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