Tag Archives: Metropolitan Opera

The Toughest Show on Earth – Joseph Volpe

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Joe Volpe was the volatile, rags-to-riches general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. In the Met’s rarified Upper East Side social environs, an apprentice carpenter who rises through the ranks to take over the whole shop is an oddity—never happened before and not likely to happen again. So, The Toughest Show on Earth: My Rise and Reign at the Metropolitan Opera is Joe Volpe’s Cinderella story, although Cinderella he is not.

The story is as self-serving as any news-name memoir usually is. Volpe casts himself as the hero in the drama with flawless recall of the one-line zingers he delivered to those unwise enough to cross swords—or words—with him. He served as general manager for sixteen years, working at the Met from 1964 until becoming the top dog in 1990 and then retiring in 2006. His is a story of mastery and ambition—Volpe seems to have always envisioned himself as destined for Valhalla—the Met’s version anyway. And he was good at what he did—from building a set to reorganizing how opera’s massive sets are struck in order to streamline the work, to negotiating with the intractable musicians’ union when a last-minute walk-out threatened to scuttle the whole season.

Many chapters are devoted to the larger-than-life personalities who strut and fret and deliver high C’s on the Met’s stage. Sopranos and tenors get the lion’s share of the ink as they tend to be the biggest divas and pitch the most histrionic fits. Volpe was legendary for not taking crap from trantrumming performers and their insistent managers. He spends time twice justifying his firing of the troubled (and troublesome) Kathleen Battle—a move that generated international headlines and fatally damaged Battle’s career. To be fair, she seemed to be doing an excellent job of damaging her own career without any help from Volpe and that is the reason we are given for her dismissal. Pavarotti and Domingo, the two legendary tenors in lifelong contention for top billing, had some less-than-public issues about that competition that Volpe details at length. The failures and foibles of leading ladies, villains and heroes–weight, sex appeal, musicality, professionalism–all end up under the magnifying glass. The dishy stuff is fun.

Opera directors—the designers and shapers of the multimillion-dollar new productions that are the flash and dazzle of the opera world—can’t hide behind the scenery when Volpe is telling tales. I have been fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on the production) to observe several new productions from pre-rehearsal to opening night, critical reviews and run of the debut season at the Met and the drama is crazy, the results not always predictable. Some directors create enduring dreams that deliver on first performance and fill the house season after season. Quite a few fail to measure up. A number of the successes are trotted out year after year until they are dusty, shabby and tired but audiences still clamor for them. Horses, donkeys, dogs and other fauna ensure that chorus members step lively to avoid stepping in anything. Occasionally, scenery fails to perform as expected and can even be dangerous. Predictably, artists have love-hate relationships with directors and those may be carefully smoothed over or end badly with ugly headlines and empty seats.

I won’t grant Volpe the evaluation that the Met is the toughest show on earth. It’s a complex, risky and exhausting venture, with too many capricious constituents and perilous finances at the best of times. But opera is story and music and, while you can really mess that up, you never start from square one with an opera. The art form has its perennial devotees and new presentations thrust it into a continual limelight of discovery. It takes heroic effort to land a solid hit or even a mediocre performance. But a Verdi chorus or a Mozart flute trumps any single player, general manager or prima donna. Volpe’s epic run at the Met gave him a lot of gray hairs and a lot of great stories. Quite a few of them surface in this engaging book. Not precisely a 3-ring circus but a little something for everyone, including a few high-wire acts, daredevils and snarling beasts.

The Toughest Show on Earth: My Rise and Reign at the Metropolitan Opera   Joseph Volpe | Alfred A. Knopf   2006

Molto Agitato: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera – Johanna Fiedler

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Molto Agitato is better than fiction. Johanna Fiedler captures the Byzantine politics, furiosos and giocosos of personnel, divas, donors—artists, administrators and audience members of every category—at the legendary Metropolitan Opera. Fiedler, who was the Met’s general press representative for more than a decade, makes it clear that the doughty musical behemoth is itself an opera to rival anything that marches across its famous stage.

It’s a terrific read. I loved it because my family has had an intimate relationship with the Met and the story is detailed and dishy enough for any opera voyeur to delight in, especially when you recognize many of the players. From the early rivalry with the Old Money Academy of Music, when nouveau riche New Yorkers (like Mrs. Vanderbilt) in the late 1800s couldn’t get a box, through the establishment of the Metropolitan Opera at 39th and Broadway in 1873 to accommodate all those arrivistes, fabulous sums, fabulous singers, fabulous sets and fabulous scheming have characterized all its acts.

The chronicle of every general manager—the title undergoes a number of alterations as the position is adapted and redefined over the years—rivals the tales of the star sopranos and top-draw tenors. Rudolf Bing gets his multiple chapters as does Joe Volpe but many less public and equally influential administrators take their moments in the white hot spotlight, too. The Met’s shocking 1980 murder case is part of the history as is the suicidal swan dive from the Family Circle during the intermission of a live televised broadcast. But triumphs of production design and brilliant casting are given their due—a number of those operas are still scheduled and some, the wildly popular and elaborate Zeffirellis like Tosca and La Boheme, are either still around or recently retired after decades of filling the house.

James Levine, the Met’s longtime and revered music director, is given credit for building one of the finest orchestras in the world even as his calculated rise to power gets a thorough recounting. If you love opera and are interested in what one of the world’s great opera companies looks like behind the scenes, Molto Agitato is a rewarding backstage tour. Fielder has doubtless been kind to her old employer—coups d’etat are seldom as bloodless as the ones in this Met history—but there is enough drama for a Wagner, a Puccini or a Verdi. Molto agitato is a musical direction meaning to play in a very restless or agitated style and, even in the silence of a book, the abrupt shifts and constant churn of the Metropolitan Opera come across loud and clear.

Molto Agitato: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera   Johanna Fiedler | Doubleday   2001

Liebestod — Leslie Epstein

Liebestod, Opera Buffa with Leib Goldkorn

Liebestod, Opera Buffa with Leib Goldkorn is Leslie Epstein’s ultimate sequel to his risible life of Leib Goldkorn, now a spry 103 and contemplating suicide in the gas oven in his rent-stabilized Upper West Side apartment. I had high hopes for the comic relief of this book—and it came with the promise of humorous treatment of much that Upper West Siders hold dear: whitefish from Barney Greengrass—check; Renee Fleming—check; Luciano and Placido in the same opera—improbable at best but check; Gustav Mahler—check; backstage at the Metropolitan Opera—check; Jimmy Levine conducting said opera—check; enough Yiddishkeit to inspire spontaneous conversion—check.

It was funny, for about fifty or so pages. But then I was over the joke and, clever as the novel is, I plowed through the rest of it. Too insider, maybe. Too much priapic rambling. Lots of current events twisted, and then twisted again, into witty pretzels of repartee. Much ink devoted to the decelerated micturations of extremely old men. Predacious landlords, scheming villagers, misguided politicians and long lost Mahler progeny in miraculous possession of an undiscovered opera by the composer–all of it filtered through the inimitable lens of Leib. Just couldn’t sustain the grins.

I think it is a wonderful book for some readers who will admire its inventiveness and willingly eschew the virtues of moderation. But they are not me. Terrorists taking over an operatic performance worked brilliantly in Bel Canto (which is not a comedy but is absolutely memorable). Not so much here. Epstein has done his prodigious research—he gets every detail of the Met exactly right. He layers on history like nova on a bagel. He maintains an original voice throughout. I was impressed by the writing but, in the end, I didn’t enjoy it.

You should try the whitefish at Barney Greengrass–Amsterdam between 86th and 87th—legendary. But tackle the picaresque adventures of Leib Goldkorn with care. You might love it and chuckle out loud. Or not. I was relieved when the curtain (metaphorically speaking) came down.

Liebestod: Opera Buffa with Leib Goldkorn   Leslie Epstein | W. W. Norton & Company   2012