A little over a week ago, news broke of the death of former Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine. Reporters and critics across the classical music and opera worlds wrote long obituaries that interrogated Levine’s complicated legacy.
The first item that most obituaries touched upon was Levine’s critical success as the conductor of the Met. He led the institution for four decades, turning a noted opera company into the biggest classical music organization in America. (Levine also spent some time as conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Munich Philharmonic, though neither of these posts received as much critical attention.)
Following this explanation of Levine’s performance career, most obituaries mentioned the years of sexual misconduct allegations that led to Levine’s unceremonious dismissal from the Metropolitan Opera last year. Numerous young men have accused Levine of abusing his power as a conductor to sexually assault them; in at least one instance, an alleged assault was reported to police.
Many critics, performers and composers have taken Levine’s death as an opportunity to question the conductor worship that gave Levine so much power in the industry. Perhaps Levine’s alleged abuse would have been addressed sooner had he not held hundreds of careers in his hands.
While I agree with this critique, I fear that this singular focus on Levine distracts from the larger issue at hand: Numerous individuals in positions of authority over the course of Levine’s career failed to address his alleged abuse. With some combination of feigned ignorance and deliberate silence, these individuals allowed Levine’s alleged predation to continue unchecked.
The first known allegation of sexual assault against Levine, for example, comes from 1968, three years before he garnered critical acclaim as a conductor. Levine was nothing more than a 25-year-old faculty member at a Michigan music school at the time — it was the inherent power of his teaching position that aided in his alleged perpetration of abuse.
Had any other faculty members in this program learned of this alleged abuse, they could presumably have taken steps to address the abuse without facing significant professional repercussions. Levine did not yet hold the keys to hundreds of artists’ careers.
Though I can’t speak to the whisper network that presumably surrounded Levine throughout his professional career, I can write about the whisper network that long surrounded Stephen Shipps, former University of Michigan music school professor. (In 2018, I helped report four decades of previously undisclosed sexual harassment and misconduct allegations against Shipps; he was indicted on two sex crime charges in October and faces a post-pandemic criminal trial.)
In The Daily’s first article on this case, we reported that Shipps’s alleged abuse was reported to a music school professor in the summer after Shipps’s hiring was announced and before he started teaching. This was in 1989 — Shipps had not yet accumulated institutional power as a department chair, associate dean and youth program director.
It remains unclear if the music school professor reported this allegation. It similarly is unknown if the University launched any investigation before granting Shipps tenure.
A few months ago, I obtained a statement that was sent to the prosecutors working on Shipps’s criminal case. The statement came from a former North Carolina School of the Arts violin student. In it, he spoke of the administrative indifference that he believes the school’s dean demonstrated toward allegations against Shipps.
“(The school’s then-dean) perpetuated Shipps’ inappropriate sexual conduct,” the former student wrote, “and allowed it to continue for 30 more years at the University of Michigan … This could have all ended in 1986 if (he) had taken the appropriate actions.”
I remember when I first learned about this former dean while interviewing a survivor that later went on the record. She mentioned that this dean was still teaching at the collegiate level. Unlike many of the other authority figures she believed ignored her allegations of abuse, he could still be held accountable for his actions.
When I reached him by email, he told me that he could not remember much of his time as the dean of the North Carolina School of the Arts.
“I was at NCSA from 1986-90,” he wrote. “It was long ago, and I have done so many things since then. I am not sure I could be of much help.”
He did not respond to multiple emails providing him with more details about the alleged sexual misconduct that took place during his time as dean. It remains unclear if prosecutors have sought to interview him based on the information they received.
It took tremendous bravery for nine survivors to speak to The Daily about the alleged sexual harassment and misconduct they experienced, and it took significant bravery for numerous friends and former colleagues of these survivors to corroborate specific aspects of their accounts.
It would have taken comparatively little bravery for a professor or a dean to address allegations of sexual misconduct that had been raised against their colleague — I would hope that it is within a dean’s basic job description that they actively address allegations of sexual misconduct that leave some of their students feeling unsafe.
A few weeks ago, an email from Peter Gelb, Metropolitan Opera general manager, to unpaid members of his organization’s flagship orchestra surfaced on Twitter.
“I’m writing with the sad news of James Levine’s passing,” Gelb wrote. “No artist in the 137-year history of the Met had as profound an impact … as Jim.”
If the responses to Levine’s death offer us anything, I hope that they offer us some clarity over the expectations we should set for leaders of major cultural institutions. I hope that moving forward, we can challenge not only the explicit power of the conductor but also the implicit power of the arts administrator.
Daily Arts Contributor Sammy Sussman can be reached at email@example.com.