Tough guy

Joseph Volpe‘s memoir The Toughest Show on Earth (see, La Cieca can get the title right when she wants too) is a book about a working-class kid from Queens who wanted to be Rudolf Bing when he grew up. Or, rather, it’s about a stage carpenter who was bright enough and ambitious enough to do catch Bing’s eye during the disastrous lead-up to the first Met season at Lincoln Center. I’m not sure how accurate the details are in Volpe’s story of how he “fixed” the set of Franco Zeffirelli‘s Antony and Cleopatra (especially the Zef’s meek acceptance of an unknown carpenter’s hacking away at his work), but it is a characteristic story. Volpe sees himself and depicts himself as a man who puts his thoughts into action, an autocrat even, like his role model Bing.

Volpe’s rise from middle management to top dog (when he finally claimed Bing’s old office) hinged on a series of coincidences. First came the death of intendant-to-be Goeran Gentele, leaving a lacuna hastily plugged with the semi-competent Schuyler Chapin, first of several weakish General Managers who allowed Bing’s centralized power to dissipate. Meanwhile, Rafael Kubelik deserted the newly-created post of Music Director, sweeping the young James Levine into power. Volpe found himself allied with the volatile new Director of Productions John Dexter, who relied on Volpe to get things done in the notoriously entropic Met bureaucracy.

As Levine’s power and influence increased, so, apparently, did his hunger for love and approval from his colleagues; he simply wouldn’t say “no,” even when he ascended to the rank of Artistic Director. After General Manager Bruce Crawford accomplished a financial turnaround for the company, he resigned, replaced by the innefectual Hugh Southern, who shared Levine’s distaste for confrontation. Thus Volpe’s role evolved into that of Bad Cop. For for example, he’s the one who had to tell Eva Marton that, despite what “she’d been led to believe,” the soprano would not get the plum of recording the Ring with the Met orchestra. (Volpe indulges in passive voice to avoid pointing fingers at the culprit who misled Marton, but it’s not hard to figure out.)

Upon Southern’s ouster, Volpe was promoted — not to General Manager (the Bing/Gatti-Casazza title) but rather General Director, on equal footing with Levine and development diva Marilyn Shapiro. The disgruntled Volpe enhanced his power by taking on the most onerous task in the house — saying “no” to Jimmy. Finally, in 1993, 30 years since he entered the Met as a stagehand, Volpe attained his goal, General Manager, which conferred not only the duty but the power to say “no” to anyone and everyone.

Volpe dedicates a chapter of the book to what is generally regarded as the most controversial action he took as GM, the firing of Kathy Battle in the winter of 1994. He builds a convincing case against her, documenting behavior ranging from difficult to impossible ranging back to 1982, and assures us that he at least went though the motions of offering the soprano help after he fired her. He even admits that the brutal language he used in the press release canning Battle was in part motivated by his desire to assert authority in his new role. What he glosses over, though, is why the Battle problem was allowed to escalate to total war. The answer, of course, is that she was Levine’s pet. He deliberately ignored her bad behavior, and (perhaps even worse), everyone in the house was afraid to upset the maestro. Unchallenged, Battle grew into a monster.

Now, in an opera you send in a hero to slay a dragon. But this scenario was more Godzilla than Siegfried, and Volpe was the only one at the Met ready to use the Oxygen Destroyer. The press release accompanying Battle’s heave-ho was overkill, but it worked. The problem, perhaps, is that it worked too well. Volpe convinced himself that bullying was the only effective management style, and the second half of the book is littered with examples of failures of that policy and the resultant lapses of judgment and taste that have plagued the Met for the past decade.

Volpe’s motto doesn’t seem to be so much “the buck stops here” as “he told me it was a buck; how was I to know it was counterfeit?” He claims he foresaw the disastrous problems inherent in the various fiascos helmed by Francesca Zambello, Graham Vick, Giancarlo del Monaco, Piero Faggioni and Franco Zeffirelli, and even says he tried to do a little last-minute fixup (a la the clouds in Antony.) But Volpe offers no sense of how such misquided production concepts could have survived even the talking stage. How could he have looked at set and costume renderings for Zambello’s Lucia, for example, and said, “Yeah, this will work?”

This lack of vision, combined with a habit of delegating casting and planning decisions, plus a conservative tendency to go with the familiar (even when the familiar is mediocre or worse) — what it all adds up to is a picture of a man with little faith in his own abilities as an artistic director. This, alas, is why Joseph Volpe is no Rudolf Bing. During his tenure, Mr. Bing made good decisions and bad decisions, but they were informed and confident decisions. Volpe’s big ideas tended to be more of the “do it because I say so” variety.

For example, we find out that in 1999 the Alagnas in fact did sign the disputed Traviata contracts, but Volpe held them to the letter of his own arbitrary deadline. He said Thursday, and on Friday morning Herbert Breslin was ready to fax over the contracts. Alagna and Gheorghiu were even willing to work with Zeffirelli, which must have taken a whole lot of persuading on Breslin’s part. Volpe had in his hand an opera house’s crown jewel: a new Traviata with superstar singers, a celebrated director, and no less than James Levine conducting. But he tossed that all away, saying, “Forget it. The deadline has passed. They’re out.” Then he blabbed the whole story to the New York Times, making everyone involved look silly and childish. And for what? The Met ended up with a Traviata nobody wanted and nobody liked, and six years later Gheorghiu finally showed up for Violetta — wearing her own costumes and doing her own staging.

The bit about the Alagnas’ signed contracts is one of the few new bits of information in this book; obviously the publishers are thoroughly lawyered up and whatever dirt Volpe might have been ready to divulge has been thorougly expunged. We do learn, though, that when money talks, Uncle Joe listens. He tells with a straight face the story of how Sybil Harrington

hated the flat silver walls that Dexter and the designer, David Reppa came up with [for a production of Don Carlo], but she bided her time until after Dexter left the Met. Once he did, the scenery department, at her insistence, redid the walls with an elaborate pattern more in keeping with King Philip’s — and her — taste.

Volpe also allowed a more notorious benefactor to dictate that the booking operator at the Met’s onsite restaurant answer the phone with, “Good afternoon, Vilar Grand Tier Restaurant,” as if seeing the “V” word stenciled all over the walls wasn’t enough. Volpe insists that he and Alberto Vilar “had little personal contact,” and with crystal clear hindsight, notes that Vilar “always seemed to be harboring secrets . . . . I wondered when all this would go up in smoke.” But he didn’t let that stop him from allowing Vilar to act as if he ran the place.

That about does it for new and interesting content. There’s a nude photo of Karita Mattila illustrating an anecdote about how Volpe strong-armed a photographer who took a nude photo of Karita Mattila. There’s yet another rehash of the Lincoln Center redevelopment debacle, a “controversy” that even the New York Times is bored with by now. As expected, the Erica Sunnegardh “breakthrough” is predicted in uncanny detail, with comparisons to Rosa Ponselle and Roberta Peters. And, amusingly, Volpe repeats the urban legend about the first-night reception of Robert Wilson‘s Lohengrin production (“I had also failed to register a recent development in the history of booing. For months, anti-Wilson forces had been peppering the Internet with appeals for the Met audience to give his Lohengrin the same treatment it had dished out to Zambello’s Lucia.” If you can’t be bothered to use Google, Mr. Volpe, at least delegate that task to a fact checker.)

It’s a quick read, with lots of names dropped. The Pavarotti stories are either already famous or else are so characteristic as to sound familiar. Neither Volpe nor his coauthor Charles Michener can be accused of being a stylist; the prose is plain and undistinguished, rather like Volpe’s legacy. Volpe’s hero Rudolf Bing hired John Gutman to ghostwrite his entertaining, bitchy memoir 5000 Nights at the Opera. But then Mr. Bing always did have style.

The Toughest Show on Earth: My Rise and Reign at the Metropolitan Opera by Joseph Volpe. Knopf, May 2006 $25.95

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