James Levine: Celebrating 40 Years at the Met- A Conversation

Classic Arts Features   James Levine: Celebrating 40 Years at the Met- A Conversation
With his 40th anniversary season underway, James Levine tells the Met's Matt Dobkin about improving the orchestra, expanding the repertoire, and what went through his mind when he first set foot on the podium.


Let's go back to the very beginning. It's 1971, and you're making your Met debut conducting Tosca. What do you remember most about that experience?

I remember most keenly, above everything else, this uncanny sense of feeling at home. I probably should have been very nervous, but instead I was just very positively excited. I'd been attending Met performances since I was 10 years old: 1953: and of course I was glued to the radio every Saturday afternoon. So by the time I made my debut, the Met and its tradition and its excitement and its quality were very familiar to me. Tosca was a work that the company knows like the back of its hand and had performed brilliantly many, many times. The cast for that performance was very exciting: Grace Bumbry was singing her role debut as Tosca, Peter Glossop was making his house debut as Scarpia, and the Cavaradossi was Franco Corelli, who was just a god of a tenor. Working with all of them was a huge pleasure. So I remember thinking, part of the way through Act I, "It's impossible to feel nervous here because I'm so at one with it."

But how did you get to that point?

Well, you have to remember, I had started to hang around opera when I was 10: between the ages of 10 and 14: and we had opera in my hometown of Cincinnati, at the zoo, of all places. We had a fantastic outdoor opera there every summer, filled with Met singers, Americans who liked being in the States in the summer and Europeans who, for whatever reason, weren't working in Europe. I even supered there! I carried wood onstage in the first act of Bohme to various tenors (Peerce, Conley), and I led others onstage in the third act of Samson (Vinay and Baum). I even spoke a line once in The Bartered Bride. I was the kid who shouts, "The bear is loose! The bear is loose!" I had a lot of fun.

What was the first opera you ever saw?

Carmen, when I was eight, with Irra Petina and Ramon Vinay. And I remember that I fell asleep in the third act. I was tired, it was late, and my father gently asked if I wanted him to take me home. I said, "No, no! I want you to wake me up if I'm still sleeping because I want to see when he kills her!" I was so fascinated by the idea that I was going to see that on stage. So he did in fact wake me up from my little nap and I stayed awake wide-eyed until the end of the piece.

Tell me a little bit more about the orchestra and the company as a whole 40 years ago.

Well, it's very important to make perfectly clear that the Met was already one of the greatest companies in the world and had been for decades. But I think over the past 40 years, we have improved a lot in many respects. The Met orchestra and chorus and ensemble today are capable of rehearsing and performing a much more diverse repertoire in a much wider variety of styles, and I think our performances have a greater depth of detail. We are a better instrument from having been able to work with a certain kind of consistency and continuity. Not to mention we now have the Met Chamber Ensemble and the Met Orchestra concerts at Carnegie Hall, which expand our repertoire in many new and exciting directions. What still thrills me is that people are just as passionate about opera as they always were, if not more so. And opera has really proliferated: there are more and more places around the country that do high-quality work.

How would you characterize the state of regional American opera today?

I would say that now you have really good opera of all kinds being done all over the place, which means that the conceptual burden on the Met is somewhat relieved. There always used to be a sense that everybody wanted the Met to do everything. It's flattering, of course, but people forget that the Met is only one company: a very great and resourceful one, but still only one. So I think in the last 40 years, what used to be the secondand third-line opera companies have improved to the point where a really good result can be achieved in a great many places: which is thrilling.

I'm interested to know what you were like as an artist 40 years ago.

That's very hard for me to say. You'd have to ask my colleagues and the listeners. But I think that what happens to all artists is that a good opportunity begets good growth. You work on what seems to be the immediate area of necessary improvement, and that yields the next one and the next one and the next one, until you find you're working on much more subtle levels of execution and of style and of detail than you ever were before. A lot of the things that I did to improve our capacities at the Met had to do with expanding the repertoire and the stylistic differentiation so that we would be more deeply comfortable with new pieces and new styles.

Let's talk more about that. At what point did you start to think, Okay, we need to expand our repertoire?

Right away. You could see very clearly what the Met didn't have in its repertoire, and what was played frequently and what was almost never played. And you must understand: it's not simply a question of adding new pieces as fast as you can. You have to develop a production and repeat it and improve it and refine it. I wanted these pieces to actually become part of our repertoire and stay there for a long time.

Was it a struggle to convince people that newer operas, like Lulu or Mahagonny, were pieces that needed to enter the Met repertoire?

It's always difficult to convince the people who doubt it. But on the other hand, it's very easy to pull along the people who want to see something new and exciting. I think over the long run, it's a question of artistic trust, and in a very short time I felt we had everybody's artistic trust, both within the company and with our audience. Once you have experienced the miracle of a great performance of an operatic masterpiece, you start to need more of it the way you need to breathe air.

Over the past four decades you have had the very rare experience of having worked with three generations of major singers...

It's true. I can count on the fingers of one hand the great singers with whom I did not work. It's an extremely small number: essentially Dietrich Fischer- Dieskau, Joan Sutherland, and Janet Baker. I really did work with almost every great singer in my time, and what's interesting is that I had a very constructive professional relationship with virtually all of them. Sometimes you establish a relationship with an artist where the way you work together: and this is something you can't necessarily explain: is not just speaking, or agreeing. It has to do with chemistry, and that can produce some extraordinary things. I was very lucky because I'm a collaborator by nature. I don't find any pleasure in imposing my will and receiving an unconvinced result. My work has to do with getting the person who has to play the instrument or sing the phrase to feel empowered to do what they want to do within the conception that we are working in. But I think that's perhaps not the way many conductors work.

Say you're working with a really talented singer who is not quite getting what you're after. How do you get what you want?

So many different ways, depending on the specifics: the singer, the piece, the particular problem. I think people would like to think that a conductor somehow arrives with a conception that's better than the singer's. That can happen, but don't forget, great singers have great ideas and great artistic perception. And what you want to do is bring all their wonderful qualities to the foreground and not be limited to some external concept of authority. Various kinds of collaboration seem always to get the best results. I remember all the way back to my debut in Tosca: on the first day I was working at the Met we finished an ensemble rehearsal very early. So I said to Corelli, "Do you want to go and work over the role, as long as we are free so early?" He said sure. So we worked through his whole role in one session. Well, much to my fascination, he was going through a curious period where he was experimenting technically, and in my opinion he wasn't getting as good a result as he had always gotten. So I mentioned this, and I worked with him in that rehearsal, and together we found a way for him to go back to what he had been doing before, adding just the right amount of his particular new technical experiment. And the result was exceptionally thrilling. His wife, Loretta, said she thought it was the best Cavaradossi he had sung in ages, and we became fast friends.

Who are some of the other singers with whom you had an especially strong rapport?

Literally hundreds! I was very lucky, and therefore it is much too long a list to do justice to in this format. If I were really to describe the qualities of all these artists and the thrilling work we did together, it would take a fairly large book. For example, my collaboration with Plêcido Domingo is unique. He's like my musical soul brother! We've done everything together, with a rapport so strong we barely need to speak.

You've worked with a lot of great singers since the very beginning of their careers. And of course you launched the Met's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program 30 years ago. What is it like for you to observe someone over the course of a career, a singer who started out with you as a young artist and then really soars?

There's nothing like it. And of course each singer has his or her own trajectory, because it depends on a marriage of skills and talents and opportunities and timing. We started our young artist program because we could feel the operatic traditions weakening, and it was clear to me that if we didn't train some singers of our own, one day we were going to be in trouble. I was very aware of the fact that each young singer I heard, no matter how talented, always had something to learn, whether it was language or technique or acting or subtleties of stylistic expression. I wanted a situation in which we could use the resources of the Met to help very promising singers get through that gap between school and "career." And we did that successfully with a great many singers.

Your repertory for the upcoming season is a characteristic mix of styles.

Yes, I'm happy with this lineup because it contains two Verdi operas, Simon Boccanegra and Il Trovatore; a bel canto comic masterpiece that I've never performed before, Don Pasquale; and one of my very favorite 20th-century works, Wozzeck. And then, of course, there's the Ring, initiated by Peter Gelb. After conducting 21 cycles of the Otto Schenk_ã_Gê_nther Schneider-Siemssen Ring, starting in 1989, it is obviously time for us to move on to another stage interpretation. I suppose one could hardly have a more appropriate: or more daunting: anniversary challenge! I wish I had a Mozart but one can't have everything.

So, as you get ready to launch your 40th anniversary season, what are you most struck by?

Well, the thing about the Met when I arrived, which I think is very significant, is that it was already the largest collection of great operatic artists under one roof in the world: and it still is! In fact, it has become an even greater company, and this means everyone: every orchestral musician, chorister, stage crew, backstage artists like wardrobe and makeup, and all the technical people. They are all so supportive and generous with their skill and their time and their judgment and their character. And this is why the Met is the Met: it's all in the details.

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