Opera Buffa

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's new book, Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera, has just
been published by the University of Chicago Press.

The Toughest Show on Earth: My Rise and Reign at the Metropolitan
Opera

By Joseph Volpe with Charles Michener

(Alfred A. Knopf, 304 pp.,$25.95)

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 Schonberg, 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 Valery 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 Boheme, 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 Jose Carreras when he first unveiled his
Boheme in 1981, but what kept bringing in the tourists over the
years and paying the bills was the Cafe 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
Renee 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.

By Philip Gossett

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