James Levine leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on 1 February, 2010.(Photo by Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Get woke, go broke: when cancel culture backfires

The attempted cancellation of James Levine came at a high price for New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

The pandemic has been a financial disaster for arts institutions worldwide, but nowhere more than in New York, where early local government mismanagement resulted in a disproportionately high number of cases and deaths. The Metropolitan Opera, the city’s premiere performing company, lost an estimated $60 million from the cancellation of its remaining 2019-2020 season and faces as much as another $200 million in losses in the current season, which is now cancelled in its entirety.

How sad, then, that just before this fiscal tsunami arrived the already struggling opera company had to reach a legal settlement with arguably the single most important performer in its history: former music director and celebrated conductor James Levine. Levine, who debuted at the Met in 1971 and went on to revolutionise the company’s performance standards was suspended without pay in December 2017 amid revelations of decades-old sexual harassment claims and then, in March 2018, fired him from his post as music director emeritus and all other responsibilities.

Almost immediately following Levine’s suspension, but months before the Met’s internal investigation reached any conclusions, the Met’s general manager Peter Gelb publicly stated that “this is a tragedy for anyone whose life had been affected,” as though the allegations were already proven.

The size of the settlement strongly suggests that the Met’s ‘credible evidence’ was probably far less than ‘credible’

All US arts institutions with ties to Levine categorically severed relations with him, with Puritanical Boston’s symphony, which he led from 2004 to 2011, declaring that Levine will never again work with them. Much of the media all but declared his guilt, smugly citing Gelb’s statement along with other gossip that led one to wonder how the pundits would have reacted if mere innuendo had superseded the laws and contracts governing their employment. Levine’s publisher withdrew a lucrative book contract. Banal New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini sniffed that he would no longer keep Levine-led recordings in his living room, where Manhattan’s moral guardians might disapprovingly glimpse them at some insipid cocktail party. The Met’s Sirius radio channel for a time stopped broadcasting performances Levine had conducted in past decades, diminishing the quality of its content and inflicting unwarranted collateral damage on the hundreds of other performers featured in them.

Levine denied the allegations from the start, and within days of his termination filed a lawsuit against the Met for breach of contract, and against the Met and Gelb for defamation, along with other claims. He sought over $5.8 million in damages, mainly for lost income. His case was compelling. No allegation against him has ever been proved or found factual, in a court of law or otherwise. To the contrary, police investigations of his alleged conduct, including one that the Met knew about as long before the scandal, identified no grounds to charge him with any crime, let alone convict him. Levine’s court complaint, which is available in the public record, identified a substantial amount of countervailing evidence, including years of friendly correspondence from his alleged victims long after he had allegedly abused them.

No allegation involved any form of penetrative sex, which is more than both major political parties’ current presidential candidates can say about the allegations against them. As such, Levine’s contract contained no “morals clause” that might have given the company grounds to fire him. The Met’s official statement on his dismissal only claimed that its internal investigation had found “credible evidence that Mr. Levine engaged in sexually abusive and harassing conduct towards vulnerable artists in the early stages of their careers.” Unsupported by any disclosed evidence, that very statement formed the basis of one of Levine’s defamation claims.

Coming, as they did, in the hysterical atmosphere that shook the entertainment world in the weeks after the revelations against Harvey Weinstein, the Met stuck to its guns over the Levine allegations, supported by a wide swath of opinion willing to toss overboard a thousand years of basic legal protections on the ever less compelling premise that individuals who complain of sexual harassment never lie unless they are accusing Joe Biden.

The woke world is saddened by the results of this failed cancellation

The Met filed a countersuit against Levine for an amount identical to his own claim, arguing without much evidence that his alleged actions had resulted in actionable damages, and disclosed the embarrassing details of some of the allegations. The Met’s lawyers eventually convinced a judge to dismiss most of Levine’s defamation claims, but perhaps the most important one – his objection to the Met’s statement that it had found “credible evidence” against him – was allowed to proceed along with his other claims. Along the way, the company disposed of director John Cox over an allegedly “inappropriate” comment to a member of the Met’s chorus, removed tenor Vittorio Grigolo from its roster over an alleged incident of unwelcome touching during a curtain call while he was performing with another company in Japan, and secured the departure of operatic superstar Plácido Domingo over allegations of historical misconduct involving his work at other opera companies.

After months of further legal wrangling, in August 2019 the parties reached a settlement. The terms were subject to a non-disclosure agreement. Both sides remained tight-lipped, making the settlement details the best kept secret in the performing arts universe for more than a year and inviting an enormous amount of speculation about whether any money had changed hands at all.

We now know that money did, indeed, change hands. According to at least two internal sources cited by the New York Times on September 21, the date that would have been the opening night of the Met’s new season, Levine got $3.5 million, or about 60 percent of the damages demanded in his lawsuit. This sizeable payment strongly suggests what many have long suspected – that the Met’s “credible evidence” was probably far less than “credible,” and that the company was unwilling to risk an expensive and humiliating loss at trial, where its officials and Levine’s accusers would have to have repeated their stories under oath.

The woke world is saddened by the results of this failed cancellation. The New York Times’s story, by classical music writer Michael Cooper and, for some reason, James B. Stewart, author of a recent book called Deep State: Trump, the FBI, and the Rule of Law, scolds its readers under the facile title, “The Met Opera Fired James Levine, Citing Sexual Misconduct. He Was Paid $3.5 Million.” Noting the Met’s already ailing finances, the story’s authors mourn the company’s “fight for its survival,” in part, they imply, because Levine had the poor manners to assert his contractual and employment rights rather than meekly accept ignominious cancellation after a stellar fifty-year career.

Levine’s payoff in fact equals only about two percent of the Met’s projected losses from March to December 2020, but even if it were consequential enough to imperil the company’s future, its board, management, and media sympathisers might better ask why it so recklessly denied due process to a celebrity employee with the substantial means necessary to bring down the cold hand of the law. But rather than raise that obvious question as #MeToo fades into #SoWhat, Cooper and Stewart try to find irony in Levine’s professional future, which to their apparent bemusement includes an engagement to conduct Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust in Florence in January 2021. I am pleased I will not see them there, but to whom have they sold their souls?

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