Maestro James Levine, a Chorister's Tribute

Photo by Naomi Vaughan/Met Opera

Photo by Naomi Vaughan/Met Opera

My most cherished memory is singing the Verdi Requiem in Carnegie Hall, and repeating it on tour in Japan and in the house as a requiem for Luciano Pavarotti. It’s that first performance that remains with me the most — especially the Carnegie Hall rehearsals. We all revere the piece, but Jimmy also sees it as a theatrical event. He rehearsed moments with the audience in mind; there was no staging, but he felt the theatricality of the piece needed to shine through. He described his economy of gesture, explaining that he didn’t want to show the audience what was coming, so the most exciting moments would arrive without being telegraphed. Therefore, the drama of the music would speak on its own.

The moment that lingers in my mind is Maestro speaking to Gregory Zuber, principal percussionist with the MET Orchestra, who was playing the bass drum during the Dies Irae. As one of the most famous movements of the piece, everyone in the hall would be anticipating those huge offbeat drum accents throughout the movement. For maximum theatricality, Levine advised Greg to delay each drum strike just a bit, to throw the audience off guard. They’d be surprised by the timing, heightening the energy of the drama. The audience went berserk after that concert — what a great memory!

I love that he brings that same attention to drama into the opera house. He works hard with the stage director to integrate the staging with what happens on the musical page. If that means changing something on occasion to heighten the drama, that’s what he does to improve the performance.

Photo by Hastings, WIlliams and Associates/Metropolitan Opera Archive

Photo by Hastings, WIlliams and Associates/Metropolitan Opera Archive

I also appreciate Maestro Levine’s expertise in programming operas, giving the Orchestra, Chorus, and the Company, time to learn and then add layers to operas that aren’t staples in the repertory. He is a master of this, having introduced operas such as Nabucco and Ernani to the latest group of company members, and reviving them in later seasons to solidify those early Verdian musical concepts. The knowledge we gained in the early pieces carries over to later Verdi operas in the repertory, so our AidasRigolettos, and Trovatores are better for it. That type of investment pays valuable dividends through the life of a chorister like myself.

In rehearsal, Maestro Levine’s first comment to the Chorus has always been to “fling the text out into the house.” This idea gives each of us inspiration in expressing our characters. Instead of just a beautiful tone or immaculate phrasing, Jimmy is always an exponent of revealing character through language.

We always welcome his smile in the pit during performances, and his musical wisdom in rehearsals. I look forward to working with him as many times as possible in the coming years. Bravo, Maestro! We anticipate your continuing guidance as we progress into the next generation of opera!


Daniel has degrees in Music Ed. and Choral Conducting, and has loved singing in ensembles all his life. Follow him on Twitter @dclarksmith.

In concert, Daniel particularly enjoys performing the Evangelist role in Bach’s Passions. At the Met, favorite roles include Parpignol (La bohème) and roles in Wozzeck & La Rondine. Daniel dreams of breaking Pietro Audisio's 1924 record of singing Parpignol 114 times. Daniel has been with his husband Michael S. Caldwell for 23 years.