On May 20‹when the Metropolitan Opera's 2005-2006 season comes to a close‹a major chapter in the company's 123-year history will be commemorated with an all-star gala celebrating the long career of its general manager, Joseph Volpe, who retires on August 1. From apprentice carpenter, to master carpenter, technical director, assistant manager, and general manager, Volpe's 42 years at the Met have become the stuff of legend. Former Met press director David M. Reuben sat down for a talk with the intrepid general manager, as he entered his final weeks at the Met.
You have been instrumental in a lot of technical innovations over the years at the Met. Which ones were the most important to you and how do you think they have changed the opera-going experience?
Joseph Volpe: Without a doubt, the development and implementation of Met Titles. In the world of opera, if you have two opera-lovers, you have three opinions. But in the case of our Met Titles, approval and acceptance were almost universally positive. Of course, there is a benefit that is obvious and rather simple‹better comprehension for the audience as to what's happening on stage. But the effects are much more comprehensive than that. For years Met audiences‹and in truth some managements‹rejected new or unfamiliar operas sight unseen. Met Titles have turned that approach on its head. You'd think that quiet is never what you'd want to hear from an audience, but that's what you get now, especially when it's an opera new to them‹they're focused and involved. And I'm convinced that's why a wide variety of works that were new to the Met‹from Jenufa to Rodelinda to Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk have enjoyed such great success, when in prior times I fear they would have been rejected out of hand. And the success of the titling system isn't limited to new works. I can't tell you how many people have said to me things like, "I haven't looked at the libretto for La Bohème in 30 years, and when I read the titles, I find there's stuff going on there I'd totally forgotten."
Much has been said about the fact that you were the first General Manager to rise from within the ranks to that level. What skills did you develop as a Met insider that you feel have helped you as General Manager?
JV: I don't think it's skills so much, as knowledge and awareness. Because I've worked in so many different areas of the company, I believe I have not only knowledge of how things work, but, even more important for a manager, hands-on experience of what a company like the Metropolitan demands from its people, in terms of deadlines and quality at the highest level. This doesn't mean that I micro-manage, which I think is a classic management mistake. But it does mean that I'm able to anticipate where problems might develop and work with my staff to forestall them.
Did you ever look at a proposal for a new production of an opera and say, "that just will not work"?
JV: Sadly, several times, and in hindsight, maybe I should have turned down a few that I didn't. You never like to have to tell a director or designer that what they have worked so hard on, or believed in so strongly, simply will not work in our theater, but that's one of the tough decisions you have to make. And it was a decision I had to make back in the late summer of 1990, in the very first weeks of my administration, when I looked at the designs for a new production of Die Zauberflöte, scheduled to open just four months later. The production was quite striking, but it was conceived by a director who had never worked in our theater, and it was simply impossible in the time we had available to revise, build, and rehearse it. I had to tell him that, and at the same time come up with a solution‹the wonderful David Hockney production which we borrowed from the San Francisco Opera, and which served us well, until our magnificent new production last season by Julie Taymor.
Let's talk about Lincoln Center. You were fairly outspoken about the redevelopment and the originally suggested plans. Have your suggestions been implemented and are you satisfied with the plan as it now stands?
JV: My suggestions have been implemented and I'm very pleased with the plan that's going ahead. I know that will probably surprise a lot of people, but you have to remember that the strong objections I raised were very practical ones. And, by the way, your characterization of me as "outspoken" is one of the more benevolent descriptions of me during the tortuous path to resolution of this project. One press account, in reporting my early objections, called me a "potential killer" of the whole project. Lovely. In truth, my position was exactly the opposite. I fought to keep the project alive by focusing on the basic things that were essential to the maintenance and improvement of Lincoln Center for its audiences. There were many pie-in-the-sky proposals, such as a dome over the plaza and construction that would eliminate park land. This would have far exceeded the funds we were capable of raising, and would have done little to enhance the performance-attending experience. Indeed, it would have seriously compromised what is one of the rarest commodities in our city‹open space. Anyone who has ever stepped onto the Lincoln Center Plaza on a glorious spring or summer evening around curtain time, seen that yellow-orange glow of the setting sun behind the Met and experienced the electricity and buzz of anticipation among the crowds heading toward their performances knows what I mean. Imagine losing that. Unthinkable!
When they write of "The Volpe Era" at the Metropolitan Opera, what do you think will be seen as your legacy?
JV: That most of the goals I set when I began have been achieved‹expansion of the repertory which saw a Met premiere in every one of my 16 seasons as General Manager; an upgrading of our casting on a day-to-day basis; seeing that this company which is now a $220-million-a-year operation, is, as I leave it, in sound financial health; more than a quarter century of labor harmony; introducing a wide variety of production styles; and last, but equally as important, upgrading our attention to customer-care, to make the Met more welcoming and user-friendly, than at any time in our history. And we never stopped trying to grow, to improve, to look to the future. Excellence is not a destination, it's a journey. I don't care how good you think you are‹you can always do better. As Will Rogers once said, "It's great to be on the right track, but if you don't keep moving forward, you're still going to get run over." Amen.
What is next for Joseph Volpe?
JV: Ask me that on July 31! But seriously, I'm still totally focused on what's left for me to deal with here at the Met. As we speak, there are several weeks left in the New York season, including the closing night gala concert and a MET Orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall. By the time the curtain has come down on the Gala celebrating my Met career, scenery from that night will be on its way to Japan where members of our stage crew will have already arrived, in preparation for a mammoth undertaking‹a three-week tour by our entire company. We'll be giving complete staged performances of Die Walküre, Don Giovanni, and La Traviata, as well as an orchestra concert. And I wouldn't have it any other way. I've got some irons in the fire to keep me busy after my Met days are over. But we still have some time to go. And I find myself thinking, as these days wind down, of what I will miss most when I leave this glorious company. And that will be its people, those uniquely talented and dedicated individuals who are the Met's heart and soul. And every one of them is equally important‹the stage crew, all the performers‹vocal, instrumental, and balletic‹the front of house staff, the gifted artisans who build our beautiful productions, the administrative staff. It has been my greatest pleasure to work hand in hand with so many of them for nearly half a century. Whatever success I may have enjoyed is and must be shared with them.