The child sexual abuse allegations that engulfed the end of James Levine’s tenure at the Metropolitan Opera have justifiably created a lot of anger. Everyone, writers and editors of SFCV very much included, is against child sexual abuse. And our recently published piece by Tom Jacobs has attracted spirited response, which we expected and we honor, particularly on such a fraught subject.
The anger, particularly at the Metropolitan Opera itself, is real because the allegations are credible and seem to confirm as well-founded the decades of second-hand reports among musicians and people on the inside of the organization. And if those widespread stories are true, how could Levine’s employers have remained oblivious and failed so badly in their oversight duties? Were they colluding? The age of hiding or ignoring abuse at the hands of powerful men has to end. That’s the least we must expect from an arts organization that is asking for our money and support in 2021.
I can understand why enraged people will bridle at words like “allegations” and “seem” in this context, but these are words that journalists use when criminal accusations have not been proven (usually in court). They do not connote standoffishness or dismissal of the gravity of the offenses. They are also used, of course, to shield news organizations from liability in lawsuits. At a small organization like SFCV, it’s part of the editors’ job to adhere to these common standards.
So, I hear the commenters on Tom Jacobs’s reflection on Levine’s career. But I think it’s wrong to assume that Jacobs is callous toward the victims because he used common journalistic wordings. His is a personal reflection on how the allegations affected him, given that Levine was a hero to the teenager whose Ravinia Festival experiences fostered a lifelong love of classical music. You can find similar journalistic pieces out right now: see, for example Anthony Tommasini’s article in The New York Times (with a subhead that reads, “His career ended with allegations of sexual abuse and harassment.”) And it’s instructive that Levine’s death coincided so closely with the release of the final episode of Allen v. Farrow, Netflix’s documentary on Woody Allen’s alleged sexual abuse, a case which has spawned a lot of journalistic scrutiny about the relationship of art and ethics and whether hero worship blinds us to abusive parts of the artist hero’s behavior that might be in plain sight.
I think this is where a lot of commenters are heading and where the anger creates an opening for a worthwhile discussion. No, we should not do hero-worship as journalists or musicians. But we do. Those who are acclaimed for making great music from the scores of our composer-gods have the opportunity to amass power within institutions. The institutions advertise their leaders as cultural heroes and, if we buy it, the artists gain more power and prestige. No humility is necessary, only outward-facing charm and good behavior.
Abusers seek positions of authority where they can shroud themselves in secrecy and create buffers and layers of protection against oversight that would discover their unethical behavior and punish it. And classical music abounds in such positions, at conservatories and extremely hierarchical organizations like opera houses and symphony orchestras.
Hero worship of the people who hold these positions only makes it worse. It wasn’t just Levine’s position at the Met, it was the Levine myth that made him untouchable. You could replace a music director, but not the titan whose artistic vision and collegiality were widely seen as the sine qua nons of the Met’s artistic greatness. And yet, we come to find out that, after Levine’s injury and surgery, a less-than-world famous conductor, Fabio Luisi, was able to take over whole seasons of Met performances with tremendous artistic success. He could have succeeded Levine as music director; he proved himself. But his name wasn’t magic in the business. And so the job went to Yannick Nezet-Seguin, who is also a superb conductor but whose name has a little more cachet, the better to lionize him as the next hero-leader. The Met publicity machine will strive to make it so, but we can appreciate his great performances without turning him into the next incarnation of Toscanini.
To counteract the absolute authority that these positions confer and that hero-worship makes worse, you need accountability systems. Organizations are slowly putting them in place, but it will still take a change in classical music’s collective mindset to make any system work. If a person is going to report abuse or possible abuse, there must be confidence that the allegation will be taken seriously and investigated, and that there will be no retaliation against the whistleblower.
And we have to recognize that even the greatest artists are subject to oversight, and if they abuse their positions, they should be fired. We’re not there yet in classical music organizations, not by a long shot. But the anger over Levine’s history and legacy plays a critical part in pushing the Metropolitan Opera to adopt and enforce oversight at all levels. And for that reason, we have to honor the outrage that SFCV’s readers feel. Expressing that rage is the only way for progress to happen.