From carpenter to general manager—the story of a 42-year climb up the ladder of the Met hierarchy by a man whose schooling ended early but whose education never ceased.
Volpe begins his tale with some family background and with Tom Sawyerish stories about playing hooky. He always preferred work to school and at 17 was already running his own Amoco station. By age 20, he was married (two other marriages would follow). In 1961, he began as a stagehand at the Morosco Theater (schlepping for shows by Kopit and Shaffer). On his first day at the Met (where he learned to build sets) he refused to fetch coffee for the veterans. And thus began the ascension. By 1966, he was the Met’s master carpenter. Volpe’s ad hoc account contains many stories about the personalities populating the Met’s stage and offices that will delight opera-lovers who like gossip and debate. Volpe loves James Levine but says the conductor eschews confrontation. The author fired Kathleen Battle when her vagaries and vicissitudes became impossible to endure. Rudolf Bing did not spend 5,000 nights at the opera, but he did have an “eye for a pretty dancer.” Volpe greatly admires director Franco Zeffirelli, though his sets sometimes needed some Volpean adjustment to work properly. One of Volpe’s predecessors, Hugh Southern, who lasted only seven months, was clueless, and head electrician Rudy Kuntner was “more of a diva than most divas.” Volpe chronicles his spats with colleagues and directors (especially Piero Faggioni) but has words of great praise and affection for Pavarotti and Domingo. Near the end, he offers his take on the controversial plans to renovate Lincoln Center.
Anecdotal and rarely modest, but denizens of Operaland will surely enjoy these tales of backstage pyrotechnics and intrigue.