The Toughest Show on Earth: My Rise and Reign at the Metropolitan Opera

Opera heavyweight burnishes his well-deserved legacy.

Just published to coincide with his August retirement, Joseph Volpe's memoir exhibits the same qualities that have made a success of his tenure running the world's largest opera house. He's as decisive and no- nonsense on the page (co-written with Charles Michener) as by all accounts he is in person. He brags with a matter-of-factness that disarms. And he shares just enough give-it-to-you-straight inside info to make you feel like an ingrate for wondering what juicy stuff he's not telling you. (Surely not coincidentally, Seattle Opera's Speight Jenkins is a master of the same method.) Volpe skipped school to hang around construction sites, ran his own gas station at 17, started working backstage on Broadway at 21, and joined the Met crew two years later in 1963. Never in doubt about his capabilities, but always backing it up with hard work, Volpe rose to the post of master carpenter, then to director of operations, and in 1990—after decades of peerless competence (under mostly hapless leadership) finally persuaded the Met's upper-crust board to overcome its reluctance to put a blue-collar guy in charge—to general director, the top spot, responsible for everything that happens at the Met aside from music and marketing. The glitch-laden move to the Met's new Lincoln Center house in 1966, the 1980 labor lockout, the firing of psycho-diva Kathleen Battle, the hassles with Lincoln Center's other tenants, the challenges of raising money and attendance in an iPod (and post-9/11) world: Volpe candidly offers his side of the story of the tumult of the last 40 years. He refrains from dishing. Most of the bad-light anecdotes are aimed at self-aggrandizing stage directors. But he's no conservative; he praises traditionalist and innovative productions alike. What thrills Volpe above all, an enthusiasm that sings throughout the book, is not just operas themselves but the process of putting them on—making theatrical magic by combining inventive stagecraft with the charisma radiated by the greatest singers. Though he's clearheaded about the changing status of opera in our culture, his enthusiasm extends to his confidence in the survival of this most complex of art forms. The last seven bluntly commonsense paragraphs of Chapter 19 should be tattooed on the arm of any critic who's ever opined on the Death of Classical Music.

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