The following is a tracnscript of a telephone conversation I had with Joseph Volpe,
General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, on June 1, 2006
Joseph Volpe went to work at the Metropolitan Opera over forty years ago as a carpenter, and this year he retires as the Company's General Manger,
which means he is the boss of all bosses at the world's most famous opera house.
His new book is called The Toughest Show on Earth.
CP: Your book is called Toughest Show on Earth...so what's so tough?
JV: The job itself, the way I did it. It was the focus of my life. I was hands on in everything. I needed to see everything first hand. I'd go in at 9 or 10 in the morning and still be there after the evening's performance, close to midnight.
It ends up being your life. Anytime there were problems it always came first. I just thought it was a catchy title-Toughest Show on Earth-but the job gave me such great pleasure. I'm going to miss it.
P: If I were a kid and I wrote you a letter asking you, what do I have to learn in order to run the Met someday, what would you tell me?
JV: I'd first say you should learn everything you can about opera and theater.
You can do that anywhere. Any small opera company. But truly devote yourself to learning...you have to dedicate yourself to learning everything you want to do.
Even after a late performance, when I was master carpenter I would take the train home after the performance and I would be constantly reading about different aspects of it. Really dedicating yourself to learn everything you can, so you are prepared to run it if you get that opportunity.
CP: That is the school, just going and doing it.
NOTE: Volpe's first boss at the Met was Rudolf Bing (1902-1997).
Bing ran the Met from 1950 to 1972. He was not known for personal warmth.
Check out his memoir '"5000 Nights at the Opera"
CP: You began there during the days of Generl Manager Rudolf Bing.
The great Brigit Nilsson said of him, "When Bing retires he'll be missed, even if people don't like him now." You have some very interesting stories about him and especially about a confrontation with a stage director.
JV: I felt he was a wonderful general manager, he was very hands on. Yes he was aristocratic in a sense, and probably very imperial in the way he did things, but he really was a wonderul fellow. The stage director happened to be Franco Zeffirelli. I didn't know who he was. I was trying to make a production work of (Samuel Barber's new opera) Antony and Cleopatra, and Zeffirelli saw that I was really throwing out, disposing of some of his scenery, and he was taken aback. He said, What are you doing? And I responded, I'm trying to make this show work. We have some wacko designer here...and the next morning Mr. Bing called me into his office to introduce me officially to Franco Zeffirelli...and the funny thing Christopher was that at my Gala concert a few weeks ago, there's an interview with Zeffirelli and he talks about it-and he's very charming.
NOTE: The Gala Concert honoring Joseph Volpe was given at the Metropolitan Opera house on May 22 2006 and later televised throughout the country on PBS.
NOTE: Soprano Renata Tebaldi (1922-2004) was a beatiful woman with a glorious voice. She was the artist most beloved by the New York audiences from her debut in 1955 to her retirement in 1973. If you don't know her recordings, go to the library.
CP: Recently a colleague of yours, the soprano Loretta di Franco, was interviewed
and she mentioned Renata Tebaldi coming onstage in "Adriana Lecouvreur" and she said this was one of the great moments, it was great for the audience and for di Franco herself. Did you have moments like that with artists?
JV: Well Renata Tebaldi, I remember when she did "La Gioconda" and I was just so taken by her. I didn't think of the audience (laughs) it was very personal with me, and I just flipped, she was so wonderful...When she stopped singing, she was under the impression that she would receive a pension from the Met and of course the star singers did not, and I was the one who had to tell her the bad news. She was very upset about that. Years later she came back to New York to visit. We had a big luncheon for her, and we had a wonderful time, she was a singer that set me and so many others on my ear. She was just incredible.
CP: Even when Tebaldi wasn't singing, she WAS the show
JV: Yes! She walked down the aisle at the Met druing her visit many years after she had last sung here to her seat before a peformance and the audience was just so excited Renata Tebaldi was there!
CP: You write in your book that one of your favorite Met productions was of Kurt Weill's "Mahagonny" staged by by John Dexter....
JV: Right. Well, John was a really man of the theater. He was a believer that you do productions with less scenery and less clutter because then the singers would act more. And of course it starred Teresa Stratas and she is a favorite. I was so enamored with the entire cast and the way John directed. It was one of the best productions I've ever seen. And Teresa was a large part of that.
CP: She's a little woman, maybe 90 pounds wringing wet and she's a huge artist
CP: I remember back in the 70s when the courtain went up on John Dexter's staging of "Dialogues of the Carmelites", no one knew what this was...
It was a broadcast, the house premiere, and there was a gasp before the opera even began
JV: Do you remember the opening scene? When the nuns lie there outstretched, cruciform..John was just an incredible director
CP: He was a Brit, from the spoken theatre, well known for "Equus"
You have a lot of strong personlities at the Met. How-er, dynamic can it get?
JV: With strong personalities there are always differences of opinion, and one needs to work them out. I find that's one of the biggest responsibilities, being supportive to the performers, to the artists, so that they can perform in an environment when they can do their best work, so you have to find ways to do that. It's been said Christopher that I have a strong personlity
CP: No! Who said that?
JV: (laughs) Well its been said but it only helped me with everyone else. You cut through all the negotiation and get down to the real facts because they knew I wasn't going to fool around and have long discussions. If there was a problem they knew we'd look at it and we would resolve it. Period. And we got on with things. But no, over the years, I must say I will miss the artists greatly, the artists and the company members, because that is what the Metropolitan Opera is about..it's the Company, the performers, that's what the Met is.
NOTE: One of the most controversial moments in Volpe's Met career came shortly after he was given the title General Manager in 1994. He fired the soprano Kathleen Battle for "unprofessional behavior" during rehearsals. An exquisite vocalist, Battle had reportedly long shown disdain for her colleauges and a temeperament thought to be counterproductive and destructive. She has not appeared in opera since 1994, but continues a hghly successful concert and recording career. Battle's firing from the Met was front page in the New York Times.
CP: Is it your job to be proactive in the care of artists? I do have to bring up the Kathleen Battle situation because you devote an entire chapter to her in your book..
You said that was one of your great regrets, that it couldn't have been resolved
JV: I was very active in helping artists, and being supportive. But it is a big regret. Obviously Kathy had a lot of probems. And it got so I had to make the decision I did to fire her, but it was unfortunate. In a way, that was a failure of mine. I tried very hard to work it out so she could perform, but I wasn't successful, and I don't know what more I could have done...
NOTE: In the book Volpe reports on a heated exchange with Battle's manger. He said, "Bing was known as the man who fired Maria Callas. Do you want to be known as the man who fired Kathleen Battle?" To which Mr. Volpe replied, "Kathy Battle is no Maria Callas."
CP: She is an extraordinary artist
JV: Yes, absolutely.
CP: What do you want the Met's future to be?
JV: My hope is that the Met and opera in this country will continue to flourish, even though certainly the economy and 9/11 and the war in Iraq have kept people from going out and spending money. My hope is that we protect the wonderful art form that it is. What concerns me is that when there are new works and composers write works that require amplification, I do want to make sure that opera does not go the way of Broadway. Years ago Broadway was wonderful and you had people who could really sing. Now with the amplification, that's no longer so important...Well, its not opera, and it can't be great opera or grand opera if we amplify. That's one of my biggest concerns.
CP: How about your own future? You're going to work for Rudolph Giuliani
JV: Yes, I'm going to work with Rudi and we''ve got a lot of projects I'll be involved in and managing. I said I wanted to do something completely different before I retire for good and working with Rudi in this way is a great opportunity. I don't know what Rudi will be doing as far as his political career, but I'm not going to get involved there. I couldn't be elected dog catcher, nor help anyone, so its better I stay away from that front!
CP Oh come on!
JV: No, I'm not!
THE TOUGHEST SHOW ON EARTH by Joseph Volpe