I’ve just finished reading Joseph Volpe’s new memoir, The Toughest Show on Earth: My Rise and Reign at the Metropolitan Opera. Volpe was for sixteen years the General Manager at the Met, where he (in)famously reigned with an iron fist. This book is his version of the various controversies that surrounded his tenure. It is also a history of his rise through the ranks, from apprentice carpenter, to Master Carpenter, to Assistant Director to General Manager. He is the only General Manager of the Met to have risen through the ranks, which is the fundamental cause of some of his demonstrable insecurity. In the eyes of the Met Board, he was never “one of us,” since he had no social standing, a badge of honor in Volpe’s own eyes. He brings that fact up over and over–and assuredly his board never let him forget in the most condescending ways.
There are chapters devoted to his firing of Kathleen Battle; to his objections to the redevelopment of Lincoln Center, and others. He writes pretty unflatteringly about a number of singers, among them Luciano Pavarotti, although it is clear that he is fond of Pavarotti. Volpe even gets a dig in at the great Plácido Domingo, who has “forgotten more roles than most people know,” the consequence of which is that Domingo is riveted to the prompter’s box just to get through the opera. The singers upon which he spends most of his time are of the current generation: Renee Fleming, René Pape, Cecilia Bartoli, among others.
The book, although entertaining, is lightweight reading, and seems like a rush-job. (It was published just in time for the gala performance celebrating Volpe’s retirement from the Met.) There’s not a lot of reflection, and not a lot of revelation. It is a surface assemblage of facts, names and dates, as if Volpe went through his engagement calendar and diary and picked out some samples to write about. The analysis of his tenure at the Met will be written by others.