The Metropolitan Opera press release dated April 14 stating that long-time music director James Levine is retiring at age 72 due to health issues — without even a perfunctory quote from the departing maestro himself — has left all opera fans agog at the possibilities of who may be hired for the job. No one can really replace a conductor who has run the ship at the Met continuously since 1976, and it seems unlikely that any musician will be permitted such a lengthy stay at the top again. Opera is an innately hysterical art form, where primal, tantrum-like shrieks are rewarded with ovations. Little if anything about selecting a new Met opera director is likely to be rational. Possible successors to Levine, only a handful of whom have been widely discussed, include Gianandrea Noseda, Andris Nelsons, Simone Young, Kazushi Ono, Richard Farnes, Ivor Bolton, Evelino Pidò, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin; it may be helpful to consider a few generally overlooked alternatives, some of them Jewish.
One such is Emmanuel Krivine (born 1947) – an uncommonly warm-hearted, friendly music maker for a French conductor, perhaps because he has spent much time conducting operas in Lyons and Montpellier, outside the artistic wasp’s nest of Paris. Of Polish and Russian Jewish ancestry, Krivine initially hoped to become an organist, as he told an interviewer in 2014. He added that his family “thought that if I played organ, I’d convert to Catholicism because of all the churches.” Instead, Krivine chose to study the violin and became a prize-winning performer until a car accident in 1981 forced him to give up solo playing. From then on, he honed his conducting skills, ironically enough encouraged by meeting the Austrian maestro Karl Böhm (1894-1981), a notorious Nazi collaborator during the Second World War. Krivine has subsequently conducted such works as Berlioz’s “Béatrice et Bénédict” and “La damnation de Faust” to acclaim.
A more experienced opera-phile is the Hungarian Jewish maestro Iván Fischer (born 1951). In 2005 Fischer told “The Guardian” that he was born in Budapest into a “fanatically music-oriented, intellectual Jewish family, with a lot of theoretical questioning. My father was an all-round musician, a composer, conductor and violinist, who worked most of his life in a playhouse, composing incidental music before the time recordings were used. He lost his job when the Nazis came. It was a difficult time during those years. My parents survived, both hiding during the war in Budapest. We lived across from the Opera House, and I remember as a kid I always watched for when they switched off the lights. I didn’t want to sleep until the lights were off opposite.” Preoccupied by nationalism and anti-Semitism in Hungary today, Fischer added: “This whole idea of nationalism in Hungary - it drove Gustav Mahler away from here, all the people who wanted to do something good, all the Jewish conductors like Solti, Dorati and Szell, all these people who left Hungary. There is always a danger of nationalism here…”
A maestro of uncommon clarity and vigor, with a strong sense of musical line, Fischer has served as music director of opera houses before, at the UK’s Kent Opera in the 1980s and the Lyons Opera from 2000 to 2003. He is also a noted composer, mostly of vocal works. His works for choir include “Melancholy,” to a text by the Italian Jewish poet Umberto Saba, and “A nay kleyd” (A New Dress) a setting of a Yiddish poem about mourning by Rokhl Häring Korn (1898 – 1982).. He has also written “A German-Yiddish Cantata,” marked by traditional, sweetly sinuous melodies and “The Red Heifer” (A Vörös Tehén), a one-act opera which he informed “The New York Times” was meant as a “rebuke to what he and others see as growing tolerance for anti-Semitism in today’s Hungary.” First performed in Budapest in 2013, “The Red Heifer” is based on the 1882 Tiszaeszlár Blood Libel in Northeastern Hungary. An eclectic score includes a traditional orchestra, Gypsy band, and allusions to klezmer. With some Weill-like verve, the score is at once gripping and charming.
Iván Fischer’s older brother Ádám Fischer (born 1949), also a conductor, is arguably even more experienced with opera than his sibling. Before their voices broke, the two Fischer boys sang in the children’s choir of Budapest National Opera house, performing together as treble soloists in Mozart’s “Magic Flute.” Ádám Fischer has conducted at the Vienna State Opera for over 40 years, and is also a recurring presence in London, New York, and Zurich. In the last-mentioned city he helped revive and record “Clari,” a long-forgotten work by the 19th century French Jewish composer Fromental Halévy, famous for writing “La Juive.” Especially renowned for his passionate Mozart conducting, Ádám Fischer resigned as music director of the Hungarian State Opera in 2010, protesting a new media law in Hungary. At a 2011 press conference he explained: “Even more worrying are changes to the national constitution that are being drafted and the rise of anti-Semitism, homophobia and xenophobia in Hungarian society.” Along with the Hungarian Jewish pianist András Schiff and others, Ádám Fischer signed an open letter protesting the Hungarian government’s actions.
New York audiences would be lucky to have either of the brothers as music director of the Met. Other candidates scarcely mentioned in this context include the Russian Jewish conductor Semyon Bychkov (born 1952) whose family fled the USSR for America in the 1970s due to anti-Semitic persecution. A familiar face at Europe’s main opera houses and the Met, Bychkov has a settled and mature approach, especially in works by Richard Strauss and Wagner, a welcome development from his sometimes brash-sounding style and debatable choice of soloists 30 years ago. When announcing that Levine was stepping down, the Met indicated that he would not be leading a scheduled new production next year of Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier.” Bychkov would be a skilled replacement and his 2012 “Otello” at the Met showed him to be a powerful, confident Verdian as well.
Finally, if the Met is looking for a shorter-term transitional leader, Zubin Mehta’s 80th birthday is April 29, but he is still conducting opera, sometimes with better artistic results than in symphonic works. A veteran honorary member of Isaac Stern’s Kosher Nostra, Mehta was appointed The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s Music Advisor in 1969, Music Director in 1977, and Music Director for Life in 1981. Always with a taste for the spectacular special event — and what are Met performances if not grandiose examples of conspicuous consumption? — Mehta would surely suit the extravagant party sensibility of the house.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.