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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 1)

A big and stocky man, The Boss--as a British television documentary about his life dubbed him--is sitting behind his large walnut desk in his office inside and to the left of the Met's main entrance. His trim beard is creating an aura that has more than once been called Mephistophelian. It is an image he likes, one he enjoys cultivating. And wrapped up in that image is his delight in a good cigar.

"It's an all-consuming job," he says, pausing to light a Hoyo de Monterrey robusto, the size he prefers. "Anything smaller I'm not happy with as far as gauge is concerned, and anything longer I'm not happy with because I'm a busy person." This Hoyo is a Dominican cigar, he says. "I don't keep Cuban cigars in the office because when I smoke here I never get to finish them."

His schedule sees to that. "I'm responsible for everything you see or hear that we produce," he continues. "I make all the final decisions. That's what the position of general manager is, if one is crazy enough to accept it. It's the focus of your life. I'm in early in the morning. What I do is go home if I can at some point during the day and then come back for the performance. I'm here four or five nights a week, six days a week. It's necessary to be here. If an artist has a problem on stage, he or she feels better if you're there to help. You have to gear your life around the Met schedule. That's why I live across the street from the opera house. My wife and I have a lovely house up in northeastern Westchester County, but I couldn't commute. It would be impossible. I use the Westchester house to escape, to make it possible for me to continue in my job, to survive this position."

His day is typically busy. "Today we're rehearsing a new production of Rossini's Cenerentola [Cinderella] with Cecilia Bartoli. When there are orchestra rehearsals I try not to schedule meetings. I try to attend as many of the rehearsals as I can so I don't end up going to one of the final ones and saying, 'Wait a minute, I don't particularly like this,' and having to change something at the last minute. I get here around 10 a.m., and normally I don't go out to lunch. I just scheduled a lunch, though, with the lawyer who represents our musicians. We're negotiating a contract renewal. I handle all the major labor negotiations--with the orchestra, the chorus, the performing artists and the stagehands. Then, during the day, there are the meetings. They can be about new productions, the budget, ticket sales versus expenses, how we're doing against our projections. It could be a meeting with our development director about whom I need to meet or whom I should entertain to raise money. It could be a meeting with our marketing people. It's running a business, yet one has to remember it's also a performing arts institution, which makes it more difficult. Somebody said last night they thought being general manager of the Met was the third most difficult job in the country, after the president of the United States and the mayor of New York City."

The mayor of New York, Rudolph W. Giuliani, also a cigar lover, is an opera aficionado and a frequent Met patron. At the start of the season, Volpe had an even more special guest--President Clinton, an opera lover and a sometime cigar aficionado himself, who became the first U.S. chief executive to attend a Met season opening night.

"The president was very cordial, very talkative, very outgoing, very warm," Volpe recalls. "He is a people person. I asked him to come backstage after the performance of Carmen to greet the company, and he wanted to, but he said he would have to check with the Secret Service to make sure it would allow the Met's patrons to exit the garage while he was still in the house. He didn't want everyone to have to be frozen in place until he left. The Secret Service said it was OK, that people could leave, so he went backstage. The cast of Carmen has many children, and they all surrounded him, put their arms around him. He didn't want to leave."

Volpe and the president didn't get a chance to talk about cigars. "Maybe next time," Volpe says.

Playing host to guests in his box, whether they're President and Mrs. Clinton, Met donors or the glamorous celebrity du soir, Volpe exhibits the charm and conviviality that are an essential part of any position that involves fund-raising. He approaches the task with an obvious enthusiasm and with his trademark high energy. He awes his visitors with a backstage tour between acts, taking them behind the closed curtain for a walk on the elaborate Turandot set as 30 or more stagehands make the necessary changes for the next scene. Escorting his guests at intermission for a dessert-and-coffee buffet in his office, he puts them at ease with just the right anecdote, often a self-effacing one. Pointing to a caricature of himself in opera costume framed on the wall, he laughs. "They did that for a profile of me in Connoisseur magazine," he says. "It was the last issue. They put me in the magazine, and it folded."

Two nights later, for the premiere of La Cenerentola--the first time the opera has ever been performed at the Met--the parterre lobby is a sea of black ties and black dresses, Met donors and their equally social friends attending a benefit for the Metropolitan Opera Guild. The diamonds, sapphires and pearls dangling from the necks of the female guests rival the chandeliers in sparkle. At intermission, the pink champagne flows, and an affable Volpe makes the rounds, shaking hand after hand, posing for photos, soliciting a patron's opinion of Bartoli and the new production, his right arm invariably around one shoulder or another. "I have to work the crowd," he says.

After the performance and a standing ovation for the performers, several hundred of the Met's best friends gather for a formal cast supper on the Grand Tier at tables bedecked with crystal-vase bouquets of multicolored roses, hydrangeas and dahlias, beneath the opera house's stunning Chagall murals. Champagne again, and a meal of quail, pasta with pheasant and morels, and pear tart à la mode. Volpe is a study in perpetual motion, flowing from table to table, making certain everyone gets at least a hello. The production has been an obvious success with the audience, but Volpe readily admits he had his doubts. "When the curtain went up," he says, "I asked myself again if I had made a mistake by putting this show in this auditorium." The comic opera is a small one, he says, and needs immediate audience contact, which can be difficult to get in the Met's vast space. "But it got it," he says. "It worked."

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