Ego Clashes, Diva Flare-Ups-Business as Usual at the Met

Molto Agitato: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera , by Johanna Fiedler. Nan A. Talese-Doubleday, 393 pages, $30.

The Metropolitan Opera is a lot like the Yankees: An exalted fixture in the city’s life for as long as anyone can remember; it thinks of itself as above any competition and inspires insatiable curiosity about its inner workings. But according to this account of backstage life at the world’s biggest opera house, the Met, during much of its history, has been surprisingly fragile. “Mayhem” doesn’t quite describe all the ego clashes, diva flare-ups, backstage politicking, labor disputes and extramarital romances–not to mention several onstage deaths and one grisly murder. Nonetheless, Ms. Fiedler, who toiled in the Met’s press office for 15 years, has written the juicy survival saga of a leaky vessel that has managed to stay afloat despite constant threats of disaster and a passenger list out of Ship of Fools .

The tale begins in 1883, when the Met was founded in a fit of pique by members of New York’s nouveau riche who were denied the social badge of a box at the Academy of Music. In the company’s first three decades, it survived a fire that gutted the auditorium, an earthquake in San Francisco, and the philistinism of boxholders who didn’t hesitate to yelp when their moral sensibilities were offended (by Strauss’ Salome ) or their prejudices aroused (by the prospect of a Jewish artistic director, Gustav Mahler).

The company enjoyed its first extended period of stability thanks to the partnership of a wily Italian artistic director, Giulio Gatti-Cassaza, whose inability to speak English proved useful during confrontations, and a passionately generous financier, Otto Kahn. After things went slack during the amiable tenure of Edward Johnson, a retired tenor, Rudolf Bing, an Austrian-Jewish impresario with the manner of a British grandee, was brought in.

It was Bing–along with a more genuinely aristocratic board member, Anthony Bliss–who set the Met on its present course. He made attention-grabbing new productions the lifeblood of the house and solicited wealthy patrons to foot the bill–a strategy that has paid off handsomely but sometimes dubiously (witness the Met’s reliance on such taste-challenged benefactors as Sybil Harrington and Alberto Vilar). Bing vanquished egos as big as his own, even firing Maria Callas after she dithered over signing a contract. And he was so territorial about the Met that he bitterly opposed the New York City Opera’s move to Lincoln Center–a hostility that has flared again in the redevelopment talks, thanks to the operatic truculence of the current general manager, Joe Volpe, who has modeled his autocratic style on Bing’s, while maintaining the manners of the scenic carpenter he once was.

Ms. Fiedler is tight-lipped about her own experiences at the Met, but fearless on the failings of her famous colleagues. The mauling she gives Plácido Domingo for his womanizing and jealousy over press coverage smacks of score-settling. (In one of her not entirely convincing summings-up, she writes, “His thirst for attention and reassurance has somehow compromised his copious gifts.”) More entertainingly, she trots out all the horror stories about Kathleen Battle, culminating in a line that I’d never heard before. After the Battle-scarred soprano Carol Vaness called her co-star in Le Nozze di Figaro “the most horrible colleague I’ve encountered in my whole life,” the crazily difficult diva is reported to have cried to her mentor, James Levine: “What did I do? I’ve never done anything to her!”

Ms. Fiedler reserves her most complicated scrutiny for Mr. Levine. Praised for his heroic work with the orchestra and his unflappable temperament, the Met’s longtime artistic director also comes across as a master Machiavellian, hogging the best conducting assignments and maintaining control with a fuzzy benevolence that conceals an iron will. That an institution like the Met can be a rough place for even the most powerful talents is illustrated in a chapter about John Dexter, the British director who was responsible for a series of brilliant stagings in the late 70’s that have not been equaled since. By 1982, when his role had been shrunk to “production advisor,” he was writing in his diary, “I could not work with JL in any creative way, and I do not enjoy the political atmosphere he creates and the relentless pursuit of popularity in which he drowns himself like a child with a sweets’ trolley.” Eight years later, Dexter died bitterly at the age of 64. The Met–with tenacious Maestro Levine at the artistic helm–sails on.

Charles Michener, a senior editor at The New Yorker, writes a classical music column for The Observer.