07 May 2005

The Emperor Speaks

Words, threats, vendettas; the whole stand-up routine

During the La Clemenza di Tito broadcast Saturday (07 May 2005), the intermission feature was another enlightening edition of Opera News on the Air, facilitated by (gutsy) Robert Marx. This week, it was a discussion of current issues facing the Metropolitan Opera with the Met’s General Manager and Supreme Master Mastercarpenter, Joseph Volpe. Sieglinde has summarized the most important points of the interview, as well as incisive clarifications and probable translations (in case things aren’t clear enough) for everyone’s benefit.

1. MARX (regarding the future of these “really extraordinary” live radio broadcasts from the Met): “How’s it all going?”
VOLPE: “Well, Robert, if you asked me that question two years ago, I would say that the future was not looking particularly bright. It was rather dim as we were running out of gas …”
SIEGLINDE: Yeah. Chevron. Texaco. Gas. We get it. Let's move on.

2. VOLPE: “Of course we started our broadcast campaign, and we have about 85,000 .. no, 8,500 contributors. The numbers start going, you know …”
SIEGLINDE: Usually the second thing to go.

3. VOLPE: “It’s expected that we would reduce our broadcast expenses, which we’re working on and we’ve had some success.”
SIEGLINDE: Aha! This explains “the Divine” Margaret Juntwait.

4. VOLPE: “We will also attempt to reduce the fees that we pay to the company and to singers, and and my hope is that they will be agreeable so that we can continue these broadcasts.”
SIEGLINDE: Read: This is an ultimatum. Either Voigt, Fleming, Mattila, et al. agree to a pay cut, or we’ll have to program more of Valayre, Crider, and Papian for these broadcasts. (Remember, Joe doesn’t mess around with threats. Ask Kathy Battle.)

5. VOLPE: “So my dear friends, I can say that we will have our radio broadcast next year, and I feel quite optimistic that they will continue.”
SIEGLINDE: *Let us all bow low*

6. VOLPE: “Now, long term, (the broadcasts) might also be carried in different forms; I mean, we’re looking and talking to satellite radio people and maybe we’ll have it over the internet. So a lot of things will happen in the long term future but for the short term, I’m pleased to say, that these broadcasts will continue.”
SIEGLINDE: What Joe really meant to say was: “Now, long term, (the broadcasts) might also be carried in different forms; I mean, I’m sick and tired of pirates on opera-sell making money off these “free” radio broadcasts, don’t you think it’s time for the Met cash in? Just look at Howard Stern and Martha Stewart. Satellite is the way to go, baby. And the internet, yeah, bitches! If people pay crazy for porn, well we got lots of the same things going on here every week. F*ck you all, po' folks who can’t afford satellite radio or a computer. We’re going upscale, where opera truly belongs … So a lot of things will happen in the long term future but for the short term, I’m pleased to say, that these free broadcasts will continue, so enjoy it while it lasts, cheap bitches.”

7. MARX (regarding the increased diversity in the current Met repertoire): “Is audience taste changing?”
VOLPE: “I was thinking about this the other day. Rudolf Bing produced Nabucco in 1960-61 season. It performed 10 times. The next time it performed was when we produced a new production in 2001. Forty years later. We’ve performed Nabucco in 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005. We totalled 30 performances. Many of those, and I would say most of those, were sold out or sold very well. Now why did not Nabucco do well in the 60s and it’s doing extremely well now. Is that a matter of changing tastes? I don’t know that it is. I think one is the question of, it’s a very difficult opera to produce vis a vis the principals, so do you have the singers to cast it …”
SIEGLINDE: Right. Bing only had Rysanek. Thank the Good Lord we got the likes of Guleghina, Gruber, and Neves. Sure is better to have ‘em than that old tire Leonie.

8. VOLPE: “If you look at my 16 years, of course including next year, we’ve presented 26 premieres at the Met, of which 4 were world premieres. During the Bing days, he produced 11. Now I’m not suggesting that we’re better than he is, I’m suggesting that times were different.”
SIEGLINDE: Not news: Volpe thinks he’s the best Met general manager ever in the history of ever. News: Volpe would like to now use the royal “we” to refer to himself. (Ooops, I meant themselves.)

9. MARX (regarding the upcoming world premiere of Tobias Picker’s opera An American Tragedy): “Is there a particular pleasure in producing a new opera and taking it from commission to first night?”
VOLPE: “… and today, in the courthouse where the trial was, if you search around for old timers, they’ll even be talking about that trial … And the production team, Francesca Zambello, they spent time there also.”
SIEGLINDE: Oh, Fran Zam, that girl; was she on trial too for another American tragedy??

10. VOLPE: “Of course you have the (*pregnant pause*) pleasure or the problem of dealing with the living composer. And I mentioned earlier that someone said that the best composers are the dead ones, but I’m not gonna attribute that to anyone.”
SIEGLINDE: If there’s any more direct hit than this, Sieglinde don’t know her American from her Tragedy. (Speaking of "hits," I'm told Joe Volpe's middle name is "Soprano.")

11. MARX (trying to either rescue Joe, or, more likely, create a bit more tension): “And what is it really like to have a composer backstage working with you throughout the process.”
VOLPE: “Must I say on the air? (*Liszt Hall erupts in nervous laughter*) No, actually in most cases, it’s really quite wonderful. If you go back to Antony and Cleopatra, when it was being produced, and Franco Zeffirelli was working on the staging, and some on the libretto, and he would say to the composer, well I need more music, I can’t get this army on.”
SIEGLINDE: What Joe really meant to say was: “Must I say on the air? No, actually, in Tobias Picker’s case, I’d rather have the disaster of Zeffirelli’s rendition of Antony and Cleopatra, the immense motherf*cker failure of the opening evening of the new house, than this shit.”

12, MARX: “Anything about those old days that you miss or would like to recreate as you move towards your final season?”
VOLPE: “You mean, besides my energy?”
SIEGLINDE: Usually the first to go. (Thankfully these days we got prescription drugs for “long lasting” help in this department.)

13. VOLPE (regarding those domestic tours): “The tour was a time when you gave performances; you did not rehearse during the day. In a way, it was a respite. In a way it was a vacation, it was a break. …”
SIEGLINDE: Yeah, no rehearsals needed for concerts in Duluth, Detroit, Denver, and the rest of the backwater. What do they know from opera? (Give 'em that Aida, Boheme, Carmen. Vacation time! Wet t-shirt contest with Renée and Debbie! Must not tell Jane.)

14. MARX: “Is it possible to recreate (domestic tours), given the economics of opera today?”
VOLPE: “… quite frankly, it’s my belief that we should try in some way to reconstitute a tour … It would be nice if we could find ways to take the company, even in concert form, not with full sets, to major cities in the country and perform. I think it will be an incredible outreach for the audience.”
SIEGLINDE: Read: the impending demise of your regional and local opera companies. The big apple is coming to your town.

15. MARX (regarding the arrangement between Boston Symphony and Levine): “From the Met’s perspective has the arrangement worked successfully?”
VOLPE: “I think it’s really worked brilliantly. I think I should take some credit for that. (*Laughter*)
SIEGLINDE: Insert favorite joke here. (Too easy. Sieglinde's drawing a blank.)

16. VOLPE: “Knowing Jim, flying to Europe, to Munich, or flying to Vienna to do concerts, the jetlag connected to that, where Jimmy would come back and for 3 or 4 days was completely wiped out because his schedule … I mean, James Levine works night and day no matter where he is …
SIEGLINDE: Joe, is it Jim, Jimmy, or James? (I guess it depends on the topic of conversation, and who’s on top, or who’s chained to the post …) PS. As Sieglinde tells La Scala: Good luck!

17. VOLPE: “… Boston is a perfect location. You can fly up to Boston or take the train, if they’re running, to Boston and in no time have a meeting and come back in the evening.”
MARX: “We’ll definitely contact Amtrak for that.”
SIEGLINDE: Oh my god, it’s true. Stop the presses. Joseph Volpe, soon-to-be retired Met general manager, is running for public office!