Met's Volpe a Man of True Operatic Range

A smiling Joseph Volpe. i

Joseph Volpe's Met career spans 42 enjoyable years. Getty Images hide caption

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A smiling Joseph Volpe.

Joseph Volpe's Met career spans 42 enjoyable years.

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He began as a carpenter's apprentice. Now, four decades later, Joseph Volpe will leave New York's Metropolitan Opera after 16 years as general manager. Volpe talks to Lynn Neary about moving on.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

LYNN NEARY, host:

Opera is about amazing singing, magnificent sets, fantastic costumes, and big personalities. But it's also about great stories, and one of the best stories to emerge from the world of opera in recent years is Joseph Volpe's rise to power as the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera.

Mr. Volpe came to the Met in 1964 as a carpenter's apprentice, and made his way up the ladder by virtue of hard work, nerves of steel, and a personality that Luciano Pavarotti once described as scary at times.

Mr. Volpe, now 65, is retiring from the Met in August. The Met recently hosted a gala celebration in his honor. And he has a new book, The Toughest Show On Earth, that gives his version of his reign.

We spoke with Mr. Volpe earlier. Before starting his job in the carpenter shop at the Met, he says his only exposure to opera was a record his grandmother used to ask him to play over and over.

Mr. JOSEPH VOLPE (General Manager, Metropolitan Opera): It was the same record. It was the same opera, Cavalier Rusticana. And of course, she came from Sicily not long after it was composed. And quite frankly, I didn't know what it was. I didn't know what - all knew was it made my grandmother happy. So that was my first - the first time that I really heard opera.

(Soundbite of Cavalier Rusticana)

NEARY: That was your first little introduction to opera. But really, it wasn't important at all, or even part of your life at all, really, till you started as a...

Mr. VOLPE: Till I started working at the Met. Actually, I did not go to the Metropolitan Opera because of opera. I went because I wanted to learn how to build scenery. I had recently had a business that I sold and I felt that I had an opportunity to work on Broadway. My next bright idea was I would open a scenic shop and build scenery for Broadway. And I was told by a friend of mine the best place to learn to build scenery is in Metropolitan Opera. So off I went to the Met. And that's when, of course, I discovered the world of opera and the wonderful music of opera.

NEARY: There's a great story of your first day as an apprentice carpenter at the Met that maybe gives a little hint of what's to come in terms of your sense of self, I guess you might say.

MR. VOLPE: It was my first day on the job as an apprentice and I walked in and I was in the locker room and they were showing me around and the foreman said, Oh, Joe, the apprentice's job is to go get coffee for the crew. Which meant that I'd have to take a list, then go out and get 20, 30 cups of coffee. And I said, I don't do that. I said, I'm not getting coffee. I said, I've come to the Met because I want to learn how to build scenery and let someone else get the coffee.

The foreman was a little taken aback, took me into the head of the shop. And rather than have a big confrontation, he said, fine, we'll just get someone else to get the coffee. And that was that.

NEARY: And that's sort of a mark of your personality; you kind of have a sense of self, know what you want, and you're not afraid to express those feelings, I guess.

Mr. VOLPE: I don't think you would say that I am quite an unassuming, or have no opinions. No, that wouldn't be a description of me.

NEARY: You described your sort of discovering opera while you were working as a carpenter, where you really begin to get a sense of what's there artistically, I think. And it's on page 37, if you could...

Mr. VOLPE: Yeah. Well, what happened was that I went to the stage to repair something and I was under the set during a dress rehearsal. And what I would read is, Charlie and I took seats about 10 rows back. The music coming out of the orchestra pit reminded me colored smoke. But it was nothing compared to what Nielson and Corelli were producing with their vocal cords.

Where are the loudspeakers, I asked Charlie? Charlie said, This is the Metropolitan Opera, Joe. We don't use speakers.

(Soundbite of opera)

NEARY: Mr. Volpe fell in love with opera and every nook and cranny of the Met. He quickly came to the attention of renowned general manager Rudolf Bing. And within a couple of years, he was named master carpenter. But that's not where his ambition ended.

When did you maybe begin to get the sense that I can go father in this place than being a carpenter or staying in the carpentry shop or even just staying on the technical side? When did you begin to see that?

Mr. VOLPE: Well, it was not until 1972 when Rudolf Bing announced his retirement, when I felt, you know what, someday I could run this place. And so then I really focused my energies on that goal.

NEARY: You're probably the only one who thought that at that moment.

Mr. VOLPE: There's no question about that.

NEARY: Now, the road to becoming general manager was not an easy one for you. You had to overcome some people's objections and some prejudices along the way. Can you talk about that a little bit? I mean, people didn't think you were up for it, even right up till the very end.

Mr. VOLPE: When I went into management - now, I'm a union person, I gave up my union job and went into management - there were obviously members of the management that were very concerned. A new position was created. I became the technical director. The Met never had a technical director. But then, of course, I did have the opportunity once I was in that position to have contact with board members. But they didn't know me.

Then when the search came for general manager, of course, there were those few board members that felt that - who would deal with the singers? Who would we talk to? I mean because - I mean heavens, they couldn't talk to Joe Volpe. He was just - not too long ago he was a stagehand.

NEARY: At first they gave you the position of general director, not general manager.

Mr. VOLPE: That is correct.

NEARY: And that did not sit well with you at all.

Mr. VOLPE: No, it didn't sit well because at the Met or any theater, probably in the corporate world, the buck has to stop somewhere. And what they did is they didn't give me the full authority. It didn't make any difference, Lynn, because there was a vacuum. I filled it. I made the decisions anyway, even if I didn't have the authority, because that was the way I planned to run the Met.

At the board meeting when they finally decided to make me the general manager, Bruce Crawford, the president of the board reported, well, it doesn't make any difference, Joe's going to do it the way he wants to anyway, so you might as well give him the title, you know.

NEARY: There were class issues in all this, too. I mean, did you resent that? Or did you accept that this was part of the opera world? Or did you just plow through and say it's there and I'm going to plow through it?

Mr. VOLPE: Well, I think I plowed through. I think there was a certain resentment on one side where there were people that were in responsible positions, whether it be president or one of the general managers that I worked for, where they treated everyone just like the hired help, you know. And so that upset me, because you don't deal with people that way. So I think there were those few that there was some friction, I must say.

NEARY: Did you - how did you deal with members of the crew, all of the various people who worked for the Met? Did you feel that you didn't treat people that way, even though you do have a reputation for being abrasive, and all that? Do you think you treated people with a little more respect than perhaps...

Mr. VOLPE: Lynn, I am an equal opportunity abuser. If you're in the office or if you're on stage before me, and I would always come in early, and if you stayed longer that me and you worked all the time, and you did follow directions with enthusiasm, you never had a problem with me. If you didn't, then there were problems.

(Soundbite of opera music)

NEARY: Well, let me ask you about one of your most famous confrontations with a diva, and that is with Kathleen Battle. And you became very famous for firing her, and not in a polite way, but in a very honest way, I guess you could say. And somebody said to you, as you were doing it, don't let that be your obituary, he's the guy that's fired Kathleen Battle.

Mr. VOLPE: Yeah. It was a very unfortunate situation. And when it came to the production of the Daughter of the Regiment, it got to a point where the rehearsals were chaos. The tenor came to me and said, you know, Joe, when I sing she says don't touch me. And when she singing, don't look at my mouth. She was criticizing a wonderful artist who has been at the Met for many, many years, accusing her of may things.

So it got to a point where that production would not go on properly. So I was left with - in the position where I had to make this decision. I don't suggest it was easy, but it had to be done. Now, she's had a reputation worldwide, I guess, for misbehaving, and most people just let it go. Jimmy Levine said to me, Joe, I wouldn't fire her. I'd let her do these performances and then don't hire her again.

But we were at a point where I felt it would really jeopardize the production. So I had to make a decision, and I had to support the company members and the other singers. So I made that decision. I was sorry that it had to come to that. And I was also sorry that after the incident, after this happened, that she didn't sing in an opera house again. And so it's just one of those unfortunate situations.

NEARY: What about - what would you consider your greatest accomplishment? I mean, I think there were like a record number of premiers and original productions, huge...

Mr. VOLPE: Oh, good Lord. We don't think we have enough time to go through this list.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VOLPE: Actually...

NEARY: But is there one thing in particularly?

Mr. VOLPE: Well, there are a couple of things. One is the - my goal was to expand the repertoire, which we did. We had 26 premiers to the Met, six of them were world premiers during my time, that's in 16 years. Met titles, where we had translations on the seatbacks, making opera more accessible to people. And many times it was spouses. If the wife loved the opera, the husband would resist and vice versa.

So there are so many things, but I think really the building, the company, and having the orchestra chorus ballet. The roster of singers at such a high level today, that's the accomplishment, I guess, I'm most proud of.

(Soundbite of opera)

NEARY: Joseph Volpe, retiring general manager of the New York Metropolitan Opera. The Met's gala celebration in honor of Mr. Volpe began airing this week on most PBS stations. At Mr. Volpe's request, the gala ended with the final chorus from Beethoven's Fidelio.

(Soundbite of opera)

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

NEARY: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

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