James Levine is dead, and he never really suffered any consequences for spending decades sexually assaulting young boys. He still got to die a millionaire, having lived a life of wealth and privilege, and the white washing of his crimes was well underway before he died. Who’s to blame? There’s lots of criticism of managers like Gelb, or the wealthy donors and board members that protected and enabled Levine for decades.
But what about the musicians that worked with him while making jokes about his taste for ‘little boys’? What about the musicians that ignored his crimes in the name of self-preservation or laziness or because he was a ‘great conductor’? What about the public that decided their personal enjoyment of opera was more important than keeping children safe?
Every young student hears stories in hushed whispers and giggles about the “unusual tastes” of certain stars of the profession. Classical music is as a culture, so uncomfortable talking about sex, that even when that sex is abusive we lack the vocabulary to describe it as such. We cannot and should not deny our sexualities but consensual sex, rape, sexual assault and harassment are not the same things. In the classical music world, you might be forgiven for thinking that the sexual lives of individuals fit neatly into operatic archetypes of Don Juan’s, prudish victims, and unrepentant harpies. It doesn’t leave much space for nuance or accountability. Why are we taking our cues on sex from long dead 19th century European men?
Our culture loves the idea that individual stars, in their perfection, have the power to personally shoulder the weight of entire art-forms. The community at large is responsible for perpetuating this myth of the artistic genius. Those labels burden individuals with the impossible task of living up to an idea of embodied transcendence. And, when those individuals inevitably fail to meet this unrealistic standard, the communities that surround those stars are left to clean up.
That said, it’s not at all true that every great artist is actually a jerk. Most of these highly talented people, when feeling burdened by impossible public pressures, work out their damage through therapy, or kickboxing, or BDSM or knitting or whatever… The pressures of success create the conditions for artists to crack, and the culture that surrounds those artists conditions how they respond. It’s time to reverse the narrative of the tortured genius because there is no glory in suffering, or peace to be found wielding one’s power inflicting suffering on others.
So, we should talk about Levine. But his passing must be an opportunity to talk about a world full of Levines and Levines-in-the-making. Classical music’s extreme concentrations of power and closed-door company cultures are ripe breeding grounds for this kind of behaviour. To change the culture of genius-worship and secrecy that breeds these abuses, everyone involved needs to respond actively, thoughtfully, and seriously.
If you discover a favorite collaborator is actually an abuser, doing nothing is no longer an option. It might feel unfair that the responsibility for change-making is levied on those co-workers and bosses of abusers, but that is how it is. We should take these moments as opportunities to query the institutional practices that allow individuals to hold so much power and open pathways for empowering new and different voices. The current system teaches that success means rising above our peers, and encourages individuals to strengthen themselves by sucking up the labour and life-force of others. It’s incumbent on all of us to sensitively and collaboratively imagine better, less stratified systems, built to sustain musicians as whole people, and get to work building them.
Abuse is much less likely to occur in homes where the occupants are well-nourished, the doors are unlocked and the windows are open to the world. The arts are full of manipulative egomaniacs but these madmen don’t stand alone; their power comes from the people around them and the houses they build.
By Jessica Aszodi and Patrick Johnson-Whitty