Since his undergraduate days at Yale University, Jonathan Levi has followed a career in writing, theatre, and music. A violin student of Broadus Erle and Syoko Aki, Levi began playing jazz violin in bars in Nantucket and went on to perform and record with jazz and rock bands in the United States and Europe, including Laurasia, Antares, and Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians.
Following graduation, Levi received a Mellon Fellowship to study at Cambridge University, where he co-founded the literary magazine Granta and, through 1987, served as U.S. Editor for the journal called “quite simply, the most impressive magazine of its time,” (Daily Telegraph).
After leaving Granta, Levi divided his time between writing and producing. His 1992 novel, A Guide for the Perplexed was called “a fable of fantastical lushness, reminiscent of the best fairy tales,” (The New York Times Book Review) and compared to “the outrageous satire of Monty Python, and the globetrotting of Vanity Fair,” (Washington Post), “while also bearing the mark of such fabulists as Günter Grass and Gabriel García Marquez.” (Newsday) Levi’s short stories and articles have appeared in many magazines including Granta, Condé Nast Traveler, GQ, Terra Nova,The Nation, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times Book Review.
After many years of working with the Metropolitan Opera Guild, designing programs and teaching children and teachers in the United States and Europe, Levi created New Opera for New Ears, a joint program of The Metropolitan Opera Guild and The Kennedy Center. For its inaugural project, in 1993, Levi produced Carly Simon’s first opera, Romulus Hunt, directed by Francesca Zambello, to wide acclaim in New York and Washington, DC.
In 1997, Levi was asked by New York’s 92nd Street Y Unterberg Poetry Center to direct the National Literary Audience Development Project. As part of that mission, Levi worked with Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky and Director Robert Scanlan to produce a stage version of Dante’s Inferno for four actors and violinist, with original music by Bruce Saylor and a sound score by Christopher Walker. The Inferno premiered in New York to sold-out houses before touring to Boston, Kansas City, Seattle, The Getty Center in Los Angeles, and Montgomery, Alabama where the interracial cast of five performed to an integrated audience that overflowed the capacity of the church where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. first preached. A televised version of the production aired on PBS in February, and a radio incarnation was broadcast as a special on NPR.
In January 2000, Harold O. Levy, the New York City Schools Chancellor, invited Levi to join his staff to oversee Arts and Cultural Affairs, where, for 18 months, he initiated a variety of programs to reinvigorate the arts, including organizing a master class with Isaac Stern for the 43 superintendents of the school system, opening the Bard High School Early College and developing the Library! Project with The Robin Hood Foundation to re-conceive and re-design the over 600 elementary school libraries in New York City.
November 2001 saw the world premiere of Levi’s first opera, The Scrimshaw Violin, based on his short story of the same name and with music by Bruce Saylor. The Scrimshaw Violin marked the first project of the new Nine Circles Chamber Theatre, which Levi founded with violinist Gil Morgenstern, following the success of Dante’s Inferno. Levi subsequently wrote two more operas for Nine Circles with composer Mel Marvin, Guest from the Future and Buwalsky: A Road Opera (commissioned by the Dutch Opera Spanga), directed Nine Circles’ Paul Celan: The Art of the Fugitive, and has produced all eight of Nine Circles’ productions.
In March 2002, Levi became the first director of the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, designed by Frank O. Gehry. (Read the New York Times article from July, 2002 announcing Levi’s appointment.) At the Fisher Center, Levi created the Bard SummerScape Festival, presented artists and companies from around the world in performances of opera, theatre, dance, puppetry and film. SummerScape premieres included work by Russian directors Kama Ginkas, Henrietta Yanovskaya and Valery Fokin, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Ballet Hispanico, and Elvis Costello. At SummerScape, Levi also produced a number of original productions including a re-working of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, titled Don Juan in Prague (featuring the Czech gypsy violinist, singer Iva Bittova and the eclectic string quartet Ethel in a semi-synthesized reworking of the score), the U.S. premiere of Leos Janacek’s Osud with sets by Frank Gehry, Shostakovich’s The Nose, directed by Francesca Zambello, and Guest from the Future, a chamber opera about Anna Akhmatova and Isaiah Berlin.
His play Falling Bodies, with music by Bruce Saylor, called “fanciful but serious,” by The New Yorker, following concert performances in Italy and the U.S. with Obie Award-winners Bill Camp as Galileo and Elizabeth Marvel as Primo Levi, received its staged premiere on December 11, 2009, in Georgian at Tbilisi’s Rustaveli National Theatre.
Eden, Levi’s musical of chaos about Hurricane Katrina and the War in Iraq, with music by Mel Marvin, was presented in workshop by the O’Neill Center’s Music Theatre Workshop in July, 2010, and at Joe’s Pub, NYC in November, 2011.
His collaboration with Dutch composer Caroline Ansink and director Corina van Eijk, Stuyvesant Zero, an opera in two scenes and a debate, premiered in August, 2012 in Friesland, Holland. The Electric Flute, Levi’s pulp-fictional take on Mozart’s Magic Flute, with a Zappa-inspired score by Floris van Bergeijk, premiered in July 2015 at the Oranjewoud Festival.
Levi’s second novel, Septimania, was published in April 2016 by Overlook Press and in England by Duckworth in August 2016.
Levi divides his time between New York and Italy, where he has been a Resident at the Bellagio Center and a Visiting Artist at the American Academy in Rome. and writes on arts and travel for The International New York Times and Condé Nast Traveler. He is Co-Director of the Gabriel García Márquez Fellowship in Cultural Journalism in Cartagena, Colombia; Artistic Advisor for the Zaubersee Festival in Luzern, Switzerland; and teaches writing at the Yale Writers Conference and Under the Volcano in Tepoztlán, Mexico.