The Comeback Kid

Classic Arts Features   The Comeback Kid
After two years off recuperating from a serious back injury,Music Director James Levine tells Matt Dobkin he's as excited asaudiences for his eagerly anticipated return.

To start with, the question that’s on everyone’s mind: how are you feeling?

I’m feeling great. I have no pain. A spinal cord injury takes ages to recover from, but I’ve been doing rehab therapy constantly— and according to the therapists and doctors, it’s working miraculously well. And there’s no doubt that I’m in a different state psychologically and emotionally than I would have been if I hadn’t been injured and had just continued working. I had to disappoint a lot of people—our company and our audience. But during the time that I was recovering, I was inundated with phone calls, letters, and communications from the audience, from the company, from fans, from friends, from people I didn’t even know, all saying, “Just please do what you’ve got to do to get well, and come back soon.”

Apart from physical therapy, how did you occupy your time during your recovery?

I took some time to look at music I’d been meaning to study and listen to a number of my old performances. I also had a chance to do a very hands-on season with our Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, after having been unavailable to them for an entire season after the injury. I also spent some time painting watercolors, untutored, just because I’d always been interested in it, and I had enough time to get into it.

You actually got back on the podium last May for a thrilling Met Orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall. Were you worried during that performance about whether you’d be able to make it through?

Actually, no, because I could feel during the rehearsals that my strength and stamina were really there. And also, when you’re making music, that’s everything there is. There isn’t any room to think about anything else. That’s one of the things that’s so exciting. On the conducting podium, there is the traversal of the piece that’s going on—and that fully occupies your mind, emotions, and body from start to finish. I was conscious of being glad that the orchestra had let me know during our rehearsals that they were excited and happy, because I wouldn’t have been able to continue with this work if they hadn’t been. My continuing was dependent on their feeling we should continue, and they gave me overwhelming support both during the time I was recovering and throughout the rehearsals and the concert.

This season you’ll be conducting three operas with which you’re very closely associated—Così fan tutte, Falstaff, and Wozzeck. How did you choose these pieces?

Well, I was always scheduled for the new Falstaff, as well as Così. Wozzeck came later. As usual, the season was planned years in advance, and in fact we reduced my schedule for this return season. In future seasons, I’ll have an even fuller schedule. But these three operatic masterpieces were spaced well, they were in three different styles, so it seemed as good a place as any to begin again.

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