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He's Still Wielding Met's Stick

Music: James Levine will mark 25 years conducting the Metropolitan Opera by putting in a very full day at today's office party.

April 27, 1996|JUSTIN DAVIDSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — James Levine, artistic director of the Metropolitan Opera, has been there for 25 years, and still seems out of place amid the Met's magnificent glamour.

He is a small, pudgy man who alternates between two outfits: his evening work clothes (white tie and tails, usually drenched in sweat) and his daytime attire (white polo shirt, shapeless blue polyester pants, desert boots, a towel slung over his left shoulder). Tired and reflective at the end of a long day of rehearsing, he slumps in a high-backed leather armchair with his feet up, meditating on the artistic value of fatigue.

"We often play our best on Saturday night, when we should be our tiredest," he says of his orchestra. "It's a relaxed kind of energy, rather than a nervous, wound-up kind of energy."

The demands of the Met's schedule and his own innate workaholism make it crucial for him to find the virtue in being tired. Even at tonight's gala performance celebrating the 25th anniversary of his Met debut--which involves some five dozen of the world's great operatic voices (and will be broadcast live on PBS)--it is Levine who will be doing the heavy lifting. While the singers each come onstage for a few minutes, Levine will spend the entire 6 1/2 hours (not counting intermissions) in the place he loves best: on the podium of the Metropolitan Opera.

"I've known singers who spend an enormous amount of time in bed between performances," he says, possibly with a touch of envy. "It's what they need."

Levine's almost preternatural instinct for what singers need is a key to his success. He chuckles knowingly as he quotes tenor Nicolai Gedda's assertion that "the conductor must love the singer."

This one does, and the dozens of world-class singers who arrived in New York this week have come to return his affection. They have reason to be grateful. Over the years, he has protected them from their own foibles, known how to make them shine, even made them sound better than they do in other houses.

"He creates an atmosphere around him that is very safe," Frederica Von Stade says. "You just know it's going to be all right. It's going to be better than all right."

To Levine, it's a matter of identifying with the singer, imagining what it is like to try to control an inner organ rather than a piece of wood and steel. "What a singer does is bound up with sensation," he says. "That's completely different from someone whose instrument is outside his body. When you coach a singer, you hear and the singer feels. It's almost impossible for a singer to make a dramatic change just because you ask him to do so. And if you do ask him, very rarely will it be something that feels better at first."

Conducting, he implies, is the art of making it feel better. The opera conductor is a combination teacher, coach and therapist, and Levine has had both the patience and the years necessary to persuade even the most inflexible singer to bend.

"I learned something from him that I couldn't get from anyone else: the energy of the phrase," Luciano Pavarotti says. "I've always been romantic, even melancholy. With him, I'm more vital."

*

Levine leans back in his armchair and the soft curls of his hair squash against the leather headrest; he leans forward and they spring back into shape. It is an apt metaphor for his own malleability and resistance, his way of getting what he wants out of his collaborators and yet adapting his desires to circumstance: "The way I imagine the result is not far from the reality," he says, leaving it vague as to which must inch closer to the other.

When the 28-year-old Levine made his 1971 Met debut with "Tosca," he did not try to fight tenor Franco Corelli's eccentrically, almost unsustainably slow tempo, in "E lucevan le stelle," recalls Patrick Smith, editor of Opera News. Instead, he matched the singer's pace with the fidelity of a seeing-eye dog. "I thought, 'If he can walk into that pit and hold on to that tempo, the guy's a real opera conductor,' " Smith says.

The Met orchestra is now Levine's orchestra, and it has molded itself to him like a comfortable shoe. Over the years he has gradually transformed an indifferent house ensemble into one of the world's great orchestras and today his players are, he says, "so attuned to my rhythmic impetus that I don't even have to say anything."

Indeed, leading an orchestral rehearsal of Wagner's "Die Walkure" in the Met's subterranean reaches a few days later, Levine says little. A flick of his baton, and music crashes around the mirrored rehearsal room, which looks and sounds like a gym. When he stops to comment, his instructions seem vague and impenetrable to the outsider: "Horns, it pops a little. It helps if the melody instruments are very warm there." Immediately, mysteriously, a passage that sounded tight and proficient becomes suddenly thrilling.

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