Master of the Met

General manager Joseph Volpe calls the shots at New York City's Metropolitan Opera.

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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.

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."

Whether or not he loves opera, he certainly loves cigars. He began smoking them about 10 years ago, he says, and there was an instant ardor. "One of our tenors, Frank Lopardo, came over to me after a performance," Volpe recalls. "He told me he was going to give me a cigar because it would be good for my hypertension. He said I would have to sit still for 45 minutes and try it. He gave me two Macanudos, and they were interesting. And of course what happens is that I'm a screwball, and when I do anything I get very serious about it, very passionate. So I started collecting cigars--Cuban cigars in particular. I guess it's a decent-sized collection. The thing is, I keep smoking them."

He also gives them away. Wolfgang Schmidt, a German tenor, is arriving in the next few days to sing Tannhauser. "Schmidt smokes cigars," Volpe says. "I want to give him a few to get things off to a good start."

Volpe's favorite cigars are Cohibas--"of course"--but he also loves the Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2. "It's a great cigar," he says. "I'll also smoke some torpedos, especially Bolivars. I'm not a big fan of the Montecristo No. 2. I've always liked the La Gloria Cubana Wavell. And I've just bought a box of Bauzá robustos. It's a good cigar." Among his other favorites are Cohiba Esplendidos, Hoyo de Monterrey Churchills and double coronas, and Romeo y Julietas.

He smokes three or four cigars a day. "I get up early in the morning, no matter what time I get to sleep," he says. "For example, when we opened Turandot with Luciano, there was a party afterward. So we rolled in at 2 or 2:30 a.m. But I was up at 7. I had a cup of coffee, I read the newspaper and I had a cigar. Then, depending on my schedule, I might have another cigar in the office before I go home. What I try to do is to go home at about 5 or 6 o'clock--I live just across the street from the opera house--and have another cigar. Then I'm back in the theater for the performance, and afterward I'll have another cigar. And every once in a while I'll throw in yet another for good measure."

Volpe's passion for cigars does not abate during performance hours. One of his guests for Turandot is George Vasquez of the well-known De La Concha tobacconist on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, who shows up in Volpe's office after Act One with a gift: a Fuente Fuente OpusX and two Fuente Don Carlos robustos--"the best non-Cuban robustos," Volpe says. After Act Two, Volpe proudly removes a cigar-store catalogue from his desk drawer. It's from Mom's Cigars, on lower Fifth Avenue. "Look at this," he says. "A box of 25 Bauzá robustos for $100. They'll cost you $140 anywhere else. And I know they have them in stock. We get all the cigars we use for Carmen there."

As for the reasons he smokes cigars, they're simple: "It relaxes me," he says. "And I get great enjoyment from it. What's not relaxing, of course, is that there are many people who dislike cigars. When I smoke a cigar in my office, I had better keep my door closed, or else I hear from my staff. But the other side of it is that cigar smokers are very friendly with each other, so you have this relationship, this camaraderie that develops. Some of our donors, for example, smoke cigars. We have this group called the Golden Horseshoe. If you give $150,000 [within three years] to the Metropolitan Opera, you become a member of the Golden Horseshoe. Every year we have a dinner for them on the Grand Tier, and some members and I will start talking about cigars. They'll come over and say, 'Joe, try one of these.' And it will always be good."

Volpe met his wife, Jean, at the Met, where she was a dancer. They were married in 1989 and have a daughter, Anna, 6--"It's pronounced like Anna Magnani, the Italian actress," he says. He has seven other children from two previous marriages. His oldest is in his mid-30s--"Michael Joseph Volpe, a lawyer, named for my father."

He hopes to stay at the Met for many more years, he says. And what then? "I haven't come up with anything," he says. "Something in the performing arts? After the Met, probably not. But I've sometimes thought, given my expertise in labor relations, maybe something in sports, like football or baseball. And maybe something--I haven't thought this through, and I'll probably regret saying it--but if there was some position, given my love for this city.... I don't want to be a political creature, but if there was a way I could accomplish something in government, I wouldn't mind doing that."

But there is one thing, he says, of which he is sure. "I'll never retire," he says. "There's no such thing. Luciano says that if you retire for six months, you're dead. And even if I leave this kind of full-time position I'll always live in New York. I'm not going to live in the country and watch the grass grow. I want to be where the action is, and New York is where the action is." He smiles.

"I'm not going to go off and sit at the end of the dock with my fishing pole," he says. "I'd last about one good cigar." *

Mervyn Rothstein is an editor at The New York Times and a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.

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