James Levine surveyed the gala crowd as he rolled along one aisle at the Metropolitan Opera House on his motorized chair. Placido Domingo and Renee Fleming ambled down another.
Then the curtain rose on “James Levine: America’s Maestro,” a new documentary directed by Susan Froemke.
The maestro, 67, has been a halo-haired presence at the Met since his debut in 1971 with “Tosca” starring Grace Bumbry and Franco Corelli. He’s now conducting Wagner’s “Die Walkure” -- an epic that could upend younger stalwarts without his health problems.
When the lights went up, Levine beckoned 620 guests to join him on stage where tables decorated with white hyacinths and tulips showed off vintage photographs of the maestro illuminated by flickering votive candles.
Many of these pictures may also be viewed in the new hagiography, “James Levine: 40 Years at the Metropolitan Opera.”
Gala chairmen Mercedes Bass and Sid Bass presided over a meal including vegetable timbale, filet of beef and baked Alaska.
Guests included Ann Ziff, sponsor of the new “Ring” cycle, Bruce Kovner, chairman and chief executive of Caxton Associates LLC, Frederick Iseman, chairman and CEO of CI Capital Partners LLC, Barbara Walters and Frank Langella.
Levine sat at a long banquet table with the general manager of the Met, Peter Gelb.
The motley group of entertainers included Elaine Stritch who sang “Broadway Baby,” an acknowledgment of Levine’s love for musical theater (though the Met bans cross-over repertoire on its lofty stage). Bryn Terfel led the crowd in a round of “Home on the Range.” “This is so you can tell your grandchildren you sang on the stage of the Met!” he joked.
Barbara Cook offered a sprightly rendition of “Here’s to Life!” Board members presented Levine with a portrait of Richard Wagner by Elizabeth Peyton, whose lighthearted evocation of “Die Walkure” fill the Met’s gallery space.
Domingo sang from “Otello,” which he first performed with Levine in Hamburg in 1975. He recalled Levine’s advice.
“He said, ‘When you arrive at the fourth act, you’ve sung such a difficult role. At the end, when the tragedy is so big, you have to enjoy it and make the public feel it,’” Domingo recounted. “In every one of the 250 performances I’ve done, I remember those words.”
Callings and Choices
Finally, an emotional Levine stood up at his table.
“You know some things are jobs, and some things are callings. Some things are inspirations and some things are choices.”
He then thanked the board for its support “through thick and thin, so it’s possible to triumph over this hydra-headed art form.”
The event raised $2 million.
“James Levine: America’s Maestro” will air as part of the PBS American Masters series on June 1.
(Amanda Gordon is a writer and photographer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)