Ok, fine —we cheated a bit. Max Levy's claim to fame may be a little less Penn-centric than that of our standard Ego of the Week, but holy Mozart is he impressive. This ZBT bro has been performing in the company of Opera Philadelphia for nearly two years, balancing a burgeoning operatic career with a packed schedule of classes and activities on campus. This summer, he'll be performing with the renowned Glimmerglass Festival. It's safe to say Max will be singing his face off for years to come - but for now, he's still trying to make the most of his last year at Penn.
34th Street: You’ve been performing opera professionally for a few years now. How did you realize you were interested in opera?
Max Levy: I did a lot of musical theater when I was very young in New York – some semi-professional stuff, some touring stuff. And then when I was 14 or 15, my voice teacher at the time was like, “You know, as you get older I want to see you get real classical training,” which is what musical theater people should generally do. For a while I was like, “No way, that’s boring, I don’t want to do that.” And then my junior year of high school, my AP euro teacher takes the class to see a dress rehearsal of Tosca at the MET for free, because she has some connection. My friends and I were like, “Ugh, we’re going to hate this. This is going to be so boring.”
But when I walked out fo the first act, I literally said, “This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.” It’s really one of those stories that nobody ever believes when I tell it, and it sounds really awful and cliché, but it really did happen like that. So then that was the year that I started working on more classical stuff with my voice teacher. And then I got my first job at the beginning of my senior year of high school, with the Boston Symphony.
Street: How did you get from the classical training to getting such an incredible job?
ML: At the beginning of senior year, I got invited to do the all-national high school chorus. I made a friend from Boston, who was also a senior, and was really good, and already trying to do this professionally. I saw, like, two months after the conference that he’d gotten accepted to be in the Tanglewood Festival chorus, which is the chorus of the of the Boston symphony, which is a huge deal. So I congratulated him, and he was like, “We’re actually having more auditions kind of soon, you should think about it.” So I flew to Boston and had this audition, and I got the job on the spot, which was the strangest thing. It was really the start of this domino effect of realizing maybe I could actually do this for a career. I blew off a week or so of school to do one concert at Tanglewood that spring, and then I did the summer there. My friend and I were the two youngest people in the chorus by about ten years, which was just so strange and amazing.
Street: And then next thing you know you’re a freshman at Penn, but you’ve just had this crazy experience that’s pretty much the antithesis of Penn. Where do you go from there?
ML: So before I got to Penn, in about April or May at the end of high school, I’d contacted some people here at Opera Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and I’d auditioned for the chorus of the Philly Orchestra and gotten in. I actually did a concert here that summer too with the Philly Orchestra, at the Mann Center. It was one of those things where they play a movie with the music muted, and the orchestra plays live. We did Gladiator. I’d also auditioned with Opera Philly, but I didn’t get the job. Liz Braden, who’s now my boss, (so I love her now) she was just like, “Yea…you’re 17. Go home, come back in a few years.” So I decided to focus on training, and started working with Thomas Schivone, who was a grad student at Curtis and ended up becoming a really good friend of mine. Just working with him got my foot in the door to the real teachers and coaches and faculty at Curtis. I did my first fully staged production with Opera Delaware about a year before finally joining Opera Philly at the end of my sophomore year.
Street: Tell me a little bit about your time with Opera Philly. What operas have you performed with them?
ML: I’ve done two concerts with them, and I’m going into my fourth full production, which is crazy. The first production I did was Turandot last fall with Christine Goerke, who’s a huge name in opera. Like, the recording on the Met Opera on Demand is of her. And then I did Tancredi with Stephanie Blythe, which is just ridiculous, and then I did Magic Flute this fall and then we’re doing Carmen in the spring. But working with these big names in the opera world has been absolutely ridiculous. Absolutely nuts. And one of the craziest things is how willing they are to help young people. I find that in this industry, everyone remembers just how miserable they were for so long, and they’re compassionate enough to say, “I made it, so now I’m going to toss the ladder back down and make this easier for you, and try to help you, and I’m not going to be cut throat.” We’re all in the same boat; this is a tough business.
Street: How do you manage your academics and extracurricular and social life on campus while balancing a professional performing career?
ML: When I’m doing a show we rehearse a lot, usually every day or every other day during music rehearsals and staging, and then once we get to piano tech or dress it’s every other or every three days. Balancing has definitely been tough, and my GPA is there to show that. Last fall I was taking PPE 201 and 203, and we had a Wednesday night performance of Turandot but the next day I had midterms in both of those classes. I sat backstage all dressed up in my costume and my white face makeup, sitting at my computer, cramming for those midterms.
My social life has kind of declined since freshman year for obvious reasons, but I feel like that happens a lot with Penn students in general, so I don’t feel too bad about it. But I can make it work. Obviously drinking isn’t so great for my voice, so I kind of have to abstain more often than not. Academically, I’m fortunate that my degree isn’t going to be my career, so I don’t put too much importance on my grades, as long as I pass and have some sense of pride in the fact that I’m learning something.
Street: Do you get stressed about leaving the academic world behind to become a performer full-time?
ML: Only because what I’m going into is so much more stressful. Obviously Penn is a stressful place, but there’s just something about standing in a line with so many people who are doing exactly what you’re doing and aren’t going to make it that’s just so much more terrifying. So it’s not even that I’m stressed about leaving academics, it’s just that, like, this is my backup plan, and I’m nervous that I’ll need it. That’s what I’m afraid of.
This summer I was at a festival in upstate New York and was working with Brian Zeger, who runs the program at Julliard and used to run the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the Met. Afterwards, he said to me, “It’s very rare we come across a kid like you who has an academic degree. I just have one question: what are you going to do when this is all you have?” And it was just kind of this shocking existential moment. He said, “You know, five years down the road you’re going to be sitting in a hotel room in Vienna or Prague, you’re going to be singing Belcore (Ed note: This is a character from a famous opera. Google it.) three times a week and coming back to your hotel room, and you’re going to say, ‘Well what do I do now?’ And you’re going to realize that that’s when your degree actually does matter. You can write, and you can read.” And I was just like, “Why are you telling me this? This sounds so lonely.” But I thought about it more and his point was really important. I’m going to be really thankful for spending time at Penn.
Street: Do you think you’ve also had an impact on performing arts at Penn?
ML: In terms of opera in particular, there’s this absurd view that this is an antiquated art form. But stuff like this Opera Philly festival we had in the fall, where every single piece was brand new, I think can change everyone’s views about what this art form is. It’s awesome that musical theater is making a comeback for people our age. I do musical theater and I do opera. So why can’t everybody? If you can do it as an artist, you can do it as a patron.
For artists at Penn, I think there’s a huge extracurricular focus on the arts here. That’s great. I love that. But nobody takes it seriously enough in an academic sense. Nobody wants to believe that they could actually do something for a living. And that’s just a general Penn thing overall - people are getting funneled towards a very niche set of banking, consulting, etc. jobs. And it’s super enticing. It’s super enticing for me too! Obviously a $90,000 salary dangling in front of you is pretty attractive. But there are performing arts people who have come from Penn, it’s not this crazy absurd notion that you could fulfill your dreams. So I think looking at someone who did it from Penn and saying, “Oh, I can get a degree, and then I can follow my passion.” Is powerful, and I’d hope to be another one of those people. You don’t have to give it up.
My dream role in an opera is... "Scarpiet in Tosca."
The one recording that will make everyone appreciate opera is... "Breaking the Waves. We premiered it last year, and it won every international award, but it’s just the antithesis of what people think of when they think opera."
My all-time favorite opera is... "La Bohème."
Between Allegro or Wawa, I'd have to pick... "Freshman year, Wawa between 3 and 5 AM, but now definitely Allegro's because it’s dangerously close to my house."
There are two types of people at Penn... "The obliviously competitive and the obsessively compulsive."