The Toughest Show on Earth
My Rise and Reign at the Metropolitan Opera
By Joseph Volpe
By Bruce Menzies
The Toughest Show on Earth has been said to be “the ultimate behind-the-scenes chronicle of the divas and dramas of the New York’s Metropolitan Opera.” Joseph Volpe is the ultimate insider as he rose to the ranks as General Manager starting as an apprentice in the carpenter shop in 1963.
General Manager of the Met would be considered one of the most prestigious posts in the world of international performing arts. Volpe’s rise is a classic American success story, proving true grit, commons sense, a pursuit of excellence in all things, (and a willingness to occasionally knock heads) is a successful path of management. Case in point, was his decision to fire superstar Kathleen Battle against the advice of all the moguls in the business who believed the Met would not survive without her. That action actually established Volpe’s strength and broke the myth of the all-powerful superstar.
In the book, Volpe has not shied away from pampering his favorites, among them Renée Fleming and Plácido Domingo, with new productions and unlikely assignments that suited their whims but may have artistically questionable.
These days, the Met’s annual operating budget is hundreds of millions of dollars and hundreds of performances per season. There are probably more moving parts than Operation Desert Storm.
During his tenure at the Met, Volpe had little problems standing up to maestros or corporate executives alike. Some people of wealth and influence get involved with the non-profit world, he writes, because it “feeds their self-esteem and enhances their social standing.” (Volpe wrote he had no social standing to worry about.)
A constant challenge for the General Manager is the in-house politics and Everest-sized egos. Volpe includes an interesting chapter on the “Siamese Twins” he calls the superstar tenors Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo. Offstage they often act as kings or prime ministers with large entourages of assistants carrying some fifty Louis Vuitton travel bags mostly filled with pans, pasta, and prosciutto.
From the chapter entitled, “The Trapeze Artists,” Volpe writes this colorful entrée: “the higher the voice, the more temperamental the person. In other words, when trouble comes it’s likely to come from a soprano or a tenor, not from a mezzo, a baritone, or a bass. Operatic excitement feeds on anguish, and most anguished people are generally the hero or the heroine—the tenor or the soprano—who have a passion for each other than somebody is trying to thwart. It’s not unusual for sopranos and tenors to be nervous wrecks offstage as much as on. Most emotional outbursts by singers are solo performances that are over quickly. But when they come in the form of a duet, they can reach gale force.”
The Toughest Show on Earth: My rise and reign at the Metropolitan Opera by Joseph Volpe has been a sweet read. At 300 pages, it’s not an easy read, and there are sections of no interest to me, however, observing Volpe’s management style and his ability to deal with the art, the people, and the music, is an inspiration. I saw copies of this book (copyright 2006) on Amazon for a dollar and twenty-six cents. Good reading.
Joseph Volpe (born July 2, 1940) is an American opera manager and arts management consultant. He is noted for his long association with the Metropolitan Opera, in which he served as General Manager from 1990 to 2006. In all, he spent forty-two years working at “the Met” in various capacities, rising rapidly to managerial positions. Since February 2016 he has been Executive Director of the Sarasota Ballet.
Volpe was born in Brooklyn, New York. While living in Long Island, he opened his own auto mechanic business in high school. After a fire at the auto garage, he worked as a theatrical carpenter on Broadway. In lieu of college, Volpe joined the Metropolitan Opera in August 1964 as an apprentice carpenter.
Volpe became the Metropolitan Opera’s master carpenter in 1966, having joined the company’s carpentry division in 1964 as an apprentice. He became Technical Director of the Met in 1978. In 1981 he was appointed Assistant Manager of the Met, and retained that position for nine years. His accomp-lishments in that capacity included managing the company’s re-entry into the commercial recording field.
Volpe became the opera’s General Manager in August 1990. He was the first head of the Metropolitan Opera to advance from within the ranks of the company’s management.
As general manager, Volpe reduced the number of operas repeating from prior seasons and increased the overall length of the season. During his tenure, several world premieres were given, including commissions made under his guidance, such as Tan Dun’s The First Emperor, presented in the 2006–07 season. The Met’s repertory further expanded with twenty-two works given their Met premieres during Volpe’s sixteen seasons as general manager—more new works than under any general manager since Giulio Gatti-Casazza, who ran the company from 1908 to 1935.
Volpe expanded the Met’s international touring activities. The company visited Spain’s Expo ’92, Germany in 1994, and Japan in 1993, 1997, 2001, and 2006. In addition, under Volpe, frequent tours and recordings of symphonic repertoire by the Met orchestra were inaugurated, as well as an annual series at Carnegie Hall. The orchestra made European concert tours in 1996 and 1999, and a tour of the United States in 1998. In August 2002, the orchestra gave concerts at the Salzburg Festival, festivals in Lucerne and Baden-Baden and the Rheingau Musik Festival.
In 1994, Volpe terminated the contract of star soprano Kathleen Battle, due to repeated disruptive behavior. Future engagements with Battle were canceled as well.
Volpe named Russian conductor Valery Gergiev as the company’s Principal Guest Conductor in 1997.
In 1998, Volpe instituted an education project for young children in cooperation with the City of New York Department of Education and endowed by the Texaco Foundation. The program emphasizes direct experience with music and opera for students in New York City schools. The children come to the Metropolitan Opera House for backstage tours, followed by attendance at dress rehearsals, and artists from the Metropolitan Opera are frequently sent to participating schools for educational presentations. Volpe also established a partnership with the University of Connecticut that provides students from the music and drama departments with behind-the-scenes access to the creative processes taking place in the opera house. The Met outreach under Volpe also included the “Cultural Passport” program with the City University of New York (CUNY), offering a special program for honors students and teachers-in-training to familiarize them with opera.
Volpe conceived and developed “Met Titles,” which were introduced during the 1995–96 season opening night performance of Otello. This system provides individual title screens on the backs of the seats for those members of the audience who wish to utilize them, but with little distraction for those who do not.
In 1998, Volpe initiated the development of a new management software program, called Tessitura. Tessitura uses a single database of information to record, track and manage all contacts with the Met’s constituents, conduct targeted marketing and fund raising appeals, handle all ticketing and membership transactions, and provide detailed and flexible performance reports. Beginning in 2000, Tessitura was offered under license to other arts organizations, and it is now used by a network of more than 200 opera companies, symphony orchestras, ballet companies, theater companies, performing arts centers, and museums in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland.
Sound fiscal management and various marketing initiatives, permitting the Met to maintain high musical and production standards, characterized Volpe’s tenure. In addition, Volpe’s customer care initiative, begun in 1996, steadily improved the Met’s responsiveness to its customers’ needs. Volpe inaugurated consumer-friendly services like automated ticket sales, varied subscription packages, and a more liberal ticket exchange policy.
Volpe strengthened the Met’s administration through a re-organization, naming assistant managers responsible to the general manager for specific areas of operations. Labor relations under Volpe’s management were without significant contract disputes for over two decades, the longest period of labor peace in the company’s history. In fact, Volpe’s successor Peter Gelb hired him in February 2010 to represent the Met in its various negotiations with labor unions.
Volpe successfully opposed major aspects of Lincoln Center’s 21st-century redevelopment plans: a proposal to build a glass dome over the entire plaza and plans to construct a new theater for the New York City Opera in Damrosch Park. In Volpe’s view, Lincoln Center needed refurbishing, but not a drastic redesign costing hundreds of millions of dollars.
Although the Met suffered the ill effects experienced by most arts organizations in New York City of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, sound fiscal management, including marketing initiatives and continued strong fundraising, permitted the Met to maintain its high musical and production standards. To ensure affordable access to Met performances for a broad range customers, Volpe maintained a wide variety of ticket prices and subscription packages.
In February 2004, Volpe announced his intention to retire, citing a desire to spend time on the personal interests which he had neglected while at his “all-consuming” position at the Met. On August 1, 2006, Peter Gelb became his successor as general manager.
Volpe has been a guest lecturer at Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, as well as at the “Models of Leadership” course for New York University’s Stern School of Business, where he teaches a course entitled “Managing in the Performing Arts.”
After leaving the Met, Volpe joined Giuliani Partners, the firm founded by the former New York City mayor after he left office, as a senior vice president. His job was to bring in cultural clients, manage non-cultural projects, and draw on the many contacts he made through opera. However, Volpe missed working in theatrical endeavors and left in January 2008. In 2008, he joined Theater Projects Consultants, a leading theater design firm, at its American headquarters, in South Norwalk. Volpe was appointed Executive Director of the Sarasota Ballet in February 2016.
Volpe was first married at age twenty and has been married three times. He is married to Jean Volpe, a former ballet dancer. Together Joseph and Jean have a daughter, Anna. The Volpe family resides in Manhattan. In addition, Mr. Volpe has seven other children from two previous marriages.
Volpe’s 2006 memoir, The Toughest Show on Earth: My Rise and Reign at the Metropolitan Opera, published by Knopf, describes his forty-two years at the Met. The memoir also includes an overview of the history of the Metropolitan Opera, beginning with its origins in 1880.
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Joseph Volpe at the University of Oxford, Lecture