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Metropolitan Opera waited year to act on accusation against conductor James Levine

Conductor James Levine attends a rehearsal in Paris in 2007. He has long faced rumors about his private life. (Getty Images)

NEW YORK — A big question remains after renowned conductor James Levine was suspended from the Metropolitan Opera amid accusations of sexual abuse: Why did it take so long for the company to act after it was informed by police that he had been accused of sexually abusing a teenage boy?

The Met was in crisis mode Monday after The New York Times published interviews with three men who said that Levine, 74, had sexually abused them when they were teenagers.

The opera company said after the report Sunday that it was suspending its relationship with Levine, its music director from 1976 through 2016. As music director emeritus, Levine was still conducting and had been scheduled to lead upcoming productions, including a planned New Year’s Eve gala featuring Puccini’s “Tosca.” He conducted Verdi’s “Requiem” Saturday — a live, global radio broadcast that could well prove to be his last Met appearance. The first report of the allegations, in the New York Post, was published not long after the performance.

The Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, said he briefed leaders on the opera company’s board about the investigation and also spoke to Levine, who denied the allegations. But at the time the Met took no action.

“The Met did not wish to interfere with the police investigation and thought it was the purview of the Illinois police department to follow through and question those who could corroborate (the) allegation,” the opera’s spokeswoman, Lee Abrahamian, said.

That police investigation slowed last fall, but the Lake County state’s attorney’s office spokeswoman, Cynthia Vargas, told The Associated Press on Monday that it was still active.

Possibly complicating the decision for the Met last year on whether to act against Levine was the fact that it had — for decades — been asked by reporters about persistent, unproven stories about his sexual habits and had always written them off as the product of an overactive rumor mill.

As part of its Sunday report on Levine, the Times unearthed a 1979 letter written by the Met’s executive director Anthony Bliss to a board member who had received an anonymous letter accusing Levine of misconduct.

“We do not believe there is any truth whatsoever to the charges,” Bliss wrote.

Bliss also suggested in his letter to John T. Connor that, perhaps, the allegations were driven by a vendetta against homosexuals.

“I do not believe that the existence of homosexuals within management, or for that matter on our Board, can be considered a cause for dismissal,” he said.

Levine himself addressed the rumors in The New York Times in 1987, recalling an old story that he had been arrested “in Pittsburgh or Hawaii or Dallas.”

“Both my friends and my enemies checked it out and to this day, I don’t have the faintest idea where those rumors came from or what purpose they served,” Levine said.

Levine addressed the stories again in 1998 when they were alluded to in German newspapers after he was named as music director at the Munich Philharmonic. He called them “such nonsense.”

An author, Johanna Fiedler, also wrote about the Levine rumors in a 2001 book, “Molto Agitato: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera,” commenting that inside the company “the stories were dismissed as preposterous.”

“Everybody in the classical music business at least since the 1980s has talked about Levine as a sex abuser,” said Greg Sandow, a faculty member at the Juilliard School and a widely respected veteran music critic. “The investigation should have been done decades ago.”

Gelb said Levine will not be involved in any Met activities while a lawyer hired by the opera conducts “a full and complete investigation.”

Andrew Ousley, president of the New York-based firm Unison Media that specializes in classical music publicity and marketing, said any organization confronted with allegations like the ones made against Levine shouldn’t wait to act.

“I would always say, be out with it because in this era of social media and exposure that the internet offers, the truth will come out,” he said.