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Thursday, August 31st, 2006
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The Toughest Show on Earth: My Rise and Reign at the Metropolitan Opera

by Joseph Volpe

Opera Buffa

A review by Philip Gossett

The rags-to-riches myth never fails to impress. Whether it be the scullery maid who becomes the princess or the apprentice carpenter who becomes the big boss at the Metropolitan Opera, it sets up a cogent model for an America where rampant capitalism promises equal opportunity. Joseph Volpe wears his scruffiness with pride. "I had never studied music," he announces in his new memoir. "I didn't have a degree in arts management. I'd barely graduated from high school." A few pages later he is more specific: "I hated school."

What Volpe liked was manual labor, first in gas stations or his father's clothing factory, and later as a carpenter, building scenery at the Booth Theater on Broadway and then, starting in 1964, at the Metropolitan Opera: "Everything I knew about running an opera house I had figured out for myself, starting by using my hands." His scorn for his predecessor as general manager, Hugh Southern, is palpable: "[His] only qualification for running the company seemed to be that he'd never seen the front office of a great opera house -- but he sported an English accent, courtesy of Cambridge University." Not for Volpe a university degree, and certainly not an English one: his self-image is out of Damon Runyon, as is his Broadway mentor, Eddie Lapidus, known as "King Farouk," who boasted that the curtain would come down at 10:20 p.m. no matter what the director or the actors thought, since he had to catch a train home.

Through thirty years of hard work and observation, Volpe did indeed figure out some elements of running the company, for which he then served as general manager from 1993 until July 2006. He is at his most endearing when he describes his first love, carpentry and the construction of scenery: "Working with theatrical scenery is like solving an enormous three-dimensional puzzle." He understands from within why the New York State Theater is a problem for an opera company, since its stage was "designed to muffle the sound of dancers' feet without doing anything for singers' voices." He was there for the inauguration of the new Met in 1966 and helped to set up its carpenter shops. About Antony and Cleopatra by Samuel Barber, the work given its world premiere on opening night, all he says is that it "got lousy reviews." Yet our interest is caught when we learn that "The first curtain had to be rehung so that its back side faced the audience, because the gold pattern was too bright." And we are solidly with Volpe when he solves a technical problem in the set and tells an unidentified Italian that "some wacko designer put up too much scenery." The Italian turned out to be Franco Zeffirelli.

When, near the end of his book, Volpe returns to one of the carpenter shops, he muses: "There was no one around at this hour, but the smell of recently cut plywood was fresh and so were the ghosts of Tex Lawrence's crew, with whom I'd set the place up forty years ago." No one understood better the complexities of moving scenery around, striking one set from a matinee and setting up another for the evening performance. And from this hands-on experience Volpe developed a keen awareness of what it meant to handle all the technical and personnel issues central to an opera house: "The Met lives in a state of near war: hundreds of people working on a dozen productions, current and future ones, each with a deadline that can't be missed." Volpe made certain that each of them was where he needed to be when he needed to be there.

While good management is crucial to any organization, and opera houses are no exception, ultimately we judge an arts organization by what it does, not by how it operates. Volpe did much that was admirable during his reign at the Met, and he shows genuine affection for its people, more than justifying Beverly Sills's remark that "Joe is not an easy man to deal with, but Joe is a sane, rational man." Most important, he maintained a good working relationship with music director James Levine, even though he refers to the operas by Sch%amp%ouml;nberg, Berg, and Britten that Levine championed as "box-office poison." And he gets to the heart of the Levine magic when he writes that "Singers love to work with Jimmy because he has the patience of an elephant and because he knows everything there is to know about their craft. No conductor is better at enabling singers to do their best." Volpe points with pride to the expansion of the Russian and Czech repertory under his watch, thanks to the presence of Val%amp%eacute;ry Gergiev as principal guest conductor. And he writes with sensitivity about the wonderful support the Met received from a succession of generous donors.

Yet much of what the Met did under Volpe was less successful, and his own words help to explain why. In a series of anecdotes, we watch him emerging victorious from one confrontation after another with directors, singers, unions, and other managers at "Leakin' Center." These victories, however, were sometimes Pyrrhic, although his "take no prisoners" style does not permit him to recognize this.

Consider the following question: how many performances each week should musicians in the Met's orchestra be required to play? According to Volpe, before 1965 they had to play every performance, seven in all. That number was reduced to five in 1965. During contract negotiations for the 1980-1981 season, the musicians wanted the number further reduced to four. Apparently Anthony Bliss, who became the executive director of the Met in 1975 (and from 1981 the general manager), did not at first object to this demand, but later he dug in his heels. His indecision played havoc with the negotiations. Volpe argues that the proposed reduction was justified by the greater complexity of the music being performed (such as Berg's Lulu or the operas of Wagner), which required more concentration and more independent rehearsal time, and by the fact that fewer musicians lived near Lincoln Center and hence needed to commute greater distances. From an economic point of view, moreover, it was a plausible request: the Met could hire "extras at less pay and with no benefits" and the regular orchestra could be asked to give something back (four hours of extra rehearsal time and participation in a Sunday concert for the "pension fund").

Volpe developed a strong working relationship with the lawyer representing the musicians, Philip Sipser, and they thereafter managed to keep contract negotiations under control. Yet something was seriously amiss. Sipser affirmed that "Mr. Levine has already assured us that there will be no loss of artistic quality," but no one seems to have questioned that judgment. At this point the management skills vaunted by Volpe came directly into conflict with artistic questions. Levine is as good an opera conductor as can be found anywhere, but the artistic quality about which he is most concerned regards the performances that he himself conducts. Met performances are one thing when he or other prestigious conductors consistently obtain the services of the best members of the orchestra, but what happens on the other nights, when the orchestra is made up of "extras at less pay and with no benefits"? With all the respect in the world for those musicians, professionals to a person, there is no way the house can maintain the same artistic level with a constantly changing body of musicians, some of whom are called for performances without having rehearsed sufficiently. As a result, the Met orchestra is a sometimes affair, and anyone who hears a late-season La Traviata or Turandot knows it. Those are not the performances reviewed in The New York Times, of course.

There were other management decisions that had a serious impact on artistic quality at the Met. Volpe places himself firmly behind his predecessor Rudolf Bing's "insistence on expensive, high-powered new productions, which he regarded -- rightly -- as essential long-term investments in the Met's future." Yet very different approaches to new productions were taken by two stage directors, John Dexter and Franco Zeffirelli, both of whom Volpe claims to have admired.

Dexter was director of productions during the second half of the 1970s as part of a management troika, with the general manager (first Schuyler Chapin, later Bliss) and the music director (Levine), at a time when Volpe was being promoted from his position as head of the carpenter shop to technical director and then to director of operations of the house. He watched as Dexter took up the "mandate from the trustees to keep the costs of new productions as low as possible" by invoking the world of the dramatic stage he had known from his days at London's Royal Court Theatre and National Theatre. As Dexter wrote in his diary: "Only at the Metropolitan has time stood still. The curtain can still rise on a performance and the audience can be transported back to the nineteenth century and sit and wallow in an imaginary world." Instead, Dexter favored a new approach: "Only when the operatic stage can share the freedom of the dramatic stage can the medium exist in the twentieth century and maybe help us understand the world and ourselves, instead of remaining the morphine of the over-privileged."

Dexter was responsible for a series of artistic triumphs, many featuring twentieth-century repertory -- Britten's Billy Budd, Poulenc's The Dialogues of the Carmelites, and Weill's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. By the early 1980s, however, the influence of Dexter's "lean-and-mean productions" was on the wane, and in large part the director blamed Volpe, who -- in his new capacity as director of operations -- did not give him the support that he expected. For once in his narrative, Volpe does not respond in kind, insisting rather that he learned much from Dexter.

Zeffirelli, by contrast, was enthusiastically encouraged by Volpe and by an important financial supporter of the Met, the Texas widow Sybil Harrington, and he wallowed in excess. This is not meant to deny that Zeffirelli, in Volpe's words, "is such a master of stage design -- of color and architecture, perspective and movement -- that no matter how opulent his productions become, they never look cluttered." But these monumental Boh%amp%egrave;me, Tosca, and Turandot stagings live on and on, diverting the attention of generations of operagoers from what may or may not be going on musically or dramatically. Zeffirelli extracted superb performances from artists such as Teresa Stratas and Jos%amp%eacute; Carreras when he first unveiled his Boh%amp%egrave;me in 1981, but what kept bringing in the tourists over the years and paying the bills was the Caf%amp%eacute; Momus scene, with "143 Parisian revelers, 24 street urchins, 19 soldiers, 14 vendors, a marching band of 12, 2 live animals, and a fake bear."

While Volpe claims that the Met under his regime embraced "a greater variety of production styles than any other opera house in the world," he inveighs against most stage directors:

I had developed a real distaste for what the Europeans call "regie opera" -- productions in which a director transforms a work into something unrecognizable, according to some personal "vision." For me, most of these productions backfired because the director had rewritten the story for his own purposes, rather than attempting to translate it into terms the audience could understand. Forget about opera as spectacle, as entertainment, as enjoyment. These pedants, who were pretending to be innovators, were really doing commentaries about opera. I wasn't interested in going back to school.
What a tirade: one wonders if Volpe has seen a single important Shakespearian production of the past forty years by Peter Brooks, or Yukio Ninagawa, or Eimuntas Nekrosius, among others. In talking about the Booth Theater, Volpe remarks that he worked on plays by Chekhov, Arthur Kopit, and Peter Shaffer, but gives no hint that he had any interest in or knowledge of them. Too much like going back to school, I suppose.

As the book proceeds, Volpe's remarks become even nastier. He throws out a projected Werner Herzog Magic Flute, substituting a pretty David Hockney setting. (Later, for the same opera, he engages Julie Taymor, of Lion King fame, for another audience-friendly production.) He demonizes the "Eurotrash face" of Giancarlo Del Monaco's Puccini and Elijah Moshinsky's Verdi, with the remark that "any attempt to relocate these arguments, update them, stylize them, or add a layer of contemporary irony risks making them look silly." Some of his most pungent remarks are reserved for Jonathan Miller. Cecilia Bartoli's contract with the Met to appear as Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro granted her the right to sing at some performances two substitute arias that Mozart himself prepared for the character, but Miller objected vehemently to the changes. I think that Bartoli was perfectly justified in making these substitutions, using music Mozart himself had prepared for a different singer. (Riccardo Muti will conduct Verdi's Attila at the Met in 2010, and I hope he will have his Foresto sing Verdi's three different Romanze in rotation.) Miller certainly went awry in bringing his complaints to the press, but Volpe served neither the Met nor his public by burning his bridges with Miller, a fascinating director and theatrical force. In the book, Volpe continues to pummel him: "When I didn't offer him any more productions or invite him back to direct the Figaro revival, Miller began telling everybody that the Met had 'fired' him. Baloney. He was stroking his ego. I was running an opera house. He fired himself."

Volpe speaks with scorn of three controversial productions: the Peter Hall Macbeth, the Francesca Zambello Lucia di Lammermoor, and the Graham Vick Il Trovatore. While even great directors can make mistakes, it is insufficient to say that the Met audience "can get highly offended when a director's pursuit of artistic liberties violates their pursuit of happiness." The audience does not speak a single language, and opera production is not solely about the "pursuit of happiness." The art form thrives on innovation and intelligence. Perhaps the problem goes back to Bing: why should every production be built to last for generations? What is to stop a major company -- even the Met -- from occasionally devising an experimental "lean-and-mean" production, meant to last for one or two seasons? Give us a new perspective on Carmen; do it with flair, theatricality, and fine singers; then retire it. That is the way many houses operate, even without enormous governmental subsidies. Such an approach, though, seems to have been anathema to Volpe. Whether it could work in New York still remains to be seen.

When it comes to artists, Volpe has strong likes and dislikes, some of which can turn malicious: "I heard that his personal life was in disarray..."; "his marriage had ended and the woman he now introduced as his wife was really his girlfriend." Language about a singer being "large-figured" or "unalluring" is reserved for those he does not favor and avoided for those he supports. Should a general manager really accuse one of Italy's finest young conductors, Daniele Gatti, of "taking certain sections so slow that the singers were finding them difficult to sing"? Rehearsals are there to solve that problem, to balance what singers are used to doing with a conductor's insights into a score. I have known Gatti's work for more than fifteen years, and he is a serious artist who never makes decisions arbitrarily. When conducting Rossini's Barber of Seville this past year, he took the slowest tempo I ever heard to open the first-act finale; but once I got used to it, I realized that Gatti's orchestra was anticipating the pretended drunkenness of the Count. The singers finally had no difficulty adapting themselves. (Now that Volpe is gone, it is time to ask Gatti back to New York.)

The director of an opera company must deal constantly with singers who, in Volpe's apt characterization, are like "trapeze artists, alone up there on the thin wire of a vocal cord without a safety net." He points with pride to having helped develop singers such as Ren%amp%eacute;e Fleming, but the Kathleen Battle follies was not his finest moment. In being late for rehearsals or not showing up at all, in making unreasonable demands on her colleagues, in acting out her frustrations when she was not accorded the attention she thought she deserved, Battle surely behaved atrociously, as Volpe points out, and her behavior was apparently getting worse. But Volpe's moralizing reeks of grandstanding: "No artist is more important than the art form. No artist can be excused for the abuse of colleagues. It's my responsibility to protect the integrity of this great company." This is one of the few times in the book in which Volpe suggests that he might occasionally have a second thought: "I've sometimes felt that I should have been able to find a way to help this beautiful, talented woman avoid the catastrophe."

He nicely describes the differences in personality and style between the Met's two dominant tenors, Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo, but he seems prepared to make every excuse for Pavarotti's canceling performances, even taking The New York Times to task for criticizing him. His judgment of Pavarotti's behavior might have appeared more objective had he mentioned that the general manager of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Ardis Krainik, had banned Pavarotti from her theater a decade earlier, after the cancellations had gotten out of hand. Volpe's admiration for what had been Pavarotti's artistry and his personal affection for the "king of the opera world" apparently make such objectivity difficult.

Nor does he offer any objectivity about his relationship with the other institutions at Lincoln Center. In one case after another, Volpe blocked actions in the Development Project, claiming that "millions of dollars have been squandered because of poor judgment and poor leadership." He remained the tough kid fighting the good fight: "I didn't have any social standing to worry about. I wasn't there for self-esteem." No, he was there to make sure that the Met got its share, and compromise with other institutions was a very small part of his vocabulary.

By appointing Peter Gelb as the new general manager of the company, the Board of Directors of the Met have chosen a different path. Gelb comes from an intellectual family in New York (his father served as managing editor of The New York Times and with his wife wrote an acclaimed life of Eugene O'Neill). His career has included working for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, serving as a concert manager with Columbia Artists Management Inc. (where his clients included Vladimir Horowitz), producing television shows (I worked with him on a production in the mid-1980s) and Met telecasts, and serving as president of Sony Classical, where he developed a crossover line that included the soundtrack to the film Titanic. However carefully he has avoided saying so, Gelb's plans are an implicit repudiation of Volpe's Met. He intends to sponsor more new productions with a less traditional group of stage and movie directors (Anthony Minghella or Mary Zimmermann); to commission more new operas (the first announced is from Osvaldo Golijov); to lower some ticket prices so as to attract new audiences and to develop family-oriented programs for the holidays; to invite to the Met major conductors who have not before worked there (Muti, Salonen); to seek collaborations with Lincoln Center Theater, broadening the very idea of what opera is.

Volpe has tried to keep the heat down during the recent transition, although occasionally his divergent views emerge, as in this remark on a radio program last May: "I think doing more new productions will help increase the box office, because there's always excitement about new productions. Doing world commissions I do not believe has the same effect, because the Met audience today really -- they're quite conservative. So, I think it's questionable. I think, yes, if one is going to try to attract a new audience, it's surely worth the experiment if you can finance it." No one knows, of course, whether Gelb's ideas will help revitalize the Met or whether they will antagonize a significant part of the audience. But there is no doubt that ideas are circulating again, for the first time in a long time, in and around the operatic behemoth of New York. That is already a considerable accomplishment.

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