The Toughest Show on Earth: My Rise and Reign at the Metropolitan Opera
When Joseph Volpe arrived at the Metropolitan Opera House (the
now-vanished "Old Met" at 39th Street and Broadway, not the
present-day behemoth at Lincoln Center) in 1963 as a 23-year-old
apprentice carpenter, the first job given him was to fetch coffee
from a nearby shop.
Volpe refused, announcing cheekily that he was there to learn how
to build scenery, not to be someone's "gofer."
And he made it stick. Someone else went for the coffee.
Those present that day might have been wise to take this as a sign
of things to come. Volpe, who rose through the ranks to become the
company's head in 1990, quickly established himself as a blunt,
hard-edged, ambitious fellow who knew what he wanted, went after it
with tenacity, and had trouble keeping his mouth shut along the
way. In this book, written with music journalist Charles Michener,
he almost seems to take gleeful pleasure in projecting the image of
one tough customer.
Running the Metropolitan Opera, of course, is an impossible job.
The Met is the largest and busiest opera house in the world,
populated by an army of ultra-talented and super-temperamental
egomaniacs. Volpe characterizes daily life there as a state of
His career was not helped by the fact that the company's management
team, all its major donors and board members, and a large
percentage of its audience are extremely wealthy and
well-connected, while his grandparents were Italian immigrants and
he himself came to the house with almost zero knowledge of opera.
His sense of class-consciousness is stamped on every page.
None of that stopped Volpe (whose name means "fox" in Italian). He
became successively master carpenter, technical director, director
of operations, assistant manager, general manager and finally
general director. His book recognizes many who helped him at
crucial points along the way, and fires broadsides at those who
opposed his ideas. It is gossipy, opinionated and totally
subjective. It will be catnip for the standee line at the Met and
fodder for many a conversation in the house cafeteria.
Most of the celebrated personality clashes that were the talk of
the opera world during his tenure are here. We get a whole chapter
on the famous Kathleen Battle affair, and more pages than we really
need on the onstage and offstage doings of Pavarotti and
The most talked-about of his working relationships, however ---
that with Music Director James Levine --- is given a surprisingly
muted twist. Those who expect tales of backstage shouting matches
will be disappointed. Volpe paints Levine as a brilliant young
genius who shrinks from confrontation or controversy, wanting only
to be left alone to make music in his own way. Volpe is respectful
of Levine even in cases where he plainly disagrees with him. Not
much raw meat for the gossip mills here.
Volpe paints former Met boss Anthony Bliss as a cold patrician
lacking rapport with lesser mortals. The British director John
Dexter, who worked with Volpe for a few years on the Met's
management team, gets credit for his artistic vision --- until the
two men quarreled and abruptly broke off relations. Volpe quite
naturally defends himself against Dexter's epithet for him:
One important element missing from this book is the trajectory of
Joseph Volpe's own musical education. He came to the Met an
operatic innocent, but within a few years he graduated from
building scenery to having a say in casting and repertory
decisions. How did this happen? Volpe is not the sort of man to
admit to any personal insecurity, but how did he go about gaining
the stock of operatic knowledge that allows him in this book to
pronounce summary judgment on directors, singers, conductors, even
whole productions? He says he learned "on the job," but that seems
hardly sufficient explanation.
They threw a gala tribute luncheon for Joseph Volpe in New York not
long ago. It was originally planned as a tribute to Mozart, but
those in charge noted a frown on the boss's face and told Mozart to
yield the spotlight. Mozart, knowing what was good for him,
The story of Joseph Volpe's unlikely rise --- he was the first-ever
head of the Met to come up through the company's ranks --- is
fascinating. He knocked a few heads, slew some operatic dragons ---
and probably along the way sent some new hire out for coffee.
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 23, 2011