A Precocious Conductor, 40 Years Later

This is about firsts, starting with James Levine’s first appearance as a conductor at the Metropolitan Opera — 39 years, 11 months ago in “Tosca.”

To get a jump on the 40th anniversary, 625 people attended a screening of “James Levine: American Maestro,” a documentary by the filmmaker Susan Froemke that will be shown on PBS next month. The screening, at the Met on Sunday night, was followed by dinner, not in the restaurant on the Grand Tier, but on the stage itself. Without sets, it turns out, the stage can hold that many people, with room for a dance floor and a band.

So, what was your first encounter with James Levine? It was an obvious question, considering that the guests included singers who have worked with him for years, among them Renée Fleming and Plácido Domingo.

It was all the more obvious after a segment in the documentary that showed the soprano Roberta Peters talking about her first encounter with him, when she was singing in the Midwest.

He knocked on the door of her dressing room. He was carrying the score to the opera she had just appeared in, “Lucia di Lamermoor.” He had marked it up, the way a conductor would.

She asked how old he was. She said that he replied: “I’m 10 years old. How old are you?’’

If she answered the question, she did not say so in the film, or in a conversation at the dinner after the screening. “He was so precocious,” she said at the dinner.

It was not the only first backstage encounter that was talked about on Sunday night. The performer Elaine Stritch said that Mr. Levine showed up backstage during the limited run of her show “Elaine Stritch at Liberty.”

“The stage manager says, ‘James Levine saw the show,’ ” Ms. Stritch recalled. “A lot of people wouldn’t admit this, but I’m going to. I said, ‘Who’s James Levine?’ The stage manager said, ‘Oh, God, Elaine.’ ”

She asked Mr. Levine for a business card. “He knew I didn’t know who he was,” she said.

He showed up again sometime later — exactly how much later, she did not say, but she was rehearsing another show and he slipped in, saying, “I going to watch your run-through.”

“You don’t argue, have you noticed?” she said. “The finale, I picked myself. Later, when I talked to James, he said, ‘I have loved that song forever.’ I couldn’t believe this.”

The song, which she sang for the crowd, was “It Amazes Me” by Cy Coleman.

Fabrizio Melano, the director of that first “Tosca,” said that his first encounter was before they were introduced. It happened when Mr. Melano walked by the orchestra room after Mr. Levine’s first orchestra rehearsal. He heard the musicians saying things like, “Wow, this guy’s got it.”

“They never do that,” he said. “I realized they were right.”

Mr. Levine himself said his first time at the Met was in February 1954, around the time he met Miss Peters. He had made his debut on the piano with the Cincinnati Symphony, he said, and his parents offered him to let him travel anywhere he wanted. He said he wanted to go to the Met. Off they went.

And then there was the soprano Jessye Norman. She said she first met Mr. Levine for a performance “Aida” at the Hollywood Bowl in the mid-1970s.

“We had the same hairstyle,” she said. “I was wearing my hair short and frizzy, and so was he. With all that humidity in Los Angeles, we got frizzier as we went along.”

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