Met Opera's James Levine to return in May after spinal injury

By Ellen Freilich

NEW YORK, Oct 12 (Reuters) - Metropolitan Opera music director James Levine will return to the conducting podium in May 2013 - initially in a wheelchair - after a fall more than a year ago that left him partially paralyzed, the New York opera house said on Friday.

Levine, 69, who has been the Met's music director since 1976, will conduct the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in May 2013, before leading three operas during the Met's 2013-14 season, the Met said in a statement.

Met General Manager Peter Gelb called Levine's return to conducting "great news for opera lovers throughout the world," while Levine said: "I'm looking forward more than I can say to getting back to work."

Levine has been in long-term rehabilitation since injuring his spine in a fall while on vacation in August 2011 that required surgery and left him partially paralyzed.

While his upper body strength has returned, his injuries have left him temporarily unable to walk.

The Met said that for the time being, he will conduct from a motorized wheelchair. In anticipation of Levine's return, the Met's technical department is designing customized, elevating podiums that will be utilized on the Carnegie Hall stage and in the Met's orchestra pit.

Levine referred to the "long healing process" from his spine injury, but said he feels better with each passing day.

For the 2013-14 season, Levine is scheduled to conduct a new production of Verdi's "Falstaff" and revivals of Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" and Berg's "Wozzeck."

The Met said that in recent weeks, Levine has gradually been taking on more of his duties as music director, including coaching members of the organization's young artist development program and holding artistic planning sessions.

His physician, Dr. Len Horovitz, who coordinates his medical team, said Levine was "an inspirational case, whose return to conducting will be a result of remarkable perseverance and hard work."

Levine made his debut with the company in 1971 and has conducted 2,441 performances there, more than anyone in the company's 129-year history. His last performance as a conductor was of Wagner's "Die Walküre" on May 14, 2011.

(Reporting By Ellen Freilich; Editing by Jill Serjeant and Eric Walsh)