Conductor Levine, ousted after sex abuse inquiry, sues Met

NEW YORK — Conductor James Levine sued the Metropolitan Opera on Thursday after a sexual misconduct investigation sank his storied career, saying the renowned company exploited baseless allegations to tarnish him and then fired him without so much as a phone call.

“Cynically hijacking the good will of the #MeToo movement,” the Met and its general manager, Peter Gelb, “brazenly seized on these allegations as a pretext to end a longstanding personal campaign to force Levine out of the Met,” said Levine’s suit, filed in a Manhattan state court.

But a lawyer for the Met said Levine wasn’t the victim of a vendetta but a man fired because of “credible and corroborated evidence of sexual misconduct.”

“It is shocking that Mr. Levine has refused to accept responsibility for his actions and has today instead decided to lash out at the Met with a suit riddled with untruths,” attorney Bettina (Betsy) Plevan said in a statement.

The suit accuses the Met and Gelb of defamation and breach of contract. It seeks at least $5.8 million in damages — and “to restore Levine’s name, reputation and career.”

Unleashed three days after his ouster, the suit represents Levine’s most extensive public effort to date to combat allegations of sexual abuse and harassment that go back decades.

Levine’s suit says one of his accusers sent him friendly letters for decades after their alleged encounter that never accused him of wrongdoing, and even talked of visiting. The suit says the Met wouldn’t tell Levine who some accusers were but acknowledged no one who worked at the opera company made a complaint about him during his 46 years there.

The opera company suspended Levine and began an investigation in December, after the New York Post and The New York Times aired allegations of sexual misconduct from three men who said it took place decades ago when they were teenage music students or aspiring conductors. A fourth man later came forward to say Levine had sexually abused him when he was a 20-year-old music student.

Levine, 74, has called the claims unfounded.

“I have not lived my life as an oppressor or an aggressor,” he said in a December statement. “My fervent hope is that in time, people will come to understand the truth.”

He hasn’t been charged with any crime. Prosecutors in Lake County, Illinois, said in December they had investigated a 1980s sexual abuse allegation but concluded that they could not bring charges, citing factors including the age of consent — 16 — at the time.

But the Met said Monday that its investigation, by an outside lawyer, found credible evidence of “sexually abusive and harassing conduct” both before and during Levine’s tenure there.

His suit calls the investigation “nothing more than a kangaroo court” that capped years of efforts by Gelb to get rid of him.

“Gelb pursued this agenda for his personal gain to advance his own career and step out of the long shadow cast by Levine’s incredible talent,” says the complaint from Gelb’s lawyers, Elkan Abramowitz and Edward J.M. Little.

The events have brought scrutiny upon the Met, as well as Levine.

One of the world’s most prominent opera companies, the Met has faced questions about why it didn’t act sooner, particularly since a Lake Forest detective contacted the company in October 2016.

Gelb has said he briefed Met board leaders about the police investigation and spoke to Levine. But at the time, the opera company decided to leave the matter to police, a Met spokeswoman said in December.

The Met said its own inquiry found any claims of a Met “coverup of information relating to these issues are completely unsubstantiated.”

After Leonard Bernstein’s 1990 death, Levine was regarded as the top American conductor, so widely known he was given a starring role in the film “Fantasia 2000.”

He made his Met debut in 1971, became chief conductor in 1973, then music or artistic director from 1976 until he stepped down two years ago because of Parkinson’s disease. Levine then became music director emeritus and headed the Met’s young artists program until his suspension.

He has conducted from a wheelchair since a 2011 spinal injury.

The Met paid Levine’s company, Phramus LLC, over $1.8 million for his services as music director in the year ending July 31, 2016, according to the Met’s last-released tax return. The lawsuit says his pay as music director emeritus dropped to $400,000, plus additional pay for performances.

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