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Master of the Met

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

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This night, Luciano Pavarotti, the most famous tenor of modern times, will fall in love with an icy Chinese princess in Giacomo Puccini's Turandot. But whatever the opera, and whoever the stars--a constellation that includes Plácido Domingo, Cecilia Bartoli, Renée Fleming, Kiri Te Kanawa, Roberto Alagna, Bryn Terfel and all the other great voices of the 1990s--it is Volpe, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, who makes it all happen.

Whether it's wooing donors, signing stars, setting ticket prices, greeting President Clinton on an opening-night visit, working out the details of this year's $160 million operating budget, negotiating labor agreements or keeping the peace among temperamental performers and directors, Volpe is Mr. Met. He works closely with his artistic director, James Levine, planning the seasons and choosing the repertory. Levine initiates the artistic planning, but when it comes to the financial decisions on what will and will not appear on the Met stage, Volpe has the final word. And it is a firm one.

He has been called domineering, notoriously demanding and rough-edged. A profile in The New York Times discussed his screaming fits, described his staff as cowed and noted that even his closest allies found him difficult. But his opera house has also been called the world's busiest and perhaps its greatest--and that greatness these days is in good part attributable to Volpe's skills as a manager.

"I act as a boss and I accept my responsibilities," Volpe says in his strong but pleasant baritone voice, illustrating a directness that a colleague once called "right between the eyes." The words most frequently used to describe him are "tough" and "decisive." Asked once why he had fired a stagehand on Christmas Eve, he said it was because the stagehand was insubordinate. When someone once called him a charmer, he complained, asking the speaker not to ruin his reputation.

But Volpe is also a charmer--a complex and complicated man, and above all an accomplished one. Franco Zeffirelli, the renowned Italian movie and opera director who has worked with Volpe for more than 30 years, has called him "gentle and powerful, loyal, compassionate and often horrendous." Pavarotti, his longtime friend, calls him the "grande capo." Those who work for him have described the experience this way: "He knows the answer to the question before he asks it, and you had better know the answer."

Perhaps most important, Joseph Volpe is a blue-collar among the blue bloods, a former member of the working class who rose to the black-tie, upper-class world that is the New York opera scene. He is a quintessential New Yorker--and his story is a quintessential New York story. Born in Brooklyn in 1940 and raised in Glen Cove, Long Island, he graduated from high school and then decided to spend not one day in college. At age 18, he opened his own auto repair shop. Six years later, in 1964, he joined the Met as an apprentice stagehand--and in 1990 became the first person to rise through the Met's ranks to the No. 1 position in the organization.

In his seven years at the Met's helm, he has pleased audiences, patrons and critics, expanding the company's repertory to include more modern and adventurous works, ridding it of the second-rate singers and conductors who peopled too many productions in the 1980s, attracting and placating the best performers in the world, and maintaining the Met's season-long near-capacity attendance figures. Throughout his reign, the Met has had a labor peace perhaps unprecedented in any arts organization--a peace directly attributable to Volpe's roots. I. Philip Sipser, the Met orchestra's longtime negotiator and lawyer, says Volpe is "the best negotiator in the country I have worked with, the best adversary I have ever had," because "he has a fundamental understanding of the problems of people who work for a living."

"He is completely natural," Sipser says. "He has never lost his common touch. Last night in negotiations, we were arguing and yelling at each other, but when he says something I believe it. Some working people become bosses and turn into bastards. Not Joe."

Volpe also has an understanding of his stars, and will do almost anything to keep them happy. But the emphasis is on the "almost"--he will cater to his singers, but he will not pander to their whims. In 1994, when the renowned soprano Kathleen Battle was being as difficult as a diva can be--not showing up for rehearsals, making impossible demands, and angering and upsetting her fellow performers--Volpe summarily fired her, and made newspaper headlines all over the world. She has not been back, and is not likely to be. Because first and foremost, Volpe is The Boss.

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."

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.

"But seriously, there are a handful of singers who are difficult just to be difficult." He pauses and smiles his devilish smile. "One of them used to work here, you know."

That was Kathleen Battle. Battle was at the Met in February 1994 to give five performances of Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment (The Daughter of the Regiment). She had sung at the Met before and had caused problems, though not major ones. But for the Donizetti, the troubles began immediately. Newspapers reported that she had the rehearsal schedule changed at her whim, arrived late, left early, or didn't arrive at all. She instructed the bass baritone not to look at her when she sang--nor was he to touch her. During rehearsals she forbade people to look at her and accused them of staring into her mouth. She told the conductor how to conduct. In one scene, the mezzo-soprano Rosalind Elias was supposed to play the piano while Battle sang; Battle refused to sing if Elias played any portion of the music.

The complaints began reaching Volpe's desk almost from the start. Nothing he or anyone could do would get her to change. Finally, he dismissed her. In his press release announcing herdismissal, he was characteristically tough, direct and no-nonsense: he said that her "unprofessional actions" were "profoundly detrimental" to the company. When the cast of the Donizetti opera heard she had been fired, they applauded.

Looking back more than three years later, Volpe says he is still "definitely" confident he made the correct move. "It was the right decision," he says, "because I said to her at the time that we would let a few months pass and we should talk about it. Kathy Battle has over the years had great difficulty working with her colleagues. Obviously there are some problems. I don't know what they are. I'm a general manager, not a psychiatrist. But I don't think anything has changed. I told her we could talk in a few months because I thought maybe I could help her. But I've never had the opportunity. I spoke to her agent, and he said if I wanted to talk to her I should call her. He didn't want to get involved. But she's not going to come back to the Met. If it's not possible to have a phone conversation, you can't work together. And I have not since that attempt gone out of my way to try to patch it up. She's no Maria Callas, you know. I mean, who does she think she is? We get along fine without her, and she gets along fine without the Met, I guess. But I think it's a shame in a way because I always pride myself on being able to help and support singers."

Nonetheless, he says, if she did call he would take her call. "Of course I would," he says. "I never say never. Because things in life change. I have no problem with that at all."

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."

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