It was inevitable that the wave of sexual harassment allegations that have swept the country in recent months would eventually wash up on the shore of classical music’s small but mighty island. And for anyone with connections to people in the performance business, it was not surprising that the first major figure to be caught in the rip current is James Levine, a man whose artistic genius was always darkened by rumors of sexual deviance and a penchant for young boys. If Harvey Weinstein’s horridness in Hollywood was considered a semi-open secret, then James Levine’s alleged abuses might as well have been put on a lighted marquee for all to see. If you were a musician working in New York, you heard the stories. If you were a lowly radio announcer just embarking on a full time career in 2007 and visiting well-connected musical friends (i.e. me), you heard about it over dinner. Anyone with even the most tangential connections to the classical music universe knew. And usually, as was the case with me, after a moment of disbelief and disgust, it was forgotten, except when one of his admittedly stellar recordings came up on a playlist or the Met’s radio broadcasts were in season.
For 99.99% of the people who heard the rumblings about Levine, there was really nothing to be done. Without personally knowing any of the accusers and relying only on hearsay, there’s certainly nothing radio broadcasters could do. Avoiding his recordings was a possible remedy, but few did it. When the Met seasons came around and Levine was conducting, we let it run. Life went on.
But these are different times, with the situation surrounding Levine and the Met rapidly spiraling, there will be repercussions for classical radio stations. Many of my colleagues have already declared that Levine’s vast discography will be stricken from their playlists. I am one of them. But as for the Met’s radio broadcasts, stations have no control over the content. The Met, in suspending James Levine yesterday, has assured that he will no longer appear on any broadcasts this season (a quick glance at the schedule shows that he was to conduct Il Trovatore on February 3 and Luisa Miller on April 14). But what about the relationships stations have with the Met as an institution, which by most measures seems to have at the very least shrugged off Levine’s accusers over the decades, and at most actively participated in covering them up?
Last night I went on a mini tweetstorm about Peter Gelb and the Met’s potential culpability in the whole affair. Rather than embedding, I’ll just copy it here:
To understand the depth of the crisis facing the @MetOpera and Peter Gelb, you have to look beyond Gelb’s Met tenure. It’s more important to look at his relationship with former CAMI president Ronald Wilford. Wilford ran CAMI from 1970-2000. His darling client: James Levine. The two had one of the closest relationships you’ll ever find between talent and agent in the classical music universe. It was likely Wilford who was on the front lines defending Levine from the first allegations of abuse decades ago. Fast forward to 1982: who joined CAMI as it’s new head of video productions? Peter Gelb. Gelb’s role was dominated by producing the Met’s television broadcasts, and in addition to reporting to Wilford he also worked closely with Levine. Given Gelb’s close relationship with Wilford and and his and Wilford’s “father figure”-like role over both Gelb AND Levine, it’s hard to imagine Gelb not knowing some of the more lurid details of Levine’s worst accusers in the 80s.
These are naturally assumptions on my part, not facts. But it looks terrible. My gut tells me Gelb will not survive this scandal, and Levine’s goose has already been cooked. The culture of enablement goes far beyond Met administration, however. Friends tell me they know peers who sang in the choir as kids, and their parents knew enough to keep them away from Levine. Major donors had to know, whether on the level of rumors or even more concrete facts. Speaking of rumors, one of the most popular is that wealthy board members offered victims and families hush money. Bottom line: although the Met has retained outside counsel for investigation, I don’t believe we can trust the outcome. We need journalists to uncover the truth. And this is a LONG way from reaching resolution.
The Met radio broadcasts could be a casualty of this tragic situation for a couple of reasons. First of all, stations may opt to drop them out of concern about optics, as I already mentioned. Given that there’s no concrete proof that the Met actively covered up Levine’s alleged activities, this may not happen immediately. But it’s certainly possible.
The more immediate threat to the Met broadcasts could be their outside funding. Right now, the Met is offered to stations at no charge thanks to foundation support and the support from Toll Brothers. Let’s think about the optics for Toll Brothers just this past weekend: Verdi Requiem conducted by Levine (how appropriate, right…). Program ends at 2:45ish EST in the afternoon, and the usual postlude from Mary Jo Heath and Ira Siff contained platitudes about Levine, and of course thanks to the Met’s broadcast sponsors. Ninety minutes later, the news of the police report in Illinois broke. I can’t imagine being a corporate sponsor in that situation. Given the scramble to find a new sponsor after Texaco ended its support in 2004, should Toll Brothers sever ties with the Met in light of this situation, other potential sponsors might view the situation as too toxic and avoid it entirely.
For now, we await the results of the Met’s supposedly independent investigation. As I said on Twitter, I don’t think the results will bode well for the futures of Peter Gelb and possibly the institution as a whole. And this is assuming we can actually trust the process, which I’m not convinced we can. And let’s keep in mind we are, as of this post, fewer than 48 hours since the original story broke. In the hours that followed, several more accusers stepped forward, and if the last months have taught us anything, they will not be the last. Each will have a story to tell about what Levine did to them, how it damaged their lives and careers, and possibly how and why they stayed silent for so long.
One last thing: despite my repeated criticisms of the Met broadcasts on this blog, I’m not rooting for the broadcasts to end or the institution to fail. Yes, I’d like to see the broadcasts become less wonky and more inviting in their tone. I would also like to see a complete cultural and financial overhaul of the Met as an institution so it better reflects the age in which it exists. But for a scandal of this scope, in today’s climate, to hit an institution that has already been so battered financially and culturally for years, neither of those things might be possible.
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