In 2018, New York City’s Metropolitan Opera fired James Levine, the company’s longstanding and critically celebrated conductor, in the aftermath of three men coming forward to allege that Levine had abused them when they were teenagers. Additionally, these stories revealed that the alarm had been raised about Levine several times in the past, only to remain un-acted upon, compounding the trauma suffered by the survivors. On Sunday, however, the New York Times revealed that to settle a contentious legal battle that Levine launched against the Metropolitan Opera in the wake of his firing, the opera company paid the conductor $3.5 million after his departure.
As the Times points out, there is significant precedent for prominent men ousted from their positions of power in the wake of abuse allegations making off with millions of dollars as part of their “punishment.” What makes Levine’s hefty payout particularly devastating is the fact that due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Metropolitan Opera has been physically closed since March and scores of employees, musicians and performers have since gone without pay or been furloughed. In effect, paying Levine $3.5 million has contributed significantly to the company’s now being in extreme financial peril.
Levine’s alleged misconduct is wide-ranging in nature: according to the Met, in 1985, the conductor apparently gave a prospective opera singer a ride home from an audition and subsequently locked him in the car. Levine reportedly proceeded to kiss and grope the opera singer without consent, and further abused his power by subsequently placing the singer in a prestigious program at the Met. Chris Brown, a former principal bass player in the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, told the Times in 2017 that in 1968 Levine had coerced him into a sexual relationship while Brown was 17 and still in highschool and Levine was 25. Levine’s massive payout and the Met’s struggle to survive in 2020 provides insight into how sexual abuse can be destructive on many different levels: not only does it cause human pain and suffering, but institutional collapse when the abuser is awarded too much power over time.