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The Met Opera Fired James Levine, Citing Sexual Misconduct. He Was Paid $3.5 Million.


The Met’s multimillion-dollar payment to Mr. Levine came before the coronavirus pandemic forced the company to close its theater — leaving many employees, including its orchestra and chorus, furloughed without pay since April. Even when the deal was struck, the Met’s finances were precarious. Now the company is fighting for its survival.

The size of the payment to Mr. Levine, whom the Met had accused of serious misconduct, casts doubt on the strength of the company’s case had it gone to trial. Mr. Levine’s contract, which had been amended over the years but was essentially based on agreements struck decades ago, lacked a morals clause, an increasingly common feature in the entertainment world that prohibits behavior with the potential to embarrass an employer.

It has not been uncommon for high-profile figures forced from their jobs after accusations of sexual misconduct or harassment to leave with big payouts, often to satisfy the terms of their contracts. Two of Fox News’s most prominent personalities received large payments after they were forced out amid allegations of harassment: Roger Ailes, the network’s former chairman, got about $40 million when he left, and Bill O’Reilly, one of Fox’s biggest stars, received roughly $25 million. But it is rare for someone who leaves under pressure because of sexual misconduct allegations to publicly challenge the firing in court.

In his suit, Mr. Levine had sought $3.4 million for breach of contract after the Met stopped paying his $400,000-a-year salary as music director emeritus, just a year and a half into a 10-year agreement. He also sought more than $1.6 million for the remaining performances he had expected to conduct during the season he was fired and the season following, as well as $707,500 for defamation; he argued that the Met’s statements about him led other orchestras to fire him and cost him a book project. And he sought other, unspecified amounts for defamation, pain and suffering, and attorney’s fees.

Before the Met’s investigation and Mr. Levine’s firing, it appeared that Mr. Gelb had succeeded in easing the revered but ailing maestro into a dignified career coda, making way for Mr. Levine, now 77, to be succeeded by the young and dynamic Yannick Nézet-Séguin. After ill health forced Mr. Levine to repeatedly cancel performances and miss two full seasons, he had reluctantly agreed to become music director emeritus. He would continue to oversee the young artist program he had founded and to conduct many of his signature operas, with a gala celebration of the 50th anniversary of his 1971 Met debut on the horizon.

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