New Book Praises Met Opera Maestro James Levine’s Deep Humanity

James Levine and opera director John Dexter.(Photo: Peter Schaaf/Metropolitan Opera)
James Levine and opera director John Dexter.(Photo: Peter Schaaf/Metropolitan Opera)

We’ve all heard tales of what goes on behind the scenes at opera houses: hysterical divas, egotistical tenors, artistic differences that gather into temper tantrums and culminate in that telltale tag line: “I can’t work like this.”

There are few reasons for this kind of shtick in the real world, but opera is a different beast.

It’s a profession that will tax a singer’s every reserve: physical, emotional, intellectual, psychological and spiritual. It’s a profession that calls on mere mortals to stand before others and sing their hearts out while pretending to be people – usually emotionally distressed people – they’re not. In short, it’s a profession in which singers must put literally everything on the line for the mere chance of a big payout.

Even worse for opera singers is that opera conductors  are endowed with varying degrees of patience and tact. And empathy? Surely you jest.

But the good news for singers who make it big – meaning, who get to sing those coveted roles at the Metropolitan Opera – is that the Met’s maestro, James Levine, gets it.

At least so says a new book celebrating Levine’s four-decade tenure at the world’s most prestigious opera house. James Levine: 40 Years at The Metropolitan Opera charts the career of a brilliant musician as phenomenally gifted at human relations as he is at musical interpretation. The common thread throughout is Levine’s humanity and his deep compassion for his colleagues.

Here’s Levine’s take on what singers and instrumentalists contend with in a day’s work:

What you have to understand before you open your mouth is that one of the biggest components is confidence. People always say, “Well, they’re not babies.” I say, “No, they’re artists. And they have nerves. And they play with their nervous system, and it isn’t fair that you want the product of their nervous system but then you don’t want them ever to feel nervous.”

Such insight and humanity are uncanny among conductors. In James Levine: 40 Years at The Metropolitan Opera singer after singer attests to the maestro’s genius at putting them at ease and bringing out their best, even when new to the game.

Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe worked with Levine during her first performance at the Met. At the time, she was apprenticing in the Met’s Linemann Young Artist Development Program and had been called to fill in for Marilyn Horne as Quickly in Verdi’s Falstaff:

It was an amazing experience, and I recollect every second of it. I barely looked at the Maestro at all. You could just feel the energy coming from the pit, and every time I did look at him, I got that wonderful smile and a thumbs-up. What a feeling!

James Levine: 40 Years at The Metropolitan Opera leaves you  feeling as though you know “Jimmy” Levine – or would like to.