Astonishing Success Story Nearly Spoiled by Bravado

Modesty is not a trait that flourishes at the Metropolitan Opera House, perhaps the premier stage for the world’s biggest

Modesty is not a trait that flourishes at the Metropolitan Opera House, perhaps the premier stage for the world’s biggest voices, bodies and egos. So it makes sense that the Met’s general manager, Joseph Volpe, an impresario who’s put the most demanding divas and directors in their places, doesn’t exactly suffer from low self-esteem.

Mr. Volpe, who’s retiring this summer, has punctuated his 16 seasons at the helm with a new memoir: The Toughest Show On Earth (co-written with Charles Michener, who writes about music for The Observer). As one might expect, the book is an exclamation point, full of bombastic accusations and unequivocal assertions about what makes good opera. But it’s also an astonishing success story that charts Mr. Volpe’s career from gas-station attendant to carpenter choking on the sawdust of Met scenery to arguably the most powerful figure in the rarefied land of arias and bel canto. For all its emphasis on triumph through diligence and good sense, his book strangely fails to inspire.

His self-assurance was surely essential in running the opera house, but over nearly 300 pages, the sustained note of unshakeable confidence is deafeningly loud and devoid of nuance. His attitude echoes the cold efficiency of Rudolph Giuliani, pre–Sept. 11. No wonder, then, that in August, Mr. Volpe is set to join Giuliani Partners, the former Mayor’s lucrative consulting firm. Throughout the book, Mr. Volpe professes a deep belief in harmonious collaboration and an aversion to “regie opera,” in which directors are guided exclusively by personal vision. But as a memoirist, he’s guilty of mocking dissenting viewpoints and, more damaging, refusing to allow himself any real moments of self-doubt or introspection. The tough-guy armor keeps the reader from getting close to him or to the fine art he’s seen and heard. Instead, we get remembered conversations, many of which occurred decades ago, that have a self-serving pitch and invariably cast him as the voice of reason in a madhouse.

“[T]he Met doesn’t belong to you and the board,” he tells executive director Anthony Bliss in the midst of the 1980 musicians’ strike, which he takes credit for resolving. “It belongs to everyone who works here and the public who loves and pays for opera.”

He adopts a similarly righteous tone when looking toward the future and Lincoln Center’s plans for a vast redevelopment: “Do I regard the process as it has been conducted (as of this writing) to be sane, fair, open and sensitive to the Met? No. Since the project was announced five years ago, there has been nothing concrete to show for all the meetings and studies and design plans. Millions of dollars have been squandered because of poor judgment and poor leadership.” (The stewardship of the Met will now fall to Peter Gelb, who receives but a brief mention in a tour of Mr. Volpe’s busy agenda: “6:00 pm … discuss how much time he’ll be able to spend looking over my shoulder before I leave.”)

It’s a shame that all this bravado gets in the way, because Mr. Volpe’s tale of modest origins, hard work and managerial genius could have been a truly compelling story. Many European impresarios grew up in and around opera houses—not Mr. Volpe, whose initial exposure to grand opera came from his Italian-born grandmother. One afternoon in the family living room, she handed him a recording of Mascagni’s one-act opera Cavalleria Rusticana and said, “Joey, put this on.”

But young Joey’s interests veered more toward tools than tenors. One of his earliest memories is taking apart his apartment’s lock with a screwdriver and then, after his mother scolded him, putting it back together. In grade school, he skipped weeks of class in the leafy Bayside section of Queens to sit under a tree and watch construction workers put up row houses. The closest he came to the stage was performing “Annie Had a Baby (Can’t Work No More)” at his high-school talent show.

When a gas station he’d bought after graduating from high school burnt down, Mr. Volpe took a job as a stagehand on Broadway. He aced a union apprentice exam, went to work at the Met, excelled—and at 26 was named master carpenter. Around that time, he overheard Birgit Nilsson singing “In questa reggia” as the Chinese princess Turandot.

“There’s more to this opera stuff than building scenery,” he remembers saying to a friend as they put down their hammers and nails.

He also started learning a thing or two about how to get things done: “[I]t didn’t take me long to figure out that in order to be a successful leader in an opera house you sometimes have to behave operatically.” The operatic confrontations make for some of the memoir’s most intriguing reading. He goes into great detail, for example, about his firing of Kathleen Battle in February 1994, including Luciano Pavarotti’s proposed cure for Ms. Battle’s infamously bad behavior: “‘There must be something missing in her life,’” Mr. Volpe remembers Mr. Pavarotti telling him. “‘She needs a good man to … ’ He made an unmistakable Italian gesture and added, ‘And I’m just the man to do it!’”

This crass commentary contributes to what amounts to a caricature of the world’s most famous tenor. Mr. Pavarotti is seen sucking on licorice pills, traveling with a cook and nearly killing himself in a 1998 performance of L’Elisir after drinking salt water to lose weight. When Mr. Pavarotti confides in Mr. Volpe about his tough divorce, Mr. Volpe could have shown the giant’s humanity. Instead, it’s another feather in Mr. Volpe’s cap: “After he made his way to the stage, I thought, ‘Here’s a guy who’s loved by more people than anyone but the pope, and he’s all alone.’ I felt honored that he’d turned to me.”

And yet the memoir has its moments. Mr. Volpe’s voice is most true when he’s sharing the history of his two families: his immediate family of Italian immigrants and the extended family of artists and craftsmen at the Met. A scene in which Mr. Volpe watches his father take his last breath sitting up, because he didn’t want to die lying down, is authentically moving.

Mr. Volpe’s patrons at the Met include the aristocratic Rudolf Bing, who jump-started his career by giving him a $50-a-week raise; and John Dexter, who promoted him to technical director in August 1978. (After a falling-out, Mr. Dexter compared Mr. Volpe to Stalin.) Of Bruce Crawford, who began as general manager in 1985, Mr. Volpe writes, “I admired his velvet manner, but it wasn’t a style I would emulate.” He adores James Levine, Renée Fleming and Franco Zeffirelli, whose La Bohème is the most successful production in Met history.

Mr. Volpe clearly admires, but does not like, Jonathan Miller, who is disparaged as “the world’s expert on everything” and whose “neurological” argument against the subtitles now scrawling on the backs of Met chairs is aggressively mocked. Sometimes Mr. Volpe’s bitterness seems justified, but more often it’s shrill: “Miller loves the sound of his own voice more than most opera singers love theirs.” After offering an impressive rundown of the Met’s history, budget and audience numbers, Mr. Volpe wonders if one of the city’s most vibrant artistic institutions will survive with an aging audience that increasingly prefers to buy tickets on the night of a performance instead of subscribing. “The Met is tough,” Mr. Volpe determines.

And so, it’s clear, is Joe Volpe. But a touch more self-criticism and subtlety—and less volume—would have made for a vastly more profound and enjoyable performance. Jason Horowitz is a reporter at The Observer. Astonishing Success Story  Nearly Spoiled by Bravado