James Levine will retire as the Metropolitan Opera's music director at the end of this season because of Parkinson's disease, ending a 40-year run that lifted the company to a golden era but became increasingly problematic as his health declined.
Met general manager Peter Gelb said Thursday that Levine, who turns 73 in June, will become music director emeritus and a successor as music director will be appointed in "a couple months." While Levine intends to conduct in future seasons and will remain head of the company's young artist development program, the Met said his health has made it difficult for him to retain a full schedule.
'I am tremendously proud of all we have been able to achieve together as a company, from expanding the repertory... to the development of the orchestra and chorus into one of the glories of the musical world." - James Levine
"It had to be done. Jim recognizes that he needs to move on to a new chapter in his career," Gelb said during an interview.
"The tragedy for him is that his musical mind and ideas are as great as ever. Physically he's not able to relay the information because of his Parkinson's."
Levine made his Met debut in June 1971 in Puccini's Tosca and eight months later was hired as principal conductor starting with the 1973-74 season. In May 1975, the company said he would become music director in 1976-77, and his title was upgraded to artistic director in 1986, a position he held until it reverted to music director in 2004, when he also became music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
He has led 2,551 performances of more than 85 operas with the Met, by far the most by a conductor in the company's history. His tenure with a single orchestra is a rarity in a business where frequent podium shifts are commonplace. He instituted regular symphonic concerts with the orchestra in 1991 and a chamber ensemble in 1998.
'Pleased to step into new role'
"I am tremendously proud of all we have been able to achieve together as a company, from expanding the repertory to include new and seldom-heard works, to the development of the orchestra and chorus into one of the glories of the musical world," Levine said in a statement.
"Although I am unable to spend as much time on the podium as I would like, I am pleased to step into my new role and maintain my profound artistic ties to the Met."
The favourites to succeed Levine appear to be Yannick Nézet-Séguin, a 41-year-old Canadian who is music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Gianandrea Noseda, a 51-year Italian who is music director of the Teatro Regio in Turin.
Because conductors are booked years in advance, Gelb said "there cannot be a seamless transition."
Levine led upward of 110 performances in a season in the 1980s, including tours. His successor likely would not conduct one-third that total.
"That was a superhuman effort that has never been attempted or equalled," Gelb said.
"There's no conductor who's going to give that kind of time commitment to any organization."
Multiple health issues
While Levine upgraded the quality of the orchestra to the highest level since the company began in 1883, his health has been an issue for more than a decade and his baton and cues became harder to follow this season.
Levine has conducted from a chair since late 2001, and when tremors in his left arm and leg became noticeable in 2004, he said they began a decade earlier. His health worsened in 2006, when he tripped and fell on the stage of Boston's Symphony Hall during ovations that followed a performance and he tore a rotator cuff, which required shoulder surgery.
He had an operation in 2008 to remove a kidney and another in 2009 to repair a herniated disk in his back. He then suffered spinal stenosis, leading to surgeries in May and July 2011. He had another operation that September after falling and damaging a vertebra, an injury that sidelined him until May 2013. He relinquished his BSO position in 2011.
'If it was up to him, he would die on the podium.' - Peter Gelb
Gelb said the Met came close to announcing Levine's retirement earlier this winter but held off, waiting to see if a change in medication would improve Levine's health. While there was improvement, Gelb said there was not enough.
Levine is scheduled to conduct his remaining Met performances this season of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra and Die Entfuehrung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio). He is withdrawing from next year's new staging of Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier but remains slated for revivals of Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers), Verdi's Nabucco and Mozart's Idomeneo.
Levine will be scheduled in the future one season ahead of performances. He hopes to conduct for many years.
"If it was up to him," Gelb said, "he would die on the podium."