One of my Christmas gifts, from my sister-in-law, was Joseph Volpe’s account of his tenure as General Manager of The Metropolitan Opera, “The Toughest Show On Earth”.
The only review of “The Toughest Show On Earth” I recall reading was in “The Economist”, which dismissed the book, and dismissed Volpe, and dismissed Volpe’s tenure at the Met, and dismissed the Met itself, all in a few paragraphs.
I finally completed reading the book this week, after beginning it several weeks ago, and I must say that “The Economist” got it right.
“The Toughest Show On Earth” is not a pleasurable book to read, because it is so poorly written and so poorly organized, and because Volpe’s story is not an especially interesting one. While reading it, I kept putting the book down, for weeks at a time, because it did not provide a very rewarding reading experience.
“The Toughest Show On Earth” contains no information that has not already been printed, countless times, elsewhere--in magazines, newspapers, and other books covering the field—and one completes the book, asking the same question with which one begins the book: why was Joseph Volpe ever placed in charge of The Metropolitan Opera in the first place?
The short answer is “Because Volpe was the only person at the Met who could deal with the labor unions”.
And, to some extent, Volpe’s elevation made sense. At the time of his appointment, the Met had endured an endless series of crippling labor disputes going back to the Rudolf Bing era. Strikes translate into a loss of revenue, and a loss of prestige, and bad publicity, and strikes irritate subscribers, who may decide to discontinue subscribing. The history of The Metropolitan Opera, from 1960 to 1985, was a story of adverse labor relations more than anything else—including art—and it was with relief that the Met’s Board Of Directors had identified, at long last, a man who could deal with the unions. And the Met has a LOT of unions to make happy, from the members of the orchestra to the members of the chorus to the members of the ballet to the stagehands to the costume personnel to the other guilds.
However, that one has skills suitable for dealing with labor unions does not signify that one has skills suitable for running a large artistic enterprise—and Volpe does not make a successful case, in his book, that he was a suitable person to run the Met.
But he tries. He notes, accurately, that he kept the Met in satisfactory financial condition. He notes, accurately, that he kept the Met, as an institution, on its feet, up and running, for over a decade and a half.
However, whenever Volpe turns to artistic matters, he is on much less solid ground. From an artistic viewpoint, his tenure was not a distinguished one, and his descriptions of the artistic “triumphs” of his tenure—the singers he engaged, the new operas he introduced into the Met repertory—have a hollow ring to them. Not even Volpe is convinced that his time at the Met was anything more than a “managerial interlude”, an administration known more for its competence than for its accomplishments.
One thing that Volpe makes clear in his book—as if anyone needed to be reminded—was that he was never afraid to make decisions. One would think that this would go without saying, but Volpe does a lot of such saying anyway. The reader is given a veritable laundry list of decisions Volpe made, culminating in several chapters that recount his dismissal of Kathleen Battle, which he must view as the high point of his days at the Met, given how much space he devotes to this oft-told story.
Reading about his “decisiveness” quickly becomes tiresome—but, once in a while, Volpe will throw out an interesting nugget. He writes, for example, about the Met’s decision, in the late 1980’s, to replace Eva Marton with Hildegard Behrens in Wagner’s Ring—and the accompanying reluctance of anyone on the Met staff to inform Miss Marton that she had been replaced (this incident occurred before Volpe was named General Manager). For months and months, management at the Met knew that Miss Marton had been dropped from the role of Brunnhilde, but no one would tell her--until the news could no longer be withheld from her, at which point Volpe was handed the thankless task of telling Miss Marton that, despite a signed contract, she was to be replaced. Volpe rightly notes that this situation was intolerable, for all parties involved, and--citing Rodolf Bing--he states that news of such magnitude must always be presented directly to the artist by the head of the house. He absolves Miss Marton for leaving the Met in disgust over the issue, and he rightfully faults James Levine and Bruce Crawford for being so boneless that they could not pass along such important news to such an important artist themselves.
I found the most telling part of the book to be Volpe’s discussion of the Metropolitan Opera productions newly-mounted during his tenure, almost all of which were unhappy ones, and his discussion of the stage directors who created them—and who disappointed him, over and over and over (at least in his telling of the story). Volpe goes through the entire list of stage directors who “let him down”—Jonathan Miller, Giancarlo Del Monaco, Elijah Moshinsky, Graham Vick, Piero Faggioni—and he accuses them all of deliberately undercutting him, if not worse, as if these directors were trying to produce lousy productions, on purpose, solely to make Volpe look bad. Volpe’s discussion of these directors reveals a streak of paranoia on his part. Does he truly believe that these high-profile directors could possibly advance their own careers, worldwide, by intentionally producing well-publicized failures at the Met?
The selection of stage directors, and Volpe’s interactions and interference with them, is probably the chief failing of Volpe’s tenure at the Met. In all his years at the Met, Volpe was never able to match the right director with the right project, with a lone exception: Jonathan Miller in “Pelleas And Melisande”.
Volpe clearly views stage directors as inherently villainous, and the grand, overriding villain of the book is John Dexter, the great British director who had severed his association with the Met a decade before Volpe’s ascension to the General Manager’s job (and who died around the time Volpe was finally granted the “General Manager” title). Nevertheless, Volpe does not allow these inconvenient details to stop him from spewing venom at Dexter at every opportunity, even though Dexter had absolutely nothing to do with Volpe’s reign at the Met. (Dexter WAS the original director of the Metropolitan Opera’s two most distinguished productions, “Billy Budd” and “Dialogues Of The Carmelites”, still the best productions in the Met’s repertory after more than three decades of hard use, but both were created over a decade before Volpe rose to the top job at the Met.)
With reference to musical matters, Volpe, oddly, has very little to say. He writes at some length about singers’ personalities—Miss Battle always provides a handy whipping post—and he describes himself as a psychiatrist-cum-father-figure to these childlike figures who happened to possess freak larynxes but who otherwise were in dire need of guidance and discipline and adult supervision, all of which Volpe was happy to provide. How ever did these mindless creatures known as singers manage to get through life before Volpe became General Manager?
When it comes to describing individual singers’ unique qualities, however, Volpe does not have much to say. Aside from noting that the honorable Felicity Lott and Anne Sofie Von Otter had voices, alas, that did not “sound” in the Met’s vast auditorium, Volpe is much happier describing Luciano Pavarotti’s array of pasta pans than describing the special qualities that defined Kiri Te Kanawa’s Countess (whether Mozart’s or Richard Strauss’s).
On the matter of James Levine, Volpe is, uncharacteristically, cagey. He takes several swipes at Levine—he writes of Levine’s indecisiveness, and his vaporous personality, and his occasional cluelessness—but he never touches upon the quality of Levine’s musicianship or musical leadership, or the lack thereof. Volpe makes it quite plain that he did not like Levine as a person, but he assiduously avoids commenting upon Levine as a musician. (Volpe does, however, make it clear to the reader that he had let Levine know, unmistakably, that Volpe was Levine’s boss, and not the other way around.)
Volpe chooses several peculiar topics to address at length, leaving other far more critical matters out of the story completely. For instance, Volpe devotes pages and pages to his fight with American Express over that company’s unwillingness to remit to the Met a portion of its hefty processing fees. That space would have been better devoted to a discussion of why Volpe did not hire theater professionals to raise the level of the company’s theatrical presentations. Similarly, Volpe wastes space describing silly and irrelevant matters, such as a ridiculous and extraneous late-night episode involving a drunken Giancarlo Del Monaco—an episode for which Volpe heroically saved the day, naturally—when this space should have been saved for an explanation why so many prominent European singers avoided the Met during his long tenure.
The entire time I was reading “The Toughest Show On Earth”, the book reminded me of nothing so much as a particular type of trade publication: the Hollywood memoir. Very much like that genre, the book is one part self-aggrandizing fiction, and one part hatchet job, used to settle old scores. It is jarring to see such a publication appear under the Alfred A Knopf imprint.
It is a very disagreeable book by a very disagreeable man.
Will Volpe’s stewardship of the Met be remembered? No, there is little chance of that, because nothing of artistic importance happened at the Met the entire time he was in charge. The story of the Met during the Volpe era is that its prestige fell further and further behind that of its European peers, and that its place now ranks below such houses as Zurich and the Staatsoper Unter Den Linden, two houses that, fifteen years ago, offered the Met no artistic competition whatsoever. Hapless leadership generally does not produce a legacy.
However, Volpe is in no position to tell that part of the story, and opera lovers in New York, no doubt, are in no mood to hear it anyway.
On with the show.