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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 5)

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." *

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