Born James Lawrence Levine, June 23, 1943, in Cincinnati, OH; son of Lawrence (a dress manufacturer) and Helen (an actress; maiden name, Goldstein) Levine. Education: Studied with Rudolf Serkin at Marlboro Music Festival, 1956, Rosina Lhevinne at Aspen Music Festival, 1957, and Walter Levin; attended Juilliard School, 1961-63, studied with Jean Morel; studied with Wolfgang Vacano; apprenticed under George Szell. Addresses: Office-- Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, New York, NY 10023. Agent-- Columbia Artist Management, 165 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10019.
James Levine is a world-renowned conductor whose leadership at New York City's Metropolitan Opera (Met) has ushered in a new era of artistic creativity and musical excellence. After taking over the music directorship of the Met orchestra in 1976 and the opera company's artistic directorship in 1985, Levine transformed the ensemble into an entity that Gramophone magazine compared favorably to the celebrated Vienna Philharmonic of Austria. While modestly not taking credit for the opera's accomplishments, Levine wrote in Opera News in 1990, "Those singers, conductors, directors who work in opera houses around the world concur about one thing--the work that is done at the Met is more consistently serious, thoughtful, comprehensive, imaginative, professional, stylish and exciting, with greater combined musical, dramatic and technical resources, than in any other international theater in the world."
The oldest of three children, James Lawrence Levine was born into a musical family in Cincinnati, Ohio, on June 23, 1943. His father played the violin and, under the stage name Larry Lee, led a dance band during the 1930s; Levine's mother was an actress on Broadway before she married. Levine displayed an interest in music when--as a toddler--he began picking out melodies at the piano. He began formal piano lessons at age four and worked unflaggingly at the ivories throughout his childhood. The boy often attended local opera and symphony performances with his parents and, with a score open in his lap, "conducted" the pieces with a knitting needle. At age nine he staged his own operas at home with the help of a puppet theater and record player.
Levine made his professional piano debut at the age of ten with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. His parents carefully managed his budding talent while he performed several times with the orchestra over the next few years. "I was not really anxious to be exposed early, and my parents were very anxious not to expose me," Levine told New York Post correspondent Fern Marja Eckman. "They turned down all offers which smacked of exploitation. I'm eternally grateful.... They always encouraged me to do what I wanted and what gave me pleasure. They never pushed me. They didn't give me a sense of having to succeed, but only of making myself happy."
During the summer of 1956 Levine studied piano with revered master Rudolf Serkin at Vermont's Marlboro Music Festival; the following year he spent the summer under the guidance of acclaimed pianist Rosina Lhevinne at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado. To further his knowledge in harmony and theory, Levine also studied with Walter Levin, violinist of the La Salle Quartet. As a high school student, Levine dabbled in composition but did not see a future in it. The prospect of long and lonely tours as a piano soloist did not appeal to him either. Finally, the blossoming star realized that conducting should be his vocation: "I found that immersing myself in the task of communicating masterpieces was more rewarding for me than turning out bad compositions of my own," he revealed in Opera News.
After high school graduation in 1961, Levine was accepted at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City. There he studied conducting with Jean Morel and piano with Lhevinne, finishing a five-year program in just two years. He spent his summers at Aspen, studying conducting with Wolfgang Vacano; it was there that he first conducted an opera, The Pearl Fishers. After placing as a finalist in the Ford Foundation American Conductors Project in 1964, Levine became an apprentice to George Szell, conductor of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. Szell taught Levine the nuts and bolts of conducting. Following his apprenticeship, Levine was offered the position of assistant conductor with the Cleveland orchestra, which he accepted without hesitation. During this time Levine also founded, managed, and conducted a student orchestra at the Cleveland Institute of Music and in the summers taught at the Aspen Music Festival.
Levine left the Cleveland Orchestra in 1970 to guest conduct nearly every important orchestra in the United States, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Cincinnati Orchestra, and the National Symphony, as well as several prominent European orchestras. He also became the director of the Ravinia Festival, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony, and for several years was music director of the May Festival in Cincinnati. Levine made his debut with New York City's Metropolitan Opera in 1971 with a performance of Tosca by Giacomo Puccini. He was then offered a guest conducting contract for the 1972-73 season, during which he mounted Guiseppe Verdi's Otello and Rigoletto and Gioacchino Rossini's The Barber of Seville. The next season, Levine was named principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera.
When Levine took the baton of the Met he found that the orchestra had suffered neglect from a long line of guest conductors. "Extraordinary orchestras were built by the conductor and the players working on every aspect of music-making day after day, year after year, until they understood each other musically in subtle and complex ways," Levine explained in Opera News. "It requires patience and dedication. This is the work we began in 1973." Thus Levine devoted much time to orchestra rehearsals, working resolutely on technique and details. "He cajoles, he compliments, he works in subtle ways. He's never destructive," Met violinist Toni Rapport stated in Newsweek. Although Levine's unbridled enthusiasm and talkative nature occasionally grated on musicians, performers and critics alike admit that Levine's efforts paid off. The orchestra is considered a superb, world-class ensemble. "I think today at the Met one can hear operas performed by an orchestra and chorus second to none and continuously improving," Levine observed in the Opera News.
The image of the showy conductor does not appeal to Levine; during performances he prefers to stay in the background, a nearly impossible feat for a conductor. "I want to make myself obsolete in the concert itself," he told Stephen Rubin, author of The New Met in Profile. "I want to be able to have the conception seem to emanate from the orchestra members who are, after all, the ones with the instruments, instead of from the crazy magician with a stick who is making all the gestures and telling the audience what they ought to be feeling and hearing. I want to get to the point where the audience would have the feeling they didn't see me."
In 1985 Levine was named the Metropolitan Opera's artistic director, a post that broadened his responsibilities to include working with stage managers, set designers, and others in the many positions that are needed to stage an opera. Under Levine's leadership the Met expanded its repertoire to include new productions of several twentieth-century operas, including Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd and Death in Venice, Kurt Weill's Mahagonny, Alban Berg's Lulu, Maurice Ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortileges, George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, Arnold Schoenberg's Erwartung, and Bela Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle. It also mounted the world premier of John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles, a huge hit commissioned especially for the Met. New York City opera lovers have also seen revivals of standard works by Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, and Wagner, among others, and special treatment of other standards, including versions sung for the first time at the Met in their original languages, uncut renditions, and new English translations. Many of these productions were filmed for television and broadcast by PBS.
From the 1950s to the 1980s there had only been one recording project at the Metropolitan Opera, but interest was renewed in the late 1980s when performances were contracted by recording giants Deutsche Grammophon, Philips, and Sony. Levine finds the recording work exciting because it puts emphasis back on the vocals and music of opera, rather than on its visual elements. Levine hopes that Metropolitan Opera recordings will encourage listeners to attend live performances. Orchestra-only recordings are also planned. In addition to these projects, the maestro has conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in productions of non-operatic works, including a successful three-city concert tour in 1990.
Although the Metropolitan Opera already employs a roster of the best singers in the world, it has created a young artists development program to provide a training ground for promising young vocalists. Levine maintains that such a program is necessary because the style and technique that created the operatic form are no longer passed from generation to generation. With the development program, the Met's management hopes to improve the chances for it and other opera theaters' long-term survival.
To accept artistic directorship of the Met, Levine cut his annual conducting schedule from 90 to 60 performances. He is in residence at the Metropolitan Opera during 85 percent of its season but still regularly conducts the Chicago Symphony at the Ravinia Festival, the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival, and the Berlin Philharmonic at the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, Germany. The conductor feels that his time away from the Met enriches him artistically, allowing him to return renewed. A brilliant pianist, Levine also performs at chamber recitals with other members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and with the La Salle Quartet and mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig.
Pleased with the fruits of his efforts and those of countless others at the Metropolitan Opera who make opera come to life, Levine related in Opera News, "I'm enthusiastic ... because I see us as an artistic collective gathering momentum in potential and esprit.... The positive attitude of the company, the feeling of 'family,' the ever increasing possibility to do serious work unencumbered by much of the nonsense that is so prevalent in society today, are things remarked upon over and over by visiting artists, and things we ourselves feel more and more strongly." The conductor went on to predict, "If we can work on a certain amount of non-operatic repertoire with the orchestra and chorus to broaden their perspectives, if we can continue to develop and nurture some talented young singers ... we could be in a position to offer very exciting performances even more consistently in the future."
by Jeanne M. Lesinski
James Levine's Career
Made professional piano debut with Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, 1953; assistant conductor, Cleveland Orchestra, Cleveland, OH, 1964-70; founder, manager, and conductor of student orchestra, Cleveland Institute of Music; teacher at Aspen Music Festival; music director of Ravinia Festival, 1973--, and Cincinnati May Festival, 1974-78; Metropolitan Opera, New York City, principal conductor, 1973-76, music director, 1976-84, artistic director, 1985--. Guest conductor for major U.S. and European orchestras.
James Levine's Awards
Honorary doctorate from Cincinnati University.
- Selective Works
- Bach: Cantata No. 202; Brandenberg Concerto Nos. 2-5 Ravinia Festival Ensemble, RCA Gold Seal.
- Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra; Music for String Instruments, Percussion and Celesta Chicago Symphony, Deutsche Grammophon (DG).
- Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5 Chicago Symphony, Philips.
- Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 Chicago Symphony, RCA.
- Dvorak: Symphony No. 7 Chicago Symphony, RCA.
- Haydn: Creation Berlin Philharmonic, DG.
- Mahler: Symphony No. 5, Symphony No. 10, Adagio Philadelphia Orchestra, RCA.
- Mendelssohn: Symphonies: No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 56 (Scottish); No. 4 in A Major, Op. 90 (Italian) Berlin Philharmonic, DG.
- Mozart: Cosi fan tutte, K. 588 Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and State Opera, DG.
- Mozart: The Magic Flute Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and State Opera, RCA.
- Puccini: Tosca Philharmonia (London), Angel.
- Ravel: Daphnis et Chloe (complete ballet) Berlin Philharmonic, DG.
- Saint-Saens: Cello Concerto No. 1; Lalo: Cello Concerto; Bruch: Kol Nidrei Chicago Symphony, DG.
- Schoenberg: Erwartung Metropolitan Opera, Philips Classics.
- Schubert: Symphony No. 9 Chicago Symphony, DG.
- Schuman: Symphonies No. 2 and 3 Berlin Philharmonic, DG.
- Sibelius: Violin Concerto; Dvorak: Violin Concerto Berlin Philharmonic, DG.
- Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and State Opera, DG.
- Tchaikovsky: Evgeny Onegin Dresden State Orchestra and Chorus, DG.
- Verdi: Aida Metropolitan Opera, Sony Classical.
- Verdi: Otello National Philharmonic Orchestra (London), RCA.
- Wagner: Das Rheingold Metropolitan Opera, DG.
- Wagner: Die Walkurie Metropolitan Opera, DG.
January 15, 2004: Levine was named musical director of the Boston Symphony. Source: ABCNews.com, abcnews.go.com/wire/Entertainment/ap20040116_1264.html, January 16, 2004.
- Annals of the Metropolitan Opera, edited by G. Fitzgerald and J.
- S. Uppman with an introduction by Levine, Metropolitan Opera Guild, 1990.
- Chesterman, R., Conductors in Conversation, Robson, 1990.
- Rubin, Stephen, The New Met in Profile, Macmillan, 1974.
- Newsweek, September 30, 1991.
- New York Post, June 4, 1971.
- New York Times, January 17, 1982.
- Opera News, December 9, 1972; September 1986; September 1990.