Sex scandals

Conductor sues Met after firing over misconduct

James Levine accuses the Metropolitan Opera of defamation and unfair dismissal, seeks damages

A Met investigation found former music director emeritus James Levine had "engaged in sexually abusive and harassing conduct".
A Met investigation found former music director emeritus James Levine had "engaged in sexually abusive and harassing conduct".PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • Is the Metropolitan Opera trying to erase the legacy of conductor James Levine? That is an issue he has raised after suing it for breach of contract and defamation on Thursday, three days after the company he defined for more than four decades fired him.

A Met investigation found he had "engaged in sexually abusive and harassing conduct".

The suit, which seeks more than US$5.8 million (S$7.6 million) in damages, accuses the Met of acting only after "vague" accusations appeared in December last year, leading to Levine, 74, being suspended.

In response, the Met's lawyer, Ms Bettina Plevan, said it terminated his contract on Monday after a probe uncovered credible and corroborated evidence of sexual misconduct.

The suit was filed just hours before the opening of a new production of Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte, a speciality of Levine's that he conducted when he returned to the podium in 2013 after a spinal injury sidelined him for two years.

To rebut the charge that the Met had been trying to force him out, it said it had retained him as music director even when health woes kept him from conducting.

Levine's suit said he had not been given "a reasonable opportunity" to respond to the accusations. But Ms Plevan said "it was only when the investigation was wrapping up, upon realisation that termination was imminent, that he agreed to be interviewed, but on impossible terms, asking that the identity of his accusers, who had been promised anonymity, be disclosed".

The lawsuit challenged an account given by James Lestock, a cellist who said he was abused by Levine beginning in the summer of 1968, when he was a 17-year-old student, and continuing for years.

The suit said Levine had received many friendly letters from Lestock, which show "a close and warm friendship... that lasted decades after he alleged Levine sexually abused him in 1968".

On Thursday, Lestock said he had sent letters, but "what I stated before is true".

"When he asked for sex, I said no. When he physically abused me to the point of bringing me to tears... he then continued."

He noted that during the 1990s, he had also written about Levine's abuse to British journalist Norman Lebrecht, who acknowledged that on his blog, Slipped Disc.

Levine's suit offers many behind-the-scenes glimpses of his deteriorating relationship with the Met's general manager, Mr Peter Gelb.

It said that after a dress rehearsal of Tannhauser in 2015, when Levine was struggling with issues related to Parkinson's disease, Mr Gelb "called Levine's personal internist, Dr Len Horovitz, to question Levine's mental fitness".

When Levine stepped down as music director in 2016, the suit added, the Met released a public statement in his name that he had not wanted to issue.

Ms Plevan said the Met moved Levine to the music director emeritus role only when it became obvious he was no longer physically capable of discharging his musicdirector duties.

She added that the Met continued to support him in that role - "a position created especially for him" - and suspended its ties with him only when he was accused of sexual misconduct.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 17, 2018, with the headline 'Conductor sues Met after firing over misconduct'. Subscribe