A thoroughgoing, eyeball-rolling institutional history of the Metropolitan Opera that concentrates on the personalities to pretty much the exclusion of the art, from Fiedler (Arthur Fiedler, 1994), for 15 years the press representative of the Met.
It might not be quite the treacherous world that the author would like to think, but the Metropolitan Opera, from its inception as a breakaway from the Academy of Music, has had its share of turmoil and emotional strife, if no more than is exercised in familial and corporate settings. While it’s fun to read about the richly deserved axing of Maria Callas and Kathleen Battle, appalling to be reminded of the murder of Helen Hagnes, and dreadful to learn that the tenor Richard Versalle’s last words were “You can only live so long,” sung immediately before a heart attack killed him and he plummeted to the stage from a perch atop a towering ladder, the meat-and-potatoes of Fiedler’s work is the functioning of the Met. Strong personalities have ruled both the Met’s artistic and management offices, from Rudolph Bing’s treating the opera as though it were his personal monarchy, to the more tactically politic (while no less power-hungry) role assumed by Joseph Volpe, who rose from the position of master carpenter to become the current general manager. While Fiedler spends less time on the artistic sensibilities at work, she does a fine job explaining the character of the artistic directors, beginning with Toscanini and his snits and appetite for women, through the unrivaled years with James Levine, who reinvigorated the standards, built the repertory, and explored lesser-known operas. And it is gratifying to follow Fiedler as she charts the democratization of opera, transitioning from the turf of boxholders looking for “the ultimate symbol of social triumph,” to the pure joy of opera lovers.
One couldn’t ask for a more knowledgeable guide to the inner workings of the Met.