Catching up with former Chico State faculty member Caren Levine, now with New York’s Metropolitan Opera
Atrip to the pastoral realm, to the magical “green place” where changes occur, is deeply rooted in the American psyche. Not only does this process describe the initial voyages of settlers and immigrants to this country, it also lies at the heart of many of our stories. So it was with Caren Levine, Chico State University’s brilliantly able pianist/accompanist of a year ago.
Born in Queens and deep-rooted in New York City, Levine came out to pastoral Chico for a couple of years, played splendidly, inspired numerous students, charmed and annoyed her colleagues at Chico State, underwent various challenges and changes (some wrenching), and then, a different woman, returned whence she came.
A couple of weeks ago, Ms. Levine returned to Chico to visit friends. I met with her briefly, and we talked about her memories of Chico and her rather fabulous career during the year she has been back in New York.
First she returned to her alma mater, Juilliard, as an accompanist. But not too long after, she applied for an accompanist’s position with the Metropolitan Opera. At first one might think, “Well, that’s not such a shift; play for student singers at Juilliard, play for opera singers at the Met.” However, nothing could be further from the truth.
In the first place, one doesn’t start accompanying right off the bat. Indeed, even applying for such a position is more difficult that one could imagine. An accompanist must not only know the opera she is working with inside and out, she must also be able to sing all the parts and understand the language in which they are sung.
So, in order to go to her tryout for the job, Levine had to master a relatively rarely performed opera, Jules Massenet’s Werther (based on Goethe’s immensely popular romantic novel of the same name), study French, and attend three months’ worth of singing lessons—all for an audition where she had to play, explain and sing.
She auditioned, and she won the job. However, if you think it ends there, you’re wrong. Ms. Levine won’t even get to work with singers for a good year. Instead, she will be understudying opera conductor James Levine (no relative), digesting innumerable operas, refining her conducting abilities, writing down extensive notes, running various sorts of errands, and keeping a bag packed in case a substitute singer in Argentina suddenly needs an accompanist. The future challenges and possibilities (including conducting) are tremendous, of course, and a lot of work. But if anybody is up to these challenges, Levine is the one.
There are disadvantages, of course. As a member of the Met, Ms. Levine can no longer perform with outside groups, although she is allowed to continue her career working with Met soprano Barbara Bonney. She will be required to perform in Met concerts (of which there are more than one might suppose) whenever asked. On the other hand, however, she will be thoroughly mastering lots and lots of operas (a form she had disdained until Chico State’s La Traviata a few years ago). Digging into and mastering great works of art is not, after all, a bad life.
While, like many urban Easterners, Caren Levine likes the excitement of living in New York, working with top-flight artists, being close to her parents, she recognizes the downsides as well: hiking up five floors to an to an undersized apartment, missing her brother who lives and teaches in Davis. She also misses Chico’s pleasant green campus and friendly atmosphere, where, she says, she learned how to be less frantic, better rounded, and a Chico-lover already looking forward to future visits.
It’s true. Our memories of Eden remain with and affect us forever.