From Carpenter to Head Honcho

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The New York Sun

The story of how Joseph Volpe rose from stagehand to general manager of the Metropolitan Opera has the golden glow of the American dream. This alone would make his autobiography “The Toughest Show on Earth: My Rise and Reign at the Metropolitan Opera” (Alfred A. Knopf, 320 pages, $25.95) worth reading. But the 45 years during which his remarkable rise occurred were also instrumental in the history of the opera company.

Mr. Volpe – who steps down from his post in August – started out at the old Met in Midtown and was part of the transition into the state of the art facility at Lincoln Center. His story is inseparable from the story of how performing arts in New York City – not just opera – have evolved in the last half century. And for that, the book is fascinating.

“The Toughest Show on Earth” does not bother with too much of Mr. Volpe’s personal life. The early days are covered at a steady clip: He was a reluctant student who preferred active, physical work to books. His work as a stagehand sparked an interest in building scenery. After acing his union exam, a mentor asked: “You want to build the best and biggest sets in the world? You don’t do that on Broadway, where you’ve got the same show every night. You do that at the Metropolitan Opera.”


His descriptions of working at the old Met (and moonlighting around the theater district) give a sense of how stage productions managed with small spaces and low technology. At the old building, sets for scene changes had to be built on stage – while the audience waited. And pieces of scenery at times had to sit on the sidewalk until they could be hauled on stage. All this is written in such a way as to impress the reader as much as it surely did the young man witnessing it.

Mr. Volpe’s first job at the new building was to help set up the carpentry shop, which is still laid out as he arranged it. And again, the sense of awe is notable.

For me, the new Met was a paradise. In the carpentry shop were manuals for every piece of equipment in the building: the seven stage elevators, the pipe systems, the cycloramas. These manuals became my weekend reading. During lunch hours, I explored every nook and cranny backstage to familiarize myself with the location and layout of each department. I couldn’t quite believe the immensity of the place – and today forty years later, I still can’t quite believe it.


As the company settled into its new home, the young carpenter was willing to adapt to the new setting and throw out some of the old ways of working. He was also unafraid to point out redundancies or wasteful practices. For that, he was promoted to master carpenter, “the person in charge of everything that moved onstage and off.”

The book provides a real sense of the atmosphere that the audience never knows about.

The Met lives in a state of near war: hundreds of people working on a dozen productions, current and future ones, each with a deadline that can’t be missed. Wars require constant planning and replanning for today, tomorrow, the foreseeable future, and the unforeseeable future, which might arrive at any moment.


For those of us who do not venture backstage, the details in this book can be absorbing. Rehearsals for new productions and revivals take place on the main stage; they begin at 11:00 a.m. and end at 2:00 or 2:30 p.m. When the rehearsal is over, the set is removed and the set for the opera that will be presented that evening is brought in.

Mr. Volpe’s swift dealing with this “state of near war” landed him leadership roles in major labor negotiations. Not only do these episodes show off Mr. Volpe’s renowned tough-guy character, they explain the powerful role of the stage unions and how their positions have changed over the decades. His collaborator, Charles Michener, should be given much credit for making labor talks fascinating.

While the ins-and-outs of Mr. Volpe’s rise to the top are engaging, opera buffs may skip forward in the book to the days of dealing with major egos, high-profile crises, and new productions. “When all is said and done, every general manager is judged on the quality of the productions brought to the Met during his tenure,” he writes.

In the chapters about those productions are all the big names: Franco Zeffirelli, Jonathan Miller, Giancarlo Del Monaco, and Elijah Moshinksy. Here, he gives his perspective on prima donna directors, a phenomenon he writes, “none of my predecessors had to contend with.” There also is his side of the story on his infamous firing of Kathleen Battle as well as his friendship with Luciano Pavarotti.

Like plenty of other executive personalities before him, Mr. Volpe’s work life totally consumed him: “During my first two marriages, I lived more at the Met than at home.” Though his children may find it cold comfort, Mr. Volpe’s reign was a period of relative order and calm at an opera company that has suffered greatly. His example may nor may not be followed by other arts administrators, but he leaves behind a legacy that sets a high standard for enabling artists to do their best work. That his story has been so well written is a boon to the performing arts industry: It should be read by anyone who wants to put on a show.

The New York Sun

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