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The Volpe Era

Eight years into the Joseph Volpe regime at the Metropolitan Opera, the impact of his stewardship is sadly evident. The Met has become an unfeeling, excessively corporate enterprise, its work driven by fiscal rather than artistic objectives. New productions are doomed to failure by absurd budgetary constraints and smothering micromanagement; all but the most famous singers are treated like chattel; and the Met's efforts to expand its audience are undermined by cynical policies. Mr. Volpe's leadership endangers the Met's stature and prominence in the operatic world.   

Productions: Under Mr. Volpe's direction a house esthetic has emerged that can best be described as "disposable"- new productions are artless placeholders that merely allow the Met to stage a performance of a particular opera. Almost without fail, each opening night gives us another production that is dramatically uninspired, visually flat, unworthy of the work at hand, cheap looking, and instantly forgettable. Try to list last season's new productions; bet you can't name all five.   

Mr. Volpe is directly responsible for this debacle because of his meddlesome micromanagement and overzealous beancounting. Now, I recognize that even the Met's finances are limited, but Mr. Volpe's approach to budgeting makes no sense. By his own admission, he decides how much he feels like spending on a new production before even choosing a designer or seeing a concept. He is stingy with popular works and even more parsimonious with less common fare, ignoring their unique requirements.

In the 80's, the Met mounted a sumptuous production of Francesca da Rimini and relied on the "buzz" from this well-received production to fill the house for an obscure work; nowadays, rarely-heard operas like The Rake's Progress only merit drab flats -- bargain-basement designs completely at odds with the work's outlandish spirit. Of course, fiscal extravagance rarely guarantees excellence (check out the Met's Simon Boccanegra for proof), and some works such as Dialogues of the Carmelites have benefited from austere productions. Minimalism and austerity are justifiable artistic visions; cheapness is not. Opera does not flourish when production teams are straitjacketed to the point that their efforts look like those of a low budget touring company, with no money for furniture and props (

Lucia ), an effective temple collapse ( Samson et Dalila ), a Transformation Scene ( Parsifal), or anything at all ( Wozzeck ) .   

The Met responds to accusations of unjustified stinginess by claiming that it already must raise a prodigious sum from its

donors , so finding still more resources for new productions is an insurmountable fund-raising challenge. Yet the Met's productions should be its best fund-raising mechanism, so asking patrons to contribute more money when so little ends up on stage is impossible. Isn't it better to approach donors by saying, "We've just gotten the most incredible set of designs for a new production of The Rake's Progress. It will cost more than we budgeted, but we think this production will be an enormous artistic success for the house. Can you help us bridge the gap?" That technique would work on patrons, including this one.   

Once a design meets Mr. Volpe's draconian financial constraints, it must also appeal to his dubious artistic sensibilities. How can one rely on the judgment of someone who rejected Traviata designs from

Erich Wonder , one of the most admired scenic designers working in opera, in favor of another slapdash rehash from Franco Zefferelli? Do we respect someone who chose to recreate failures from Europe, like the Cenerentola from Zurich, the Otello from Covent Garden, the Nozze di Figaro from Vienna, and the Lucia di Lammermoor from Toulouse?

These and other duds have not deterred Mr. Volpe's continued proud crowing about all the designs that he has rejected as unsuitable. He doesn't mention that the hundreds of thousands of dollars wasted on unproduced designs and fired directors might have gone towards a few chairs for the new Lucia. Alas, he still has not learned to curb his involvement in designs. Next season includes a new Tristan und Isolde. Its producer Dieter Dorn has discussed his debates with the Met over some complex effects that he envisioned for the production. He had to sit down with management and a copy of the score to show them exactly where these effects belonged and argue for their necessity. In Tristan , of all operas? Did the Met hope it was about singing in the dark?   

Once rehearsals start, Mr. Volpe continues to wreak havoc, imposing his taste on the director's vision.

Giancarlo del Monaco endured particularly egregious treatment . His new production of Madama Butterfly suffered alterations both large (completely relighting Act I) and small (removing Pinkerton's sunglasses). The result was, not surprisingly, a hopeless farrago, neither the radical reconception the producer intended nor the traditional staging the Met thought it was getting. The premiere had more jolting changes of mood and tone than Ariadne auf Naxos.

Del Monaco's final run-in with the Met is captured by the British television documentary about Joseph Volpe, The Boss. It includes footage from a financial meeting about the new del Monaco production of La forza del destino . After evaluating the budget, Mr. Volpe decides that it's appropriate to economize by borrowing costumes from other operas and devising a set for the final scene using leftover rocks from the Met's Die Walküre. This is done without any of the artistic staff or the production team present. Mr. Volpe's final comment: "Will someone tell Giancarlo?" Not that I'm a big fan of Giancarlo del Monaco and his "ooh, aren't I a naughty boy?" productions, but even he deserves better treatment from Volpe's imperial court.   

With this level of

intervention , is it any wonder that new productions arrive looking exhausted and without vision? Give and take surely aids the artistic process, but bullying and onerous oversight can't help things along. Producers are unlikely to give the Metropolitan their best efforts, knowing that their ideas will always be second-guessed, sabotaged, and undercut by Mr. Volpe. Sure enough, that Forza was an abomination. As far as one could tell, the director figured that anything he did would be redone so he simply pushed the performers on stage and let them fend for themselves.   

In theory, the Met should be a producer's dream. What other company has the musical excellence, technical resources, skilled craftspeople, and generous national donor base? Great productions can only happen when a producer doesn't have to expend all her creative energy fighting. By my count, the Met has managed to mount only three truly great opera productions during Mr. Volpe's tenure as General Manager: Elijah Moshinksky's Ariadne auf Naxos, Jonathan Miller's Pelleas et Melisande, and Robert Carsen's Eugene Onegin. Far too many disappointments overshadowed these few successes and we will have to live for a long time with unsalvageable nightmares like the La Quinta Inn Carmen and the dancing-cow Traviata, until long after Mr. Volpe retires. Joseph Volpe has managed to supplant the frisson of attending the opening night of a new production with a crushing dread.   

Artists: In Volpe's Met, superstar singers are pampered and granted wide-ranging artistic control, but anyone who doesn't guarantee a sold-out house is treated with a shocking disdain. The Met's policy of making nice with Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Cecilia Bartoli has indeed been mutually beneficial. Superstars bring to the Met a sold out house, extra press coverage, and new grist for its tireless direct marketing mill; in return the big names get exposure to the national media, lucrative telecasts, high-profile opening nights, and near-veto power over the repertoire, schedules, colleagues and production teams for their Met appearances.   

Any singer not lucky enough to be on this exclusive short list experiences rather different treatment. The Met's artistic department takes great delight in demonstrating its absolute authority. They start by devising a Met debut that occurs under the least pleasant circumstances possible, even for singers who have a significant reputation and following. Typically, singers debut late in the run of an opera, usually La Boheme, without even a stage rehearsal. The experience must be akin to going through customs at Kennedy airport: large crowds, lots of strangers, people shouting indecipherable instructions, stress, and little satisfaction. Inevitably, the reviewer from The Times will comment on the debuter's nerves and awkward stage presence.   

Thus, in recent years, Jane Eaglen first appeared as Donna Anna at the tail-end of a Don Giovanni run; Anthony Michaels-Moore had to perform in L'Elisir d'amore while rehearsing for La Boheme. Vesselina Kasarova and even Cecilia Bartoli were asked to debut in underrehearsed Barbiere; Bartoli had enough clout to hold out for the new Cosi fan tutte . It took pressure from his pal Placido Domingo to enable Jose Cura to schedule his debut for opening night in 1999 in Cavalleria rusticana, rather than in the dull revivals he was offered. Still, his refusal to play along with the Met's rules means that New Yorkers won't hear him after that until 2004.   

{Dolora Zajick} Shabby treatment continues well after a singer's debut, no matter how great her talents. Deborah Voigt went to the trouble to learn Leonora in La forza del destino , only to have the performances canceled due to Luciano Pavarotti's capriciousness. The Met showed no gratitude for her heroic efforts, denying her repeated requests to sing Lady Macbeth to New York. This season she has just four performances of Elektra, and s he doesn't get a new production until the new Die Frau ohne Schatten years from now. No wonder she's singing her first Isolde in Vienna and not New York! Dolora Zajick has single-handedly redeemed countless bleak Met performances of Aida , Il Trovatore , and Don Carlo, which were otherwise cast with pathetic assemblages of dull non-entities. Yet with the exception of this season's Marfa in Khovanschina , she has she not been invited to expand her repertoire at the Met by singing new parts ( Bluebeard's Castle!) or even roles she has essayed elsewhere. Ms. Voigt and Ms. Zajick deserve to be treated like artists of the first order, not as fungible commodities.   

Other exceptional singers have also been consistently underutilized or given low-profile assignments. This season alone

Aprile Millo , Ainhoa Arteta, and Elizabeth Futral, working with minimal rehearsal, gave characteristically luminous performances in Tosca, Traviata, and Lucia, easily surpassing the singers granted opening billing. Why don't these artists have any interesting projects in the works at the Met?   

The Met's misuse of its artists goes beyond poor casting and extends to shabby treatment; here, Mr. Volpe has set a most unfortunate tone. This is the guy who fired Kathleen Battle in the most humiliating way possible. He sued Cheryl Studer after scheduling conflicts arose over the new Simon Boccanegra. He shamed Luciano Pavarotti before a national TV audience by complaining that the tenor would not record an anniversary greeting for the James Levine gala from his hospital sickbed. And he dismissed the Alagnas from La traviata after leaking tales of their misdeeds to the press (Who could blame them for proposing their designs for La traviata, when the Met gave Cecilia Bartoli her choice of production team for Cenerentola , and even her choice of conductor - James Levine!) Mr. Volpe says that he received congratulatory faxes from intendants around the world after he fired the Alagnas. However, his well wishers were probably gleeful because these actions would open up more time in these singers' crowded calendars and keep them from booking future engagements at the Met. Perhaps Mr. Volpe could cancel a few more contracts?   

Mr. Volpe's Met has not realized that great singers no longer need to devote a portion of each season to the Met. With the classical recordings industry in a tailspin, there is less of a need to cultivate a New York audience. Europe offers better fees, a more convenient lifestyle with its closely situated opera houses, and just as many broadcast opportunities. The opportunity to work with James Levine and his extraordinary orchestra, sessions with the unmatched coaching staff, and the singular thrill of hearing 4,000 crazed New York opera fans scream their heads off after a demented performance may lure artists to New York for occasional performances. But heavy-handed, impersonal treatment pushes artists toward other houses, leaving the Met as just another awkward partner on a singer's overcrowded dance card.   

Building for the Future: For an opera company to thrive, it must expand its repertory, attract new fans, and retain its dedicated patrons. Under Joe Volpe's guidance, the Met has extended the active repertoire to encompass a praiseworthy mix of challenging twentieth century works, popular favorites, and genuine rarities. However, the Met also undermines its own future by filling the schedule with inadequate performances of warhorses, doing little to grow its audience, and under-promoting its forays into adventuresome repertoire.   

Popular operas such as Aida and La boheme have a built-in audience and the Met, which relies heavily on ticket sales to meet its budgetary targets, lards its schedule with lots of performances of favorites. This season, three revivals, Aida, Boheme, and Tosca , account for one quarter of the scheduled performances. While some patrons might prefer to see more non-standard works, no one can be disappointed by performances of the core repertory on the level of the Carlos Kleiber-led Boheme with Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni from a decade ago.

In recent seasons, however, this repertory has been badly underserved. This season's twenty-one Aida performances are distributed amongst 6 different casts and 3 different conductors; not one combination is worthy of the opera. Boheme is also compromised. Once again, there are 6 different casts, primarily composed of younger singers making their Met or role debuts. Many of these singers will go on without stage or orchestral rehearsals and it is difficult to see how a creditable performance can transpire.   

Operatic newcomers will gravitate towards well-known titles, particularly at the Met, with its reputation for eye-popping productions of the standard repertory. One wonders if audience members exploring opera for the first time will be enthralled by these sub-optimal renditions or get put off from their interest in operagoing. More seasoned operagoers become disillusioned when cherished works are subject to such callous treatment and they end up canceling subscriptions and listening to recordings at home.   

Though more obscure works usually have better casts, in many ways the Met does them as much of a disservice. The Met's marketing and publicity efforts on behalf of "difficult" repertory are no better than laughable; the marketing department should have been canned long ago. Would anyone who didn't already admire the work rush out to see Kat'a Kabanova because they saw the title of the opera and the listing of the cast in the Met's weekly ad in the Arts and Leisure section? Doesn't Catherine Malfitano merit a cover story in Opera News that might inspire some interest in her artistry? (Yes, I know that Opera News is supposed to be editorially independent from the Met, but

let's not kid ourselves !)

Why not include an arresting image from the production in the ads or advertise in the theater section, as BAM does? Why not mail subscribers a videotape with rehearsal footage and testimonials from the artists, or even just a CD of some of the music? Why not make 500 tickets available for a substantial discount on the day of the performance? Scheduling policies don't help either. Granting these works a few performances in a very condensed time frame means that a run has ended before word of mouth or good reviews can bring in an audience. Scheduling difficult repertory for January and February when house attendance is at its lowest makes low attendance a self-fulfilling prophesy.   

The Met deals these works another blow by papering the house so heavily that at times it can be hard to actually purchase tickets for performances. When the Met premiered its new Wozzeck several seasons ago, there were many frustrated ticket seekers looking for seats before each performance only to find that the Met had given most of them away. While Met Titles do help these works by keeping the audiences aware of what's happening on stage, they don't draw the audience into the repertoire the way that a pre-performance lecture or a ten-minute pre-curtain speech by the conductor would. That strategy helped Leonard Bernstein introduce difficult works at the New York Philharmonic and would certainly aid their acceptance at the Met.   

Every performance at an opera house cements its legacy and reputation and builds its audience. Off-nights and sub-optimal casts should be unfortunate exceptions and not the general rule. Deliberately undercasting performances or performing operas without working to create an enthusiastic, receptive audience just sabotages the opera and, ultimately, the opera company.   

Volpe's Legacy: Being the General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera can't be a fun job. There's never enough money or rehearsal time; the pool of capable singers is hardly big enough; Herbert Breslin keeps turning up as everyone's representative; the Internet gives everyone who has a gripe with the Met a prominent soapbox; contract negotiations with the unions are difficult and complex; The New York Times' lead music critic is a blithering fool; critics bemoan the numbing preponderance of the standard repertoire in the schedule; the public shuns anything novel and difficult; board members instigate trouble at the house; and Manuela Hoelterhoff keeps on turning up as a consultant jotting down pointed observations for her next poison-pen book.   

Rising to these conflicting challenges and demands is tough. No one will deny Mr. Volpe his negotiating skills, his tenacity, or his admirable willingness to be accountable for decisions he has made. At the same time, however, his insistence on financial prudence above all else is wounding the Met, leaving it an admittedly solvent company that has abandoned its artistic mission. It is now guided by considerations such as how little it can get away with investing in new productions before the patrons revolt; what operas are cast-proof and can be cast accordingly; how little need be invested in audience expansion and innovative marketing; and which singers can be abused but will sing here whenever asked.   

When Mr. Volpe retires, sometime early in the next century, he will certainly be lauded for increasing the Met's endowment, for introducing Met Titles, for expanding the active repertory, for luring Valery Gergiev to the house, and for trying to increase the number of operas done each season. However, he will be best remembered as the manager who alienated performers, producers, and audiences, leaving the Met with a full wallet and a barren soul.   

 Dawn Fatale