Criticisms on Fridays: The Polarized Response to the Death of Problematic Artist

The Death of James Levine Has Further Exposed a Divided Opera World

By Polina Lyapustina
(Photo by Jamie Street)

Every Friday, Polina Lyapustina delivers a short essay on some of the most sensitive topics in the industry with the intent of establishing a dialogue about the opera world and its future.

James Levine died. And the short and direct words of facts seem the only way to speak about it. A very controversial and big persona of the music world has passed. It was announced on March 17, although it happened eight days before.

Immediately, the first stripes of the newspapers were full of short headings and very delicate obituaries. But it’s so easy to see in them, that no one so far wants to conclude the conductor’s life honestly and comprehensively. Facts are not the worst choice, though. And maybe, the absence of any evaluation now causes less pain.

Maybe, no one is yet brave enough to overcome all these controversies or simply to take one side at the official level, although some have already done it in his lifetime. But about the dead, say good or nothing, seems to be the stance of many. And I wonder, for how long the memories of the dead would be valued higher than the welfare of future generations.

Meanwhile, on social networks, people share their perspectives freely, without obligation to be exhaustive. The loyal fans and many musicians mourn his death sincerely. For them, James Levine will forever remain a great conductor with whom they might have shared memorable experience and whose legacy must be protected and handed down to posterity. And in light of his horrid actions, this group of people, which is not necessarily insensitive to the pain of the victims, is forced to struggle with reconciling this behavior with the aspects of him they venerate. There’s understandably painful reflection in that.

The challenge however is in their expression of the loss. Posting about Levine on social media in light of his death with an intent to express the pain over his loss automatically lionizes him. When you take to social channels in this manner you are celebrating his life through his death. And that is poisonous because this hurts victims all over again. And not only the victims of Levine, but everyone who ever experienced such abuse. So it is no surprise that when people in this camp have expressed that sorrow of losing Levine on social channels, they have found very big pushback, much of it aggressive in nature.

But ultimately, I believe the admirers more than others need to accept that wonderful music was never intended to justify immorality. If it would be possible, with time to separate the deeds of James Levine from his artistry, then long live the music. But we don’t divide a person into halves. And pretending to see exclusively the good part as the measure of the man, people only allow the pain to haunt them.

Meanwhile, the victims and those who support them are celebrating that this era is over and can now be forgotten. From their posts, it appears to be a huge relief.

But I ask: when we call on forgetting James Levine, what would be forgotten? And should we really forget any of this?

Scrolling the Twitter feed with the hashtag #jameslevine I found a repeatable and seemingly reasonable conclusion, “How will he be remembered? History will decide.”

But you know what? As someone born in Russia, I have qualms with the expression of history. Since biblical times and onward, history was written and re-written to favor the interests of those in power, changed so many times that only in many cases only a relatively short human life keeps mankind from being completely confused by what has actually happened.

What if today, we don’t forget or just let history decide, but accept our role in healing those wounds that have been inflicted and preventing new ones.

And I’m afraid that by choosing to remember only music (and ignoring his victims) or claim oblivion (and forget that this was a person who did manage major professional achievements and thus someone with considerable power and influence, both positive and negative, over others), we may only turn ourselves into other victims of what happened.

Nothing must be forgotten. Once we will have misremembered it, without learning a lesson or evolving, keeping silent with our respective pain inside, no matter if we loved or hated him, we will only support the reality of the abuse from people in a position of authority. And it won’t be long before another story in the words of new sufferers, will remind us (not the deceased James Levine) how fragile this peaceful but false silence is.

Neither glorifications nor attacks of this week taught us any good so far. So, maybe it’s not the final judgment we need today, but changes. In us, first of all. To see our pain and the pain of others, that may differ greatly. And then to protect — again ourselves and others. Many bad things happened in this story and I don’t want to see another war on the coffin lid. And I hope, this matter will not divide the industry, but instead, we could start approaching this difficult question together.

No one’s perspective is wide enough, but to comprehend and evolve from the stories of people with problematic pasts, we can only do so by realizing many different aspects, while ultimately listening to victims and those most immediately affected by the person in question. And then, what happened might finally become nothing but history. Without a single chance to be repeated.