James Levine doesn’t just direct the music, he gets inside of it, lets the music get inside of his soul; and then, he releases a burst of energy through his body, directing the Metropolitan Opera, inspiring his musicians to create the most beautiful and powerful music possible. Levine, the maestro, not only wants them not only to be able to perform the music to their greatest ability, he wants them to be a full participant in the conversation with the audience. To Levine, “music is essential, like air, like food, like sleeping, eating, breathing.” You get will get all of that and so much more when you sit down to watch James Levine: American Maestro, premiering tonight on PBS (check local listings) as a part of the Emmy Award winning American Masters series.
American Maestro is directed by award winning filmmaker Susan Froemke. Her cameras follow Levine as he rehearses an opera with his longtime collaborator, the legendary tenor, Placido Domingo; works with aspiring young singers from the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program (LYADP), and leads the MET Orchestra through their first ever performance of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.
The film traces Levine’s beginnings in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he was a musical prodigy. At age 10 he gave his first formal performance, playing piano with the Cincinnati Orchestra. From there he quickly grew into one of the most renowned and gifted directors in the 20th Century. At the age of 28, he was handed the baton to lead the MET. It was a prestigious position and he was quite ready for the task.
Through interviews with members of the MET Orchestra, LYADP artists, Domingo and Levine himself, we get a deeper understanding of how this maestro works and inspires. Additionally, archival footage from the 70’s and 80’s reveal that his drive and passion have not faltered one bit since he began directing the MET. Levine has the same enthusiasm and deep understanding of the music he’s celebrating today as he did when he took over the Metropolitan Opera 40 years ago.
How does he get his orchestra opera singers to achieve what he’s after? By his own admission, he talks a lot. He expresses what the music means and what they should feel. He never stops acting as a teacher in helping the performers to understand and appreciate the music. Furthermore, his ability to find a unique way to communicate with each individual so that they grasp what he’s after makes him one of the most respected opera teachers alive. His relationship with the MET company, and with the audience, is unique and a marvel to behold.
My knowledge of opera is scant. I’ve seen one opera in my lifetime. It had subtitles and I’m ashamed to admit that I practically fell asleep. Perhaps if I’d had a teacher as excitable and full of wonder as Levine to show me the finer points of the art form my appreciation would be deeper. What amazed me most was the approachable manner in which he spoke to people. Having grown up around music majors, I know that many of them can be full of themselves, with large egos. We never see this side of Levine. He comes across as a man who wants to share the joy of music with anyone who is interested. After watching America’s Maestro, I have an urge to check out the classical section at my local library and do some exploring.