Complicit in Levine's Crimes: My Story Regarding the James Levine Scandal
I have known about James Levine for years. I found out in high school when I was attending the Boston University Tanglewood Institute in the summer of 2007. I was in music history class, and a peer said to me that James Levine was a pedophile. I didn't know what the word meant, and my friend had to explain its meaning to my naive, fifteen year-old self.
And throughout the rest of the summer, there were whispers and laughs among the students about how James Levine slept with under-aged boys. We even joked that James Levine had never worked with the high school students at B.U.T.I. for a good reason. We saw him conduct in the pit every evening at Tanglewood, and the gossipy rumors of his pedophilia added to the great mystique of a conductor that we worshipped.
The rumors about Levine followed me to college. A friend who worked at the Metropolitan Opera told me that the Met had to scold James Levine for watching child pornography on a company computer. We joked about how I would have been James Levine's type "ten years ago." Another friend whose husband sang at the Met told me of Levine's penchant for young African-American boys, and of stories about Met board members paying off these victims to stay silent about Levine's abuse. I even asked a singer who had worked frequently with the Maestro about the rumors surrounding Levine. He turned away from me, looked out the window, and said, "you do not talk about James Levine's personal life." That was the end of the discussion.
Winks, knowing nods, and nervous chuckles filled these exchanges, often at parties or behind the safety of closed doors. We accepted his behavior as an eccentricity of a great artist, and tried not to think too hard about it. We did not want to think about the abuse he had inflicted on his victims, and their families, and how these children's lives had changed forever because of his actions. But mostly, we didn‘t want to think about our role in the matter, and what being silent about this important issue meant.
But I did think about going public about this issue. I even started an article called "The White Elephant in the Rehearsal Room" about Levine‘s pedophilia, but never finished or posted it. I thought occasionally about the victims and their pain, but never contacted anyone who could help them, or who had the power to reveal Levine's crimes to the wider public. Instead, I went on buying student tickets at the Met to see operas I loved sung by singers I worshipped, often with Levine in the pit with his wild white hair and big smile. I was thrilled to hear a great conductor conduct a great score, and felt not even a twinge of guilt sitting in my plush red velvet seat.
And then this week, a bomb dropped. Levine‘s history of pedophilia was exposed in the New York Post. I was surprised that a decades-long secret had finally come out, and wondered what this might mean for the Met, and the industry at large.
And I couldn't help but ask myself: why had I stayed silent? Why didn't I post my original article? Why did I chuckle and joke at parties about his pedophilia, and share knowing winks and nods with other musicians? And I quickly came up with an answer: I wanted to be an opera singer. I wanted to sing in front of large crowds, and win the approval of coaches, conductors, and my peers. But most importantly, I wanted to sing at the Met one day, and thought that speaking out would hurt my chances of singing there. I wanted to sing and listen to the music I loved, and just not think too hard about the character of the man waving the baton.
And here we are. The secret is out, and I feel a mix of shame, guilt, and understanding for my peers and myself. Guilt that I did not have the courage to speak out. And understanding, because I think a lot of my colleagues and I feel the same way. That we remained silent, because we wanted to win the approval of our peers, and superiors; we didn‘t want to be the odd-man-out. Our love of music and thirst for success took importance over our conscience, and we were ok with that.
Going forward, I'm going to try to be better. I‘m going to speak out even when it is uncomfortable to do so. I'm going to do what is right and not what is popular, even if it means losing friends, or career opportunities. The health and safety of a human life is too important to do anything less.
And so I urge my friends and colleagues in the opera world to do the same. We should all stop being silent about the sexual harassment, racism, and pedophilia that is common in our industry. We should speak up when it is the right thing to do, and should not accept the status quo just because it is easy to do so. It's going to be really hard to follow through on this promise. It will be uncomfortable to have these conversations, and speak up. But this discomfort is necessary if we want to end the cycle of abuse and harassment in our industry.
I will probably fall short of my promise. I am a big people pleaser, and am often afraid to rock the boat. I have a history of being bad in the moment, and of freezing up when I need to be brave. But I am going to do my best. This is my first step.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2017 Mark Nimar