Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Toughest Show on Earth: My Rise and Reign at the Metropolitan Opera. Book review

The Toughest Show on Earth: My Rise and Reign at the Metropolitan OperaAs a researcher who studies the careers of executive-level arts managers, I found the opportunity to explore and learn about Joseph Volpe’s career as general manager of the Metropolitan Opera more than rewarding. Volpe, with Charles Michener, begins his book with a comprehensive discussion of his biographical background. From this historical overview of Volpe’s personal history arises the question: are leaders born or made? This question resurfaces repeatedly like a leitmotif from a Wagner opera, with Volpe providing only momentary glimpses of ways to begin constructing a sufficient answer. Nonetheless, Volpe presents the reader with an opportunity to better understand how characteristics and personality traits of leaders may manifest themselves as early as childhood. Volpe concludes his autobiographical outpouring by identifying one of his most significant mentors, Eddie Lapidus.

Several chapters in the book chronicle the history of the Met. Volpe reminds us of the country’s newly rich and their impact on the history of opera in the United States, particularly in the Northeast. The Met was formed in October 1883 for the social benefit and pleasure of a handful of New York’s wealthiest families.

Volpe provides useful stories to support this assertion. For example, the wife of William H. Vanderbilt, a son of Cornelius Vanderbilt, had been denied acceptance into the New York upper crust because she was precluded from receiving a box at the Academy of Music in 1880. Essentially, William H. Vanderbilt and others founded the Met. Still, as time progressed, the Met has grown beyond the ambitions and vanities of its original benefactors, and now more than 130 million people benefit annually from the creative and artistic genius of the world’s finest opera house.

Opera boards seek executive opera administrators with two or more years of executive or progressively responsible managerial experience. Executive-level managers in opera must demonstrate skills in the areas of budget preparation, human resources management, financial management, and strategic planning; they must also be capable of directing and leading the marketing, education, and fundraising departments, as well as negotiating contracts, interpersonal and community relations, and board development. Volpe introduces many case studies in these areas. For example, he relays intriguing stories regarding his dealings with donors Sybil Harrington and Louise Humphrey, two of the Met’s most infamous board members.

Harrington underwrote new productions of Don Carlos, Un Ballo in Maschera, Manon Lescaut, La Traviata, La Boheme, Francesca da Rimini, and a host of other projects (96–102). Humphrey, a onetime president of the Met’s board, was a fine hostess and generous benefactor (109).

Their generosity is the type we hope to The Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society inspire in all board members, donors, and volunteers of arts organizations.

In the area of financial management, Volpe discusses an economically lucrative deal wherein the Met sold two properties that netted $4 million - $2 million in cash and $2 million as a mortgage with an interest rate of 12.5 percent (108, 250–58).

Another excellent financial management and strategic planning case study emerges in Volpe’s retelling of an anecdote about Lincoln Center’s unveiling of a mock-up of a new adornment for a plaza - an eighteen-foot-tall twisted bronze pylon with four clock faces, each emblazoned with the name of the clockmaker, Movado. In return for the right to advertise its name on New York City’s most prestigious cultural site, Movado agreed to pay Lincoln Center $250,000 a year for five years toward the upkeep of the plaza, as well as $750,000 to produce the work. Although Volpe was unsuccessful in preventing the project, he was able to convince Movado and Lincoln Center leaders to move the clock off the plaza into a public park maintained by the city (233–36). But perhaps the most revealing case study Volpe provides is in artistic administration and human resources management, necessary areas that are all too often forgotten in arts administration curricula.

Volpe’s demonstrable managerial instinct has perpetuated his global reputation as the manager who fired Kathleen Battle, Roberto Alagna, and Angela Gheorghiu (132–50, 219–22).

But Volpe also discusses his managerial approach in handling stage directors, whom he calls “The New Prima Donnas” (155). Stating, “One phenomenon none of my predecessors had to contend with was the rise of the prima donna director” (155). One director who particularly challenged Volpe was Elijah Moshinsky.

Volpe explains, “For nine seasons, from the spring of 1994 to the fall of 2001, Elijah Moshinsky was the closest thing the Met had to a house director. . . . For all the success of most of Moshinsky’s productions, he became increasingly difficult to work with” (157). Ultimately, Moshinsky, too, was released from his contract. Yet not all of Volpe’s interactions with opera professionals were difficult. He had excellent relationships with Renee Fleming, Susan Graham, Denyce Graves, Deborah Voigt, and a host of other artists at the Met. Volpe’s managerial style set a precedent that allowed executive-level arts managers to no longer tolerate the prima donnas. The November 2002 issue of Opera News, which surveys professional opera singers’ views on the use of the term prima donna, supports this belief (32–35).

In The Toughest Show on Earth, Volpe combines anecdotes, case studies, historiography, cameos of opera’s most intriguing characters, and straightforwardness to afford a fascinating peek into the career of an executive-level arts manager.

This book is a must-read for arts administration professors considering teaching a course in opera administration and for arts administration students aspiring to have a career in opera administration.

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