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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 4)

After two years he sold the business and briefly worked with a New Jersey manufacturer of baseball pitching machines. He loved working with his hands, but he also enjoyed the theater. He married a woman whose father was in the Theatrical Stage Employees Local No. 1. He took the union's apprentice test and achieved its highest score. He got a job as a stagehand on Broadway, working on the crew of Gore Vidal's The Best Man, which starred Henry Fonda. Then he decided he wanted to build scenery; a colleague told him the best place to learn was at the Metropolitan Opera. Volpe went to work at the Met in 1964; he has been there ever since.

In 1966, the Met moved from its legendary home at Broadway and 39th Street to a new building at Lincoln Center. For opening night, Franco Zeffirelli was directing the premiere of a new opera, Antony and Cleopatra by Samuel Barber. Volpe was involved in preparing the enormous set. One day, he was on stage removing some of the clouds the designer had prepared for the background; he felt there were simply too many. Zeffirelli came by and asked what Volpe was doing; Volpe said it was his job to make the production fit the stage, and that some "wacko designer" had designed too much scenery. The director quickly left. The next day, Volpe's boss, Rudolph Bing, perhaps the most famous general manager in Met history, formally introduced the stagehand to Zeffirelli. "This is the designer you accused of being wacko," Bing said to Volpe. Apparently there were no hard feelings, for when the Met's master carpenter resigned a week later, Bing gave Volpe the job.

Twelve years later, Volpe jumped from labor to management, becoming the Met's technical director, in charge of all shop and stage operations. In 1981 he was put in charge of labor relations and named the opera house's assistant manager, responsible for all its everyday operations.

When the general manager, Bruce Crawford, left in 1989, Volpe became the leading candidate for the top job. But, perhaps because the Met's board members were uncomfortable with giving a former working stiff their No. 1 position, he didn't get it. Some board members at the time, Volpe says, considered him "almost a ruffian." The position went to Hugh Southern, then acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Southern lasted eight months. The board then turned to Volpe, but, perhaps still unsure he was enough of a "gentleman," made him not general manager but general director, with somewhat less authority. Within two years, however, he more than proved himself, and the word "director" was changed to "manager," with the power to match that of Bing, his first mentor.

Volpe has reigned over an era of unprecedented financial stability at the Met, with attendance during the 1996-97 season at 92 percent of capacity. Among Volpe's many accomplishments are the successful introduction of "Met Titles," simultaneous translations flashed on seat backs that are available for anyone who wants them but that do not interfere with the enjoyment of those purists who despise them.

Volpe admits that when he began working at the Met, he didn't know anything about opera. "But I learned rather quickly," he says. "People say I'm not a musician, but Rudolph Bing wasn't a musician, either. If you've been listening and you've been working in a place for 33 years, you have to learn something about opera."

But does he love opera? He has in the past admitted to a fondness for Puccini, but the question runs deeper. "I keep thinking about whether when I retire from the opera I will come often or at all," he says. "And I think the answer is yes, I will come. I love the art form, and I love a great performance. I love music. And I love opera when it's done at a very high level."

How many nights a week, then, does he love opera at the Met? "Actually, this season quite a bit," he says. "I'm proud to say that I've loved what we've done so far. I think overall our level at the Met is higher than anywhere else. But what happens when you give 210 performances a year, seven performances a week, is that you're going to have performances where you couldn't get the singers you wanted, or people become ill and there are last-minute changes. So there will be those performances that are not at the highest level. And those are painful."

Volpe makes a clear distinction between the good and the not-so-good. "After a good performance I go backstage and offer my congratulations," he says. "After a mediocre performance I don't go backstage. I can't go back and say how wonderful it was when it wasn't."

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