A Tribute to Helen Levine
One should never be late for a first date—but I was, and it was with Helen Levine. Not long after I was appointed Artistic Director of Cincinnati Opera, Patty Beggs suggested it would be wise to meet ‘Mother,’ as her sons James the conductor and Tom the artist called her.
Helen had been on our Board for some time already—with the express understanding that she was not to be used as a conduit to her famous musician son. This was not a problem for me, as my good fortune in earlier lives brought me into professional contact with both gifted children, first in my tenure at The Boston Symphony and later at Decca. In Boston, James was a conductor I’d engaged for concerts and later we made several recordings together at Decca, working closely with Tom on the logistics. I have a cherished photo in my office of Tom and James with my partner Thom and I at a Luciano Pavarotti Decca recording session. But, even though she was talked about often in my twenty years of knowing the Levine brothers, I had never met ‘Mother.’
We were set to have lunch at one of her favorite Chinese restaurants. Somehow I got my Central Time and Eastern Time zones mixed up (remember, I was commuting from Minnesota) and I was exactly one hour late…There she was, petite, perfectly dressed and coiffed, reading The New York Times. I was mortified, but she couldn’t have been more gracious. Within minutes, over steaming won ton soup we were chatting as if we’d known one another for decades—trading music business gossip (she was up on everything and everyone) and marveling about how much we knew about one another, having never met face to face—her sons had given her the lowdown, I presume!
In my first five years at Cincinnati Opera we ran into one another often at the Symphony, May Festival, and of course, our performances. Jackie Mack and Ted Silberstein also made certain that Helen and I would lunch periodically at Doodles Restaurant, just to stay in touch. And I could always count on Helen for a razor-sharp assessment of every performance she attended. During those lunches she was genuine and generous with her praise and as frank as a plank with her criticisms. Let’s face it, she could back up her opinions with having progeny who set an Olympian standard for quality in music performance and art. She knew what she was talking about.
As we began making plans for our 90th anniversary in 2010 and a landmark production of Die Meistersinger I am convinced it was Helen who spoke quietly and confidently to James about the quality of our work at the Opera. Though she never admitted it, I could tell when James called me and asked if he could conduct those performances that ‘Mother’ had paved the way. We joyously planned that this would also give us the opportunity to honor Helen’s ninety-fifth birthday. Though James ultimately could not come because of his back surgery, we still celebrated Helen’s ninety-fifth and dedicated the performances to her. She loved Die Meistersinger and came to both performances, a feat of musical dedication that would tax a forty-year-old, much less a nonagenarian.
Perhaps my favorite recollection is my last one of Helen—the wonderful birthday party Melody Sawyer Richardson graciously hosted at River High that amazing summer of 2010. Helen was dressed in a smart black pantsuit, lively, full of joy, and though she was modest about it and always tried to deflect the compliments, she was tickled pink that we were honoring her and by extension the accomplishments of her life.
It is a cliché perhaps to say I will miss her, but I will miss her mightily. Her lifelong devotion to the blind, to music, and to her children is an example of a life well lived. I am sure it was not without its struggles and disappointments, but the Helen Levine I was privileged to know had distilled her experiences into a generosity of spirit and an unquenchable passion for music that inspires me in my work. There is a popular acronym that is used by various causes to invoke higher wisdom. The name that is used fits the cause at hand. So, I plan on appropriating this acronym and adapting it for my use. Whenever I have a question of taste, wisdom, or about how to do the right thing in a given situation, I’m going to use ‘WWHD’ from now on…What Would Helen Do?
The Harry T. Wilks Artistic Director, Cincinnati Opera