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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 2)

It is long after midnight, but there is still work to be done. Volpe heads to the podium to introduce the cast members, with a few appropriate words of praise for each. Then he moves on, to the next table, the next group. It all looks easy, but it is most definitely not. "At the end of the night I'm exhausted," Volpe acknowledges with a smile.

It is another night, another Turandot. The lights are dimming, the chandeliers making their way to the ceiling. The general manager's box in the corner is almost fully occupied--seated in it are a couple of major Met donors; Volpe's wife, Jean Anderson Volpe, a former ballet dancer; and the supermodel Christy Turlington, now also a student at New York University. Turlington had been a guest at this season's opening and loved the performance, so Volpe invited her back. In the box next door is Beverly Sills, chairman of Lincoln Center. But surprisingly, one person is missing: Volpe. He is almost always present to entertain his guests in the jovial and low-key way he has perfected, but so far this evening the job has fallen to his wife--who performs the duty with equal grace.

Suddenly, just before Levine appears in the orchestra pit, the box door opens and Volpe enters. "Luciano is not feeling well," he says urgently. "It's a bit of catarrh. He's lost the top of his voice. At first he said he didn't know if he could go on. But he'll go on, and without an announcement. We'll get through Act One."

He pauses to explain. "Often if singers aren't feeling well I go out and make an announcement and say they are sick and ask for the audience's understanding," he says. "But Luciano's position is he comes here to sing, not to make excuses, and if he has to make excuses he shouldn't be singing."

Pavarotti does go on, and performs well, if not at his best. The moment the curtain falls after acts one and two, Volpe is up and out of his box to go backstage and check on his star. After the performance, an obviously tired and unwell Pavarotti, removing his makeup in his dressing room, laments that his singing was not up to his usual standards. Volpe and Levine, right by his side, assure him that he was, as always, transcendent. Pavarotti sighs. "Its a very demanding role," he says.

For Volpe, dealing on a daily basis with his tenors, sopranos, baritones, basses and mezzos is a major part of the job. Opera singers do not have reputations as being the easiest folk to get along with. But, Volpe says, with a few exceptions, he has not found his great performers to be difficult--as long as you know what to expect.

"Before the opening night of Turandot, I was meeting with a conductor and I got a phone call from Luciano," Volpe recalls. "'It's a disaster,' Luciano said. I asked if he was OK. 'Oh, of course,' he said. 'I'm fine. I just need 10 more pair of tickets for tonight. And it's sold out.' So all day yesterday, he was worried about his friends, not himself. And of course anytime Luciano or Plácido or another major star is singing, I always put some tickets aside for moments like those. So it's not difficult if you expect it. And really, those guys are no trouble at all. There's no carrying on, there are no antics. They are who they are. They're here to do their work, and that's what they do."

To further make his point, Volpe gives an example of the kind of performer Pavarotti is. Several years ago, the tenor was to sing in I Lombardi, and just as with that one performance of Turandot, Pavarotti came in with a bad cold and wasn't sure he could go on. But he went on--without an announcement.

"Well," Volpe says, "that same night the soprano had incredible problems with her voice. She had cracked several notes, and after Act Two she wanted to go home. So Luciano went to talk with her and told her that if she left the theater, she might never be able get herself to come back. He took her into his dressing room and they went through the next act. He told her they would get through it, and he got her through it. He put whatever problems he had that night aside to help someone else."

Most singers are like Pavarotti, Volpe says: they come to work and are all business. "But if they have a lack of confidence or are insecure, they are going to do some things you normally would not expect, like throw a chair or scream at someone." He laughs. "I do that all the time, and I'm not insecure at all," he says.

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