The first thing that came to mind as the story of James Levine’s, and then Charles Dutoit’s, sexual peccadillos came to light over the past few weeks was, “We’re only hearing about this now?” The former, at least, was hardly news. Levine’s alleged behavior with young boys has been one of classical music’s biggest open secrets for decades. It follows equally raunchy, if perhaps less publicized, scandals by early music specialist Robert King, and Russian conductor/pianist Mikhail Pletnev, to name only a few. In the world of the performing arts, this sort of thing is hardly a story. Or let’s be clear: the behavior in question is not news. Getting caught and censored, punished even, is.
I suppose that few remember the saga of conductor Eugene Goossens (1893-1962), whose career was cut short in the mid-50s as a result of his affair with Rosaleen Norton, “The Witch of Kings Cross,” and the discovery of the pornographic letters he wrote to her (which she kept conveniently hidden behind her living room sofa). Or even earlier than that, there was Percy Grainger, whose anti-Semitism was only matched by his delightful addiction to flagellation and sadomasochistic sex. Oh yes, he was also in love with his mother. Charming. The stories go on and on. They come with the territory.
Of course, none of that matters now because, happily, Goossens and Grainger are dead. I vividly recall a noted conductor speaking to me about a promising young soprano, and explaining that the reason her career refused to take off as expected is because she wouldn’t sleep with the right people (including himself, naturally). “She had standards,” he told me derisively, “which is perfectly fine as long as you don’t care about steady work.” Was I shocked? Not so much. I’d already heard many similar stories from artists—mostly women—of major and minor renown. To succeed you had to play the game, at least to a degree, or you needed very powerful friends. Maybe things will change now that all of this schmutz is coming to light, but I doubt it.
The problem we critics face in assessing all of this is simple. What has become unacceptable isn’t so much the outrageous behavior of the wanton few, but rather the fact that it was tolerated and enabled to the point where it became as close to normal as makes no difference. If you’ve been in and around the business as long as I have, you’ve heard something about almost everyone. What has become unbelievable is a story about an artist whose career was a function solely of their exceptional talent and irreproachable personal integrity. Of course some, maybe even most of the dirt gets said out of spite, jealousy, or just to be catty, but the truth of it is hardly relevant. All it takes now, it seems, is a well-pointed accusatory finger, and there goes your career.
This raises another issue. Why should it be so easy to dismiss and discard artists of the caliber of Levine and Dutoit (if indeed that turns out to be the final word)? It could be that it’s just a sign of the times, a reaction to patterns of behavior so morally reprehensible that the truth of innocence or guilt is almost beside the point—especially since there can be no definitive proof when the evidence comes down to “he said, they said.” How things have changed from the days when Charles Mackerras was actively shunned by the Benjamin Britten cult (meaning a good bit of the classical music community in England) for making a joke about dear old Ben and his little boys. Back then there were things that simply were not discussed; today, Britten’s career would be over, truth be damned.
Still, I believe the true reason for the disposability of even major artists today is classical music’s dirtiest secret, one so shocking that few dare utter it. Here it is: None of these people matter. After all the hype, the publicity, the PR bubbles touting their uniqueness, they are still playing the same music as their colleagues, any one of whom is ready, willing, and able to replace them on a moment’s notice. Who cares if there’s one less? If they are narcissistic enough to believe the myth of their own importance—well then, more fools them. The show will go on regardless, and we needn’t shed a tear.
So what’s a record critic to do? Should we delete reviews of all the offending artist’s recordings and pretend that they never existed? Should we refrain from making recommendations, even if the artist was a very great one, and the recording in question a version of reference? I was thinking, seriously, about putting a special section on the website: Predator’s Corner. That way, readers who care about such things could avoid the reviews of the most morally defective artists, while those who only care about the quality of the music making could disregard the warning label—and perhaps get a certain naughty thrill besides.
Anyway, I’m not too worried about classical music. Granted, it’s worse than pop in some ways—not because classical artists are any more disgusting, but because they are often much more pretentious, and certainly more sanctimonious. That makes it more shocking (and let’s face it, more entertaining) when they fall. Just compare James Levine with Michael Jackson. No one was creepier than Michael Jackson, but despite all of the lawsuits and accusations, his artistic reputation survived and his fans remained loyal. He wasn’t shunned by anyone predisposed to like him in the first place. No, the reason I worry less about classical music is because so many of its most iconic figures, composers and performers like Goossens and Grainger, are already dead, and the fact that so many of them were perfectly horrible people no longer matters. They are beyond shame, and beyond scolding. Guess we dodged a bullet there.