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Master of the Met

General manager Joseph Volpe calls the shots at New York City's Metropolitan Opera.
Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
Michael Douglas, May/Jun 98

It is a quintessentially glamorous New York moment. The lights in the huge gold-and-red auditorium begin to dim. The hum from the many-splendored crowd diminishes to an expectant hush. The audience of 3,800 men and women, elegantly attired in a symphony of high fashion, settle in their plush and pricey seats. The musicians, ensconced in their subterranean space before the mammoth stage, finish their fine-tuning and await their maestro. A dozen sparkling crystal chandeliers, hanging low over the gilt-edged arena, begin gently to rise. Limpid satellites lifting to orbit, they ascend slowly and gracefully to their resting places just below the golden ceiling, their glittering glass reflecting a rainbow of light. The time is just after 8 on a warm October evening, but the moment is one repeated 210 times a year. The place is the massively monumental Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, one of the world's best-known opera houses. Sitting in a parterre box in a corner of the darkened music hall as the ornate curtain begins to rise is a 57-year-old man with a narrow black beard, receding hair and a happy yet stern smile. His name is Joseph Volpe, and he is responsible for it all.

This night, Luciano Pavarotti, the most famous tenor of modern times, will fall in love with an icy Chinese princess in Giacomo Puccini's Turandot. But whatever the opera, and whoever the stars--a constellation that includes Plácido Domingo, Cecilia Bartoli, Renée Fleming, Kiri Te Kanawa, Roberto Alagna, Bryn Terfel and all the other great voices of the 1990s--it is Volpe, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, who makes it all happen.

Whether it's wooing donors, signing stars, setting ticket prices, greeting President Clinton on an opening-night visit, working out the details of this year's $160 million operating budget, negotiating labor agreements or keeping the peace among temperamental performers and directors, Volpe is Mr. Met. He works closely with his artistic director, James Levine, planning the seasons and choosing the repertory. Levine initiates the artistic planning, but when it comes to the financial decisions on what will and will not appear on the Met stage, Volpe has the final word. And it is a firm one.

He has been called domineering, notoriously demanding and rough-edged. A profile in The New York Times discussed his screaming fits, described his staff as cowed and noted that even his closest allies found him difficult. But his opera house has also been called the world's busiest and perhaps its greatest--and that greatness these days is in good part attributable to Volpe's skills as a manager.

"I act as a boss and I accept my responsibilities," Volpe says in his strong but pleasant baritone voice, illustrating a directness that a colleague once called "right between the eyes." The words most frequently used to describe him are "tough" and "decisive." Asked once why he had fired a stagehand on Christmas Eve, he said it was because the stagehand was insubordinate. When someone once called him a charmer, he complained, asking the speaker not to ruin his reputation.

But Volpe is also a charmer--a complex and complicated man, and above all an accomplished one. Franco Zeffirelli, the renowned Italian movie and opera director who has worked with Volpe for more than 30 years, has called him "gentle and powerful, loyal, compassionate and often horrendous." Pavarotti, his longtime friend, calls him the "grande capo." Those who work for him have described the experience this way: "He knows the answer to the question before he asks it, and you had better know the answer."

Perhaps most important, Joseph Volpe is a blue-collar among the blue bloods, a former member of the working class who rose to the black-tie, upper-class world that is the New York opera scene. He is a quintessential New Yorker--and his story is a quintessential New York story. Born in Brooklyn in 1940 and raised in Glen Cove, Long Island, he graduated from high school and then decided to spend not one day in college. At age 18, he opened his own auto repair shop. Six years later, in 1964, he joined the Met as an apprentice stagehand--and in 1990 became the first person to rise through the Met's ranks to the No. 1 position in the organization.

In his seven years at the Met's helm, he has pleased audiences, patrons and critics, expanding the company's repertory to include more modern and adventurous works, ridding it of the second-rate singers and conductors who peopled too many productions in the 1980s, attracting and placating the best performers in the world, and maintaining the Met's season-long near-capacity attendance figures. Throughout his reign, the Met has had a labor peace perhaps unprecedented in any arts organization--a peace directly attributable to Volpe's roots. I. Philip Sipser, the Met orchestra's longtime negotiator and lawyer, says Volpe is "the best negotiator in the country I have worked with, the best adversary I have ever had," because "he has a fundamental understanding of the problems of people who work for a living."

"He is completely natural," Sipser says. "He has never lost his common touch. Last night in negotiations, we were arguing and yelling at each other, but when he says something I believe it. Some working people become bosses and turn into bastards. Not Joe."

Volpe also has an understanding of his stars, and will do almost anything to keep them happy. But the emphasis is on the "almost"--he will cater to his singers, but he will not pander to their whims. In 1994, when the renowned soprano Kathleen Battle was being as difficult as a diva can be--not showing up for rehearsals, making impossible demands, and angering and upsetting her fellow performers--Volpe summarily fired her, and made newspaper headlines all over the world. She has not been back, and is not likely to be. Because first and foremost, Volpe is The Boss.

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