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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

(continued from page 3)

"But seriously, there are a handful of singers who are difficult just to be difficult." He pauses and smiles his devilish smile. "One of them used to work here, you know."

That was Kathleen Battle. Battle was at the Met in February 1994 to give five performances of Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment (The Daughter of the Regiment). She had sung at the Met before and had caused problems, though not major ones. But for the Donizetti, the troubles began immediately. Newspapers reported that she had the rehearsal schedule changed at her whim, arrived late, left early, or didn't arrive at all. She instructed the bass baritone not to look at her when she sang--nor was he to touch her. During rehearsals she forbade people to look at her and accused them of staring into her mouth. She told the conductor how to conduct. In one scene, the mezzo-soprano Rosalind Elias was supposed to play the piano while Battle sang; Battle refused to sing if Elias played any portion of the music.

The complaints began reaching Volpe's desk almost from the start. Nothing he or anyone could do would get her to change. Finally, he dismissed her. In his press release announcing herdismissal, he was characteristically tough, direct and no-nonsense: he said that her "unprofessional actions" were "profoundly detrimental" to the company. When the cast of the Donizetti opera heard she had been fired, they applauded.

Looking back more than three years later, Volpe says he is still "definitely" confident he made the correct move. "It was the right decision," he says, "because I said to her at the time that we would let a few months pass and we should talk about it. Kathy Battle has over the years had great difficulty working with her colleagues. Obviously there are some problems. I don't know what they are. I'm a general manager, not a psychiatrist. But I don't think anything has changed. I told her we could talk in a few months because I thought maybe I could help her. But I've never had the opportunity. I spoke to her agent, and he said if I wanted to talk to her I should call her. He didn't want to get involved. But she's not going to come back to the Met. If it's not possible to have a phone conversation, you can't work together. And I have not since that attempt gone out of my way to try to patch it up. She's no Maria Callas, you know. I mean, who does she think she is? We get along fine without her, and she gets along fine without the Met, I guess. But I think it's a shame in a way because I always pride myself on being able to help and support singers."

Nonetheless, he says, if she did call he would take her call. "Of course I would," he says. "I never say never. Because things in life change. I have no problem with that at all."

One person with whom he says he has never had a falling out is James Levine, his artistic director and principal conductor. Despite the normal tensions between the financial and the artistic sides of any arts organization, he says his relations with Levine, whom he has known for 27 years, are excellent. "Jim and I have been working together for as long as he's been here," Volpe says. "What normally happens is that everything is a collaboration. Every artistic decision is a financial one, and every financial decision is an artistic one. It's all intertwined. But anything he does requires my approval, and if there is a disagreement and I believe my position is correct I will make that decision. And Jimmy doesn't have a problem with that."

Levine, Volpe says, rarely if ever gets angry; Volpe is different. But he says that his occasional tantrums are not what they appear; they are part of his image, his very calculated persona. "I never lose my temper," he says. "Let me explain. Not long after I started working at the Met, we were doing a scene change and we didn't do it in time. But I remained calm. I said, 'OK, we'll do it next time.' But a member of management came by all excited and said that because I wasn't upset I must not care. So I said to myself, see, you have to get upset about things so people understand you care. So the next time something went wrong I got upset, and everyone was happy--Volpe's got things under control.

"At labor negotiations, for example, I can whoop and holler and scream and carry on like a wild man. I'll shout that they can burn the place down but I'm never going to give in. And I'll walk out. And their attorney will come over to me later and tell me it was great--that my act really helped him because until then the union was stuck in its position and he couldn't get them to change."

The Met has long been criticized, in the United States and abroad, for being too conservative, for focusing on the established standards. "The Met is, above all, a house where people come to hear the great voices they love," Volpe says. "But we're really not conservative, at least not anymore. We're expanding the repertoire. We're commissioning new works. It's a way of attracting a more varied audience. But it's also risky, because Aida is going to sell out every performance, and Richard Strauss's Capriccio, one of our two premieres this season, may not."

When it comes to risks, Volpe is a pro--with a lifetime of experience. Taking risks, he says, is part of what got him to where he is. Volpe was born in Flatbush, Brooklyn, but he grew up in Astoria and Bayside, Queens, and then in Glen Cove. His father was the main partner in a men's clothing business. After graduating from high school, and "being the brilliant genius I am," Volpe says sarcastically, "I decided I couldn't waste my time going to college. It would have been four more years before I could get to do what I wanted to do. So I opened my own automobile repair business." His father had wanted him to go to college. "Stubborn son that I was, I did the opposite," he says.

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