Sunday, December 10, 2017

Quote of the Day (Gospel of Mark, on John the Baptist)

“John the Baptist was in the desert, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. All Judaea and all the people of Jerusalem made their way to him, and as they were baptized by him in the river Jordan they confessed their sins. John wore a garment of camel-skin, and he lived on locusts and wild honey. In the course of his preaching he said, ‘After me is coming someone who is more powerful than me, and I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’”—Mark 1: 4-8 (New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition)

The image accompanying this post is a painting created between 1550 and 1555 by the Italian Renaissance master Titian (1488-1576).

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Met’s James Levine Problem: From an Individual’s ‘Open Secret’ to Institutional Crisis

“[T]his is no ordinary scandal: It is an existential crisis, one that threatens the survival of a financially beleaguered organization that had already spent years struggling with the problem of Mr. Levine’s declining health….If the number of accusers continues to grow, it will appear increasingly likely that others, at the Met and elsewhere, knew more about Mr. Levine’s alleged behavior than has previously been acknowledged. Should this prove to be the case, then the poison will have spread beyond a single individual to the institution as a whole.”— Terry Teachout, “The Levine Cataclysm,’ The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 6, 2017

As far back as freshman year in college in the late 1970s, a classmate nicknamed “Opera Man” passed along to me a bit of gossip about James Levine, then only a few years into his lengthy tenure as principal conductor -music director of the Metropolitan Opera.

“He likes boys,” my classmate said, leaving little doubt, with his lifted eyebrow, exactly what he meant.

This conversation took place in New York. But as far away as Kansas City, around the same time, the same tidbit made its way to Terry Teachout, the playwright, blogger and longtime Wall Street Journal cultural critic related in a recent column.

Just these two people—one, geographically distant from the events (Levine), the other, not a part of the maestro’s musical milieu (me)—are enough to demonstrate that this particular rumor about Levine was, in the phrase so commonly used now as to become a cliché, an “open secret.”

Over the years, I’d catch sight of Levine—profiled on American Masters as “America’s Maestro,” showered with Opera News, George Peabody, and Grammy Awards, honored by the Kennedy Center, for God’s sake—and wonder how so many people who must have heard the same thing I did managed to close their ears and shut their eyes. 

And I wondered, after the bonfire of sexual abuse allegations engulfing and terribly damaging the Roman Catholic Church in 2002: “When will it be Levine’s turn?”

Well, at long last, it may be now. Reports in The New York Post and The New York Times that Levine has been accused of sexual misconduct with four youths dating back decades show that the “Me, Too” phenomenon unleashed in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal has taken on a whole different dimension. 

Some wags have employed the term “maestrobation” to describe one of the particular activities supposedly engaged in by Levine. The surprise of the new word might be funny, except that what is being described is sexual assault that leaves long-lasting psychological damage. And the financial cost to ameliorate such damage, as the Roman Catholic Church has discovered, ends up being borne not just by perpetrators but by the organizations that abetted the abuse.

As Teachout points out in the characteristically trenchant column I cited above, the Met itself stands in mortal danger if the investigation by the outside law firm Proskauer Rose turns up evidence that the institution either covered up or turned a blind eye to Levine’s alleged crimes.

I’m not just talking about other musical festivals and organizations that the globetrotting maestro visited, such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), the Munich Philharmonic and the Ravinia Festival in Illinois. 

(When he was 12, according to Ben Miller in an article for VAN Magazine, his father--a BSO cellist--and mother told him about the "serious rumors" whirling around Levine already, and warned him "never to be alone in a room" with the conductor and even to "walk the other way if I saw him coming." As for Ravinia, it was, in effect, ground zero for the charges: abuse of a 16-year-old that allegedly took place in 1986— an accusation reported last year. For once, someone—in this case, the Lake Forest Police Department in Illinois—actually pressed hard to investigate Levine. That department has now announced that it will not pursue charges because the teen involved was of the age of consent at the time.)

No, smaller institutions may also be gulping and sweating now. Each summer, classical music, theater, and dance companies around the country train in their craft thousands of talented youngsters. The incentives to these companies are obvious: creating a talent pipeline for tomorrow’s artists, gaining a source of cheap, short-term labor, and attracting funding from foundations that will pay for this educational outreach. The advantage to teens is even stronger:  a much-needed experience that can help them better themselves and develop a support network.

But such summer internships could also prove a nightmare for parents who leave their talented children, craving affirmation, in places where they can get it, all right—at the hands of cunning sexual users who can appear as mentors even as they camouflage their true intentions. 

These young people are in their way every bit as vulnerable as the children of at-risk families who seemed to be the special targets of many pedophile priests. Yes, their talents make them special, but also isolate them from peers. 

In commitment to craft and willingness to abide significant aches and pains, a ballet dancer, for instance, can be just as athletic as a football player, but unlikely to receive the adulation accorded to gridiron stars. She is all too open to someone who can give that attention.

All of this can happen in environments where alcohol can soften defenses and where family and friends are hundreds, even thousands, of miles away.

The opportunities for exploitation are considerable, and Levine is not the only charismatic adult in the cultural world who may have done so. Last week, The New York Times also reported that Israel Horovitz, the playwright and longtime artistic director of the Gloucester Stage Company, has been accused by nine women of sexual assault and misconduct. 

If the allegations are true, Levine and Horovitz went beyond the deference often granted artists to something more akin to droit du seigneur, the customary right of a feudal lord to have his way with a vassal's bride on her wedding night—in modern terms, taking advantage of their positions to sexually surprise confused teens.

They share something else in common, too, if their accusers are to be believed: an icy coldness when the fun and games are over. When Chris Brown, who said he surrendered to Levine's advances as a 17-year-old at Michigan’s Meadow Brook School of Music in 1968, told the up-and-coming maestro that he would not repeat the experience, Levine ignored this former favorite for the rest of the summer. Similarly, when an aspiring actress protested after Horovitz put his tongue in her mouth during rehearsals, the director would put in an understudy and replace her with another cast member.

The Met has already been skating on thin financial ice for a while, forcing general manager Peter Gelb into a nasty labor dispute with its orchestra and chorus two years ago. (See James B. Stewart’s article in The New Yorker about this troubled time.) 

An adverse report from Proskauer Rose about the organization's dealings with Levine may not only trigger costly lawsuits but an exodus of faithful members and donors. A smaller institution may have even fewer means of survival--particularly if it has to answer questions, as The Met surely will now, about why they didn't do the necessary due diligence and investigate a star administrator or performer before offering him a generous contract. 

The 74-year-old Levine, who has already suffered from health problems for the last several years, may now, as a result of the scandal, have conducted his last performance at The Met and the other institutions where he worked, as virtually all have either suspended or completely cut ties with him. 

But even as his presence fades, the questions posed by his case and other errant artistic leaders across the country will persist. Administrators of the arts and their trustees will have to honestly and painfully review their past actions to see what went wrong--and implement new procedures to ensure past mistakes aren't repeated.

"All professions are conspiracies against the laity," George Bernard Shaw wrote in The Doctor's Dilemma. Acolytes of the arts have, unknown to much of the public, been experiencing their own loss of faith because of the profession's "priesthood." For that reason, the American arts community, already facing adverse forces in the Trump administration, may now have to weather a storm whose ominous clouds they had ignored for far too long.

(The accompanying Flickr photo of James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera House was taken Dec. 21, 2013, by Ralph Daily.)

Quote of the Day (Alexander Pope, on the Reign of Chaos and Division)

“Joy to great Chaos! Let Division reign:
Chromatic tortures soon shall drive them hence,
Break all their nerves, and fritter all their sense:
One Trill shall harmonize joy, grief, and rage,
Wake the dull church, and lull the ranting stage;
To the same notes thy sons shall hum, or snore,
And all thy yawning daughters cry, encore.” —English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744), The Dunciad (1728)

Pope wrote his mock epic (one of my favorite long poems) about the baleful consequences of incompetence in the arts. 

But today, “chaos” and “division” describe a wider landscape—beginning in the "ranting stage" of the electronic culture, a vast black hole of inventive, hatred, and untruths, with its now-dimmed light bouncing toward the world of politics, which in turn reflects it back toward that hole, with the light growing ever fainter as it ricochets. 

Pope’s apocalyptic finale is of Creation reversed, and so it feels at times today, as the wider understanding heralded by God-given reason is gradually obscured by opportunists through polarizing propaganda.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Quote of the Day (Frank Sullivan, on Why To ‘Keep Yule’ Even With ‘No Great Cause for Mirth’)

“It may be argued, and with some reason,
That we could skip this Christmas season,
There being no great cause for mirth
And precious little peace on earth.
Not me. I'm sorry, but I'll keep Yule
With any kindred spirit who'll
Accompany me in a Christmas caper,
So how's about it, Muriel Draper?”—Frank Sullivan, “Greetings, Friends!”, in The New Yorker, Dec. 23, 1939

“Greetings, Friends!” is a New Yorker tradition that began in 1935. Frank Sullivan, who started and maintained it for the next four decades, was, recalled his longtime editor Roger Angell in an interview with Jenna Krajeski eight years ago, not only one of the magazine’s early humor writers, but also “a famously charming and sociable guy” who often listed friends like the Marx Brothers and John O'Hara in these holiday verses. At its best, whether under Sullivan or the successors who carried on the tradition, Angell and, more recently, Ian Frazier, these Yuletide light verses still contain the same verve.

At one point or another, many of us have found “no great cause for mirth” anywhere, either in our personal lives or in the wider world. But back in 1939, this may have been even truer, what with a Great Depression not really shed yet (the economy had experienced another downturn in 1937-38) and, of course, war breaking out beyond the shores of North America. Even so, Sullivan found reason to rejoice—and so, in our own dark time, should we.

(By the way: If, like me, you may have wondered about Sullivan’s Muriel Draper reference, she was a society hostess, arts aficionado, decorator, and writer prominent in the Harlem Renaissance.)