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

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