As we go through school, through adolescence specifically, our young lives are filled with teachers who inspire us and teachers who do nothing except draw our hatred. Sometimes, in strange circumstances, this can be the very same person.
Even at seventeen, Chris was a talented musician. All of his music instructors had seen that, and had seen enough to send him to a musical school in Michigan. It wasn’t until decades later, as he delved back into the memories of his time there, that he decided to tell the world about the teacher he’d met that changed his life: and not for the better…
Surprised and Honored
It was the summer of 1968 and 17-year-old Chris was studying to be a better bass player at the Meadow Brook School of Music in Michigan. He was pleasantly surprised, after having been there for only a few weeks, when Mr. Levine, his orchestra instructor at the time, came to him with an offer to make him principal bass.
It was truly an honor, especially considering how much older and more experienced the other players were. Chris had only just finished his junior year of high school after all. Initially flattered as he was by the offer, Mr. Levine’s personal attention soon went from respectful to downright unsavory. Especially when Mr. Levine began to invite him to his dorm room late at night to talk about sex…
A Bad Touch
Chris thought it was weird of course, but he was so tired, that when Mr. Levine told him that he could go to bed if he did just one more thing, he acquiesced. It wasn’t until the orchestra teacher began touching his privates that he realized he was in over his head: and by then it was too late. His teacher then asked for reciprocation and young as he was, Chris acceded to this request as well.
Abuse, Pure and Simple
The seventeen year old felt ashamed as he lay there on the floor, his hand working his teacher’s most private area. The next morning, he was late to rehearsal. He was in a bit of a daze, trying to come to terms with what had occurred the night prior. As the child of a Christian Scientist, he knew little of sex education, but he knew what had happened was wrong. It wouldn’t stop there either…
Wanting it to Stop
Chris hadn’t felt anything sexual for his teacher, but he did feel sexually violated. The next time they met, he told Mr. Levine that he wouldn’t repeat the acts they had engaged in the first night. He told his teacher he just wanted to continue to play music as they had before, leaving the rest of it out entirely. Mr. Levine’s cold “No” and his reticence to even notice him for the rest of the summer, was all the answer he needed.
Sure, the abuse had stopped, but so had all of his preferential treatment, not to mention even the merest hint of a complementary opinion of his work. What followed was a terrible summer and when he returned to school for his senior year, the memories of that time haunted him. As for Mr. Levine, well, his future endeavors were a bit more rewarding…
Step Up, Step Down
James Levine went on to teach at Meadow Brook for many more years. Eventually, his musical career landed him a position as a revered conductor and even musical director for the famous Metropolitan Opera house in New York. He stayed there for over four decades before he stepped down due to health problems. But whispered rumors of his bad behavior spread nevertheless.
Decades of Speculation
People had always talked about Levine’s private life, especially those in classical music circles. But his position of unprecedented prominence at the Met made it so that speaking such things aloud would be musical suicide. Levine had conducted over 2,500 performances there and indeed who in those circles would bat an eye if he was privately a pervert or worse? In the meantime, Chris buried the memories…
Chris Brown went on to play principal bass in the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra for more than three decades. He moved on with his life but kept the trauma of that summer buried deep inside. Then, in 2016, as the world began to uncover all the “respected” men and women who have dabbled in what many would call sexual misconduct, the 66-year-old former musician decided to talk about things.
Another of Levine’s students, one James Lestock, played the cello for the prestigious conductor. They had discussed, or rather Mr. Levine had suggested during a private session, that he take his clothes off, citing that this would be natural and honest and “expand his outlook on the world.” Initially, James Lestock said “No, I’m not interested in that.” Levine persisted…
Mr. Levine ignored James’ protestations and pursued the point until he convinced the young man to let him touch his privates. At that time, Levine was assistant conductor at the Cleveland Orchestra. He was surrounded by musicians like himself who were awed by him. James Lestock had joined that group and knew that if he wanted to ascend with Levine, he had to play ball…so to speak.
Members of this close-knit group studied music together, traveled together, ate together, and when they needed to, even lived together. Over the years, Levine’s predilections included subjecting James Lestock to a number of humiliating sexual encounters, not only with himself, but with other members of the group as well…
Mr. Levine encouraged members of his little clique to put on blindfolds and masturbate partners they couldn’t see. Nevertheless, Levine had total control and no one seemed to want to say no to him. This continued for years as James traveled with Levine’s group. One time, in a hotel near the Ravinia Festival, James recalled that Levine’s humiliating behavior escalated to pain.
Mr. Levine would touch James sure, but he’d never physically hurt him. On this occasion, he pinched him hard, repeatedly on the legs, telling him that he should “expand his range of emotions.” The years of abuse had finally become too much. James broke down and cried, but Levine kept at it. James felt like he was powerless not only to stop Levine, but to even get up the courage to leave…
James knew that if he even attempted to leave, he would be lost. He’d have no career and therefore no means to make a living. He’d have no friends either. He followed Levine to New York in the 1970s and finally found the courage to leave. Like Chris Brown before him, he pushed the entire experience down and tucked it away.
Years of Abuse
The final straw came years later, after a third young man, Ashok Pai, decided to come forward about Levine’s lascivious behavior. Ashok had met Mr. Levine when he was only four years old. His parents had taken him backstage at a concert to introduce him. When he was fifteen, Levine gave him a ride home and held his hand during the drive in a way that made Ashok uneasy…
Summer Daze Again
The next summer, when Ashok met him again, Levine went as far as to touch his penis in a hotel room near the very same Ravinia festival where he had met him as a child. At sixteen, Ashok Pai was too naive and vulnerable, like Chris Brown before him, to even protest. He felt safe and protected by Levine and it wasn’t until years later he’d realize what really happened.
Reported to Police
It wasn’t until October of 2016, almost 50 years after the abuse first began, that the decades of speculation brought his actions to light. Though the incident happened in 1986, Ashok Pai finally came forward with an accusation of abuse to the Lake Forest Police Department in Illinois. He had suffered for years in silence and now it was time to tell the world the type of person that “esteemed conductor” James Levine really was…
Into the Light
The Metropolitan Opera House is the nation’s largest performing arts organization and frankly, one of the world’s most prestigious opera houses which now finds itself in the same position as many other prestigious organizations: at the center of a scandal. What’s worse is that Pai’s revelation wasn’t the first time the head honchos at the Met had been warned of Levine’s bad behavior.
Allegations and Admissions
Allegations of sexual misconduct against Hollywood stars, news reporters, and political figures have come to light mainly because the abused finally feel it is safe for them to come forward. Yet, as disturbing as these victims’ accounts are, the abusers are not the only ones to blame. It appears as though the Met had covered his indecency up for some time…
Old letters from former Met administrators have been found. They seem to admonish complainants for their accusations and now, even a prestigious institution like the Met has a fair bit of egg on its face as it tries to do a bit of damage control by distancing themself from and apologizing for Levine’s behavior.
The Metropolitan Opera has suspended James Levine, who had recently come out of retirement to conduct a new show. It seems that regardless of how revered the conductor’s career had been, it is his misconduct which will ultimately determine his legacy. Any criminal proceedings against Levine have yet to be released.