too loved the Beatles!

Have you ever considered your hairstyle a trademark?

When I was a kid, I grew up parting my hair on the side like my father. And in 1970 I went to a new barber—mine was on vacation—and he said, “Why do you part your hair that way? It grows all over your head the same way.” So he cut it that way and I’ve been cutting it essentially the same way ever since. And that was the only time I ever thought about my hair!

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