Friday, September 22, 2006


It was Stendhal, I believe (though I've somewhere lost the ability to verify this), who noted that to make a fortune in business requires something also necessary for writing a successful novel: the ability to see clearly into what is. To these occupations he might have added the successful running of an opera house. Exhibit One: Joe Volpe, whose Metropolitan Opera tenure finally ended this summer.

Volpe in fact stands as a particular example of this virtue, which not only marked his term as General Manager but seems to have been more or less solely responsible for his having attained that position at all. By the plausible account of his autobiography (which is a well-done, interesting work of its kind), it was his easy, baloney-free grasp of the mundane facts of opera -- in an expanding sphere from carpentry to backstage costs to labor negotiations and everything else in the house -- that got him repeatedly promoted from his original job as carpenter. Eventually, Volpe's anointment as "General Director" in 1990 (he became "General Manager" later) followed the short and undistinguished term of the pleasant, socially proper Hugh Southern, who was in a sense Volpe's mirror image. That is: the Met eventually chose -- and recognized the primacy of -- facts. That the house is the largest and perhaps most complicated arts organization in the world precedes and underpins any idealisations or illusions one might have about its role.

Commitment to Volpe paid off in one obvious sense: the Met -- because of a longer season now even more immensely complicated in its operations -- is and has been well-run and financially solid, without serious labor strife, catastrophic shortfalls, or other such outbreaks of widespread chaos. This one would have expected, and is something even most of his detractors will acknowledge. What's less visible is how Volpe's clear seeing extended to the artistic side of the enterprise.

My biggest surprise in reading Volpe's book was discovering how clearly and generally accurately he totes up the triumphs and fiascos among his term's productions. (Fans seem to think of him as sharing Sybil Harrington's crown as Zeffirelli's biggest fan, but one should remember that Volpe -- whose first Met story is of chopping down one of Zef's productions to size -- learned much of his craft working for and with John Dexter.) His belief in Robert Wilson's Lohengrin, for example, has been forcefully vindicated. I wish I had the space and patience to go through the complete reckoning here, but I'll limit myself to this observation: Volpe's instincts in judging which directors should be invited back to the Met were remarkably good. Only Robert Carsen and his unclutteredly poetic production of Onegin get (and got) really unfair short shrift. In the largest matter -- the Ring -- he seems to have picked brilliantly, only to have death take Herbert Wernicke before the production could happen. If Wernicke -- whose Frau ohne Schatten is the clear high-water-mark of the Volpe years -- had gotten four more such productions, how much more luster might this era have?

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If there is something that can be said against the man who sees what is, it is that he often is limited in seeing what could be. And it's this element, I suppose, that the board and its supporters think they are getting in Peter Gelb. But we shouldn't forget that Volpe's resistance to the "could be" has done much over the years to preserve the company.

For aside from what each production and each performance and each participant's role is, opera in America, at the Met's scale, has certain inescapable facts to it that one loses track of at one's peril. It is not -- or no longer -- a genteel socialite's timefiller. But neither is it a popular art, nor one about to become so. It is a niche interest, centered in personal presence and highly accountable to its audiences and donors, and as such dependent on the integrity of its brand.

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This is not to say that Gelb will not do well, nor that there are no areas for improvement on Volpe's regime. His responses to the post-9/11 drop in attendance, for example, have been sound but unimaginative, and there may well be gains to be had among marginal attendees by, e.g., raising the Met's profile. But under Volpe there was zero chance that the company would do something that would jeopardize its or the art's long-term future here, even when airy popular or elite opinion would have favored it. I hope the same holds true now.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.