Video Published: 22 Jun 2022

An Oral History with Joseph Volpe

On March 16th, 2022, arts administrator Joseph Volpe sat down with OPERA America's President/CEO Marc A. Scorca for a conversation about opera and their life.

This interview was originally recorded on March 16th, 2022. 
The Oral History Project is supported by the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation. 

Joseph Volpe, arts administrator

Joseph Volpe, retired General Manager of The Metropolitan Opera and theater and management consultant, was appointed Executive Director of The Sarasota Ballet in February 2016. He spent 42 years working at The Metropolitan Opera rising from apprentice carpenter to General Manager from 1990-2006. In that role Volpe expanded the length of The Met repertory season as well as the number of new productions. He conceived and developed “Met Titles,” an innovative titling system providing multilingual translations of the operas on the backs of each seat, and initiated the development of Tessitura, a management software program for targeted marketing and fundraising appeals, which is now licensed to more than 200 companies worldwide. Volpe is the author of The Toughest Show on Earth, My Rise and Reign at The Metropolitan Opera, published by Random House in 2006.

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Transcript

Marc A. Scorca: Let's get started here and just say, Joe Volpe, thank you so much for spending some time with us this morning.

Joseph Volpe: My pleasure.

Marc A. Scorca: Who brought you to your first opera?

Joseph Volpe: Well, there wasn't a who. What brought me to the first opera actually? Although with my grandmother, I was aware of opera. The first opera that I actually attended or partially attended was in the old Met, (and) was a Turandot with (Brigit) Nilsson and (Franco) Corelli, and the reason was that I was the apprentice in the shop. So I never really went to the opera prior to that. I guess in 1964, I was 24 years old, and so that was the first occasion that I sat and watched an opera. And that was quite an opera to watch.

Marc A. Scorca: Not a bad performance. So your work brought you to The Met. How did you get started at The Met? What brought you into the theater professionally?

Joseph Volpe: I was working on Broadway, and I decided I really enjoyed working with scenery. At that point I had just given up a business I had, so I decided my next venture was gonna be to open up a shop to build scenery. And I was told the best scenery in the world is built at The Metropolitan Opera. So off I went to The Met as an apprentice in '64 and that's how it all started.

Marc A. Scorca: So you were going to start your own scene shop?

Joseph Volpe: That was the plan.

Marc A. Scorca: And is it true that at the time The Met was building the best scenery that could be seen?

Joseph Volpe: I think so. Also considering that it was a repertory house, one really had to consider that every night there was a different show.

Marc A. Scorca: Scenic design has 'progressed'. And let me say, I'll put 'progressed' in air quotes here, because that could be subject to debate. Scenic design has moved so far from the days when you first started at The Met in 1964. What was scenic design like in 1964?

Joseph Volpe: Well, in The Met Brewery, as they called the building years ago, it was a very small stage, no storage space. I mean, I think it was (Giulio) Gatti-Casazza that said he needed a new theater and that goes back many, many years because of the problems of no rehearsal space, no storage space, no office space. I mean, scenery, as you know, was out on the sidewalk because they couldn't fit it into the stage, and in those days it all started with painted drops and then there were built flats with soft-covered wood(?), and then little by little, it progressed to built scenery. And I think, if you consider Franco Zeffirelli's Falstaff, which was in '64, there were buildings. Now, Lucia, which was a very heavy show built in the old Met, to a point where there were certain scenic elements that if they did a matinée, they wouldn't even use it. They just cut the scenery out. "We can't use that, it's a matinée." So little by little, it shifted from painted drops, painted scenery to built scenery. And the built scenery started in the old Met, and then of course, there was the explosion of built scenery when The Met moved to Lincoln Center.

Marc A. Scorca: You've referenced the old Met, and the limitations of backstage. In fact, I remember as a kid seeing scenery out on the sidewalk, leaning against the back wall. But the house is legendary, partially because it was torn down so quickly. What was it like as an audience member? What was the theater like on the inside?

Joseph Volpe: It was a thrill to be there. It was something...and I've seen many theaters in my career now, but the old Met was a very special place. I mean, it really was, and that's why there was great resistance to it being torn down. But the atmosphere, just the smell. You were in a different world when you went into The Met at 39th street.

Marc A. Scorca: I've heard that; I was never inside, but I've heard that about it, and I guess the best equation that I can come up with is how wonderful it is to go to a sold out performance at Carnegie Hall; that you just realize that you are in a very special place with an incredible history and where people are crammed together to enjoy it together. Is that a reasonable analogy as to special feeling?

Joseph Volpe: I think so. I looked at years-back photos. The lobby was small. There were people waiting to get in. Rudolf Bing was out one winter serving coffee...so it was a special place...not for those who originally built it. For them, that was a matter of social display and, you know that old story. And people just eager, eager to get in to see the performance,

Marc A. Scorca: You then made the big move from 39th Street up to Lincoln Center, and I guess it was - for scenic reasons, for backstage, for everybody behind the proscenium - just a transformative experience to move up to the new theater.

Joseph Volpe: Well, if one was to quote Mr. Bing, I think it was a suicidal experience in his mind because of the trouble they had. Now, you have to consider: they plan nine new productions. Four were to open in the first week, Antony and Cleopatra, Gioconda, Traviata and I think it was Frau ohne Schatten. And when the turntable broke down, that of course put everything off. They had to also rethink and reconceive some of the productions, but (it was) transformative. They went from a small theater to a facility they didn't even understand. I mean, Mr. Bing thought that the Madam Butterfly house no longer has to be taken apart every day; (it's) just sent down to storage. Sure. But it didn't fit in the elevator; the big stage elevator. That's why I was so lucky to be there at that time, (being in the right place at the right time, they say) where starting with Antony and Cleopatra, I was given opportunities that - if it all went smoothly and everybody knew exactly how to run the place - maybe we wouldn't be having this conversation, but they didn't. And rehearsals would go on to two o'clock in the morning. See, would you call that transformative? I mean, overtime, the budget was doubled.

Marc A. Scorca: It's budgetarily transformative.

Joseph Volpe: And they never realized that having all of the rehearsal rooms and all the space they wanted (which today is probably is not enough), that it was gonna be very costly, and the staff was not trained to have full-blown rehearsals in C-level stage (the big rehearsal room, which is the size of The Met stage). But once the administration, stagehands, everybody had a better understanding of how to operate in the building: that was really transformative because then they could produce shows. The orchestra had their own rehearsal room. The chorus had their own rehearsal room. There were staging rehearsals downstairs on C level. So all those things made it possible for them to not only be more prepared when they went to the stage, but I think it made for better performances.

Marc A. Scorca: Did it take one year, two years, three years until you sort of figured it out?

Joseph Volpe: I'd say about two or three years.

Marc A. Scorca: How do you react these days? Because, in my college days, I was a backstage tour guide at The Met (when it) was fairly new. And it was by far, the biggest, most sophisticated opera stage. And now you go backstage, whether it is at the Winspear in Dallas, and you see all of that space or the Opéra Bastille in Paris where it has yet more backstages. After all of your decades at The Met, did the great new facilities suddenly seem old-fashioned or small, compared to what's being built today?

Joseph Volpe: Well, if you take probably one of the greatest opera houses in the world in Copenhagen, you could say that The Met is a little outdated at this point, because of the technical equipment, because of the way they really designed... (In Copenhagen), where they can have rehearsals, you don't have to go downstairs to the 'C level', as we called it. Everything can be done 'cause all the space is on one level. That makes it incredibly efficient, where you can have a set offstage, (on which) they can rehearse. And then that same set on a wagon can be brought in. But I think with what's happening today, when you think of painted scenery and then built scenery and now with projections and a new way of presenting opera, it could very well be that the next phase might be different. I'm not sure, but the point is that, maybe, you don't need as it evolved, to be where we were in 1960.

Marc A. Scorca: That's a very interesting point. And yet I'm also aware how often and how quickly the technology changes, so the more you are high tech, the more burdened you are by refreshing that technology, and keeping things current and updated.

Joseph Volpe: And now, the head electrician at The Met, given what happened with the pandemic...everything is so computerized with some productions, and most of those people have gone on, and also people don't wanna work night and day anymore today. I know there's a worldwide problem (or at least a countrywide problem) with hiring and staff, 'cause my son is the head electrician and he has very competent people. College graduates: they'll come, they'll set things up, they'll work opening night, but they don't wanna be there all night long. They have a whole different view of their life today. So that too, it presents a problem.

Marc A. Scorca: It does. And that is certainly an issue with our many festivals, because when the festivals, which also work in rep, and you're rehearsing one opera, performing another opera in a weekend, you perform three or four operas. Those are 20 hour schedules, if not 24 hour schedules, and it's very difficult to staff these days. When you were at The Met in your early decades, the roster of artists was just incredible, and I'm fortunate to have seen many of them: (Birgit) Nilsson, (Leonie) Rysanek, (Jon) Vickers, (Joan) Sutherland, (Leontyne) Price, (Montserrat) Caballé: we could just go on and on and on about what the casts looked like, and I sometimes wonder if it is the rosy glasses of youth that made me think, "Those are real casts". Here, you have this perspective. Were they that special in the '60's and '70's?

Joseph Volpe: Well, it all depends on your memory. When one would say, "Well, I remember when it was done in XYZ, and it was so much better." I don't totally agree with that. If you consider: yes, Nilsson, Sutherland; you can mention names. They were incredible. But if you think (that) in 1968, (Placido) Domingo made his debut; (Luciano) Pavarotti made his debut, and look at the roster of singers there were in The Met, where you had Renée Fleming; you had Debbie Voigt, and I listen to recording(s). I happened to be listening to Andrea Chenier, and it was Richard Tucker. Richard Tucker never sounded better - every time I ever heard him. Of course, when I worked with him, he was getting up in years, but I called his son. I said, "Barry, I just heard your father on the radio, and he was just incredible." It was a Richard Tucker that I didn't know. Of course, some of the others that you mentioned, Caballé, Nilsson, Corelli et cetera. I was aware of those singers, but the singers in my time...Let me stick with Luciano Pavarotti. When you mentioned Franco Corelli, he would bow down, because he said there was nothing like him. And I have an audio of Nilsson and Corelli doing Turandot, and they were quite sensational, but I think today's singers are just as good. You'll find some that - I'm not gonna say they're better, (but) there are plenty of singers today (or in my time) (that are) equal to the Tebaldi's and everyone.

Marc A. Scorca: Speaking of Pavarotti, when you heard him on The Met stage for the first time, did you say to yourself, "This is going to be a headliner," or was he a young tenor and history played out without your suspecting it would?

Joseph Volpe: He made his debut in Bohème, and he had a bad night. He had a cold or whatever. To hear it from him, he should not have sung that first performance. But of course, you knew. Even if he was not well, and I think it was mostly nerves, you knew he was gonna be something. That's all there is to it.

Marc A. Scorca: How fabulous.

Joseph Volpe: Some I've had my problems with. Angela Gheorghiu, who I think had the talent. But she does a recording with (Georg) Solti and she starts telling him how to conduct it. Come on. That you didn't get in the old days. Well, maybe you did? I shouldn't say that. But I remember hearing Jane Eaglen and Ben Heppner, you know? So there were some great, great singers.

Marc A. Scorca: So true, as you go through that roster. Now, you became The Met's general manager after nearly 25 years with the company, and you knew it in the old house, you went through the trauma of moving to the new house. You knew the physical plant and its procedures inside and out, and then you became general manager. As well as you knew the company, were there still surprises for you of what it was like to be the general manager?

Joseph Volpe: Of course. And it was interesting, because Bruce Crawford was the chairman of the executive committee. But Bruce served for about three years as the general manager: very knowledgeable, very smart guy. We were in Japan and I remember he said to me, "What am I doing here?" He says, "Jimmy's doing his thing. You're running the company. What am I doing here besides entertaining our Japanese host?" I said, "Well, that's your job." So, of course he left. But he gave me the opportunity to almost do everything that a general manager would do. But, I never had to deal with the board members. I mean, I would make reports, but board members; dealing with personnel issues probably was the most difficult. Believe it or not, the easiest part for me was dealing with the performers. I found, other than that odd performer...

Marc A. Scorca: You mean the rare performer...

Joseph Volpe: Rare. No: I had a great relationship with them, and a close relationship. I remember when Renée was going through her difficulties, and she was driving up on Broadway, and made a left turn and somebody ran into her car and she called me. I got a car to take her home. I said, "You have too much on your mind. Either you live in New York; stop going to Connecticut, or we have to have a car pick you up because you're preparing or thinking about what you're doing at The Met, and you're not concentrating on other things." And I could do that. I mean, we grew up in a way together. She made her debut in my first year, but by the same token, Mirella Freni talked to me like her brother. She said, "You're my brother." That, I wasn't prepared for, but it was probably one of the best parts of being the general manager, in my case. There are general managers that have no relationship with the performers, but that was not me. But I think board members, and I probably shouldn't say this, but I will. Donors: the more they give, the smarter they get, 'cause the more they give, they know your job, and that to me was the most difficult thing, because how do you handle it? We had a board meeting. We televised Magic Flute and one of the board members said, "Oh, I couldn't hear it; the audio was awful and I couldn't see the picture." So my response was, "Do you still have a black and white TV?" That was not a good thing, but the point is that I was a little outspoken, I guess you might say on certain occasions, but all in all, I think one of the biggest challenges was dealing with Lincoln Center. Herman Krawitz was a mentor of mine. And so I'd ask him his advice about this, about that. And he said, "Lincoln Center, they're a real estate holding company." That was his view. But the point is that, the Lincoln Center renovations was really difficult because I was the spokesman for The Met, but I was meeting with board members from other organizations, and they resented that. "We got the staff here telling us what they think." So there were things like that that were probably the most difficult. In running the theater, I did that anyway, so that worked well.

Marc A. Scorca: Good to hear about how Bruce Crawford had you do so much, so that there was less that was new when you came in as general manager.

Joseph Volpe: Yeah. If I go in to see Bruce in the office, he said to me, "The only time you see me was when there's a problem." I said, "Correct. That's absolutely right."

Marc A. Scorca: It made you the ideal employee. I also note that you were walking in incredible footsteps. Gatti-Casazza is legendary from La scala to The Met and (did) really important work at The Met. Rudolf Bing, another legend in our industry. Did you have role models, and if not a specific person, was there an amalgamation of role model ideas that you had as you were The Met's general manager?

Joseph Volpe: I would say Rudolf Bing was a specific person, because he would mentor me. We were in Atlanta, my first tour with the company in 1967. And his assistant came over at the end of the performance. "Oh, Mr. Volpe, Mr. Bing wishes to see you in the morning at 10 o'clock and he'll meet you in one of the principal dressing rooms." So he discussed just my evaluation, job or whatever, and then he said to me, "Well, how did Franco Corelli behave last night backstage?" I said, "I'm sorry, Mr. Bing, I wasn't paying attention." He said "I'm going to give you a piece of advice: pay attention to everything from now on, because that's what this company is about. And you will learn if you pay attention." So he was giving me advice. Why? I have no idea. He wasn't training me to move up, but he felt to get the most out of me and the most out of the position, that's what I should do. We had Booz Allen Hamilton came in. They did a study with George Moore at First National City Bank, and they found that you didn't need two tellers. You have one teller do this, and then the other...They had great efficiencies. So George Moore had them come to The Met and Rudolf Bing assigned them to me in my department. After about a month or so, I sent him a memo - something to the effect that it's really not working; not really sure what they can accomplish. Bing sent the memo back to me and said, "This is what you really wanna say." And he rewrote it. Then I sent it (back) to him. So about a week later, there's a meeting in George Moore's office, and I was sitting outside, and they were discussing with George Moore, Rudolf Bing and the Booz Allen people. And finally, "Mr. Bing wishes you (to) come in now." So he was explaining how they were doing their efficiency work. And he said (to Moore), "Tell me: in Lucia, the scene change from 31 to 32, what have you calculated is needed as manpower in the carpenter department." And they (Moore) said, "You need 32 men." He (Bing) said, "Mr. Volpe, how many men do you use?" I said "27." He said, "You can leave now." And that was the end of Booz Allen. He was really something.

Marc A. Scorca: Wow. That's just fabulous. So, Mr. Bing as a kind of role model, as you thought about your own position.

Joseph Volpe: The other person greatly respected was Herbert von Karajan, because when we did Karajan's Ring, and I must have spent a month in Salzburg every time they opened one of the operas...just to watch him work, not as a conductor, but just his involvement: upstage, he's up on apparatus to do flying; he's here, he's there. He was really hands on, incredible in a sense. And he also had a way, with what I would call a Bing-ism. One of the players didn't have a suit and tie on and Mr. von Karajan said, "Mr. So-and-so, you were supposed to be wearing (a suit)." "Well, I know, but my suit, I only have one." He says, "You drive a BMW. It's outside. I suggest you sell it and buy some clothes."

Marc A. Scorca: The through-line between Mr. Bing and what you just said about von Karajan is a comprehensive attention to what's going on.

Joseph Volpe: Right. I know that many people did. I mean Ardis Krainik was terrific. I didn't work with Carol Fox that much, but we did have the Association of International Directors of Opera, which was (August) Everding, as you know and Jonas Kaufmann. And I must say I had great respect for all of them. They were really hands-on involved. And so that said something to me.

Marc A. Scorca: One could say the same thing about Kurt Adler: just hands-on involved. Deeply knowledgeable and they paid attention to everything. You know, companies were somewhat simpler in those days - marketing departments and development departments - it was perhaps a little bit easier to have your hands on everything because it was somewhat simpler.

Joseph Volpe: But at the (Sarasota) Ballet today, my desk is loaded with papers, because we have no staff. At The Met, I never had paper on my desk. It would come in. I had Sarah Billinghurst; I had Joe Clark; I had Stewart Pearce and assistant managers: I'd just send (it on to them). They did a tremendous amount of work for me, so it relieved me to have time to do things. Today I don't have any time. I'm working harder now than I did when I worked at The Met, because we don't have anything. I don't have an assistant. I don't have anybody to answer the phone, (do) emails. I have to struggle. I hate it - emails, but I love what I'm doing.

Marc A. Scorca: I understand what you mean. Fewer staff means you just do more. The number of accomplishments during your tenure fill a couple of pages, and I just made a few mentions in my notes about world premieres at The Met; Met premieres; the seatback translations; Tessitura as a system that is ubiquitous across the performing arts. Are there some of those accomplishments (or others I didn't mention) that you are most proud of?

Joseph Volpe: Well, I'm very proud of the seatback translations, but I think I'm proud of what we did with expanding the repertoire. Yes, we had the world premiers, and Met premiers. And I think that was a very positive thing for The Metropolitan Opera, in those days. I'm particularly proud of the relationship I had with singers when they had difficulties, because I can recall many incidences where a soprano was having trouble with a director and stormed off the stage at a rehearsal and say, "I'm not going on; I'm not gonna work with him." And I was able to convince both parties to understand the pressures and issues that the other party was having, and I was very proud of that, and it's always nice to hear from a fabulous singer, "Oh, I love you; you saved my life." It's always nice to save someone's life, so to speak. I think also the staff that I left, whom I thought were very competent, and building the administration, was something that I was quite proud of also.

Marc A. Scorca: Such a transformation of the institution in the years that you lead it - really quite remarkable. But as you mentioned, you've been running a ballet company. Now, I happen to know that Jean, your wife, is a former dancer, and that's one way the door opened for you, but how do you come to be running a ballet company? And then I want to ask you whether it is more similar or more different than an opera company, than you expected?

Joseph Volpe: When I came to Sarasota and I would go to the opera, I was not comfortable going to performances because people would always come up and say, "Compare this, compare that, what about this thing?" So I said to Jean, "I really can't get too involved with the opera." So I met the director of the ballet, and I said that maybe I could join their board, which I did, and then when their managing director left, Iain Webb asked me if I would help them out in 2016, and I became the executive director, and that was quite a few years ago. Now, a lot of problems are similar, particularly fundraising, of course marketing, selling tickets, the staff, although we have a very small staff, but the satisfaction is that you set goals, and I set goals in 2016 and we are very close to achieving all of them. One is an endowment -- we did not have an endowment; a much stronger administrative staff; support for all of the artistic people. So in that respect, it is similar. The problem is in a town like Sarasota, where I don't wanna say they're all snowbirds, but they are snowbirds. So your season is limited in some respect, because people are not here year-round. But as far as the nuts and bolts of whether you present ballet or opera? Yes, there are different challenges, but it all boils down to the same thing: that is to present the best performances you can. So in that way, it's similar.

Marc A. Scorca: And the performances are quieter.

Joseph Volpe: Well, that is true to a certain extent. There's only one good hall in Sarasota. That is the little opera house. (And the) Van Wezel is kind of a strange place. I'm happy they're gonna replace it, but yes, they're quieter, we can say.

Marc A. Scorca: The dancers don't make quite as much noise on stage, at least. And you already mentioned that running a smaller organization...how big is the budget at the ballet?

Joseph Volpe: 8 million dollars.

Marc A. Scorca: Which is a good mid-sized budget for an opera company, but you're struck by, there aren't a whole lot of staff members and the head of the company winds up doing a lot of the lifting.

Joseph Volpe: We were doing an out outdoor performance at Selby Gardens. We set up a stage. It was New Year's Eve. It was by the water. And the next thing, it was so damp that the dancers would slip and fall on the Marley floor. So who goes out to clean the floor? Me and Iain Webb the director. So, we're out there cleaning, but that's just the way it is, and quite frankly, I enjoy it.

Marc A. Scorca: I'm sure that aspiring performing arts administrators seek you out for advice about building their careers, what are the two or three biggest points of advice that you give rising talented managers?

Joseph Volpe: I would give this advice to anyone. Make sure that whatever you're doing, you love to do it, because if you don't love it, and when you're working your way up, if you are not excited in the morning about what you're gonna face when you get to work - and there will always be many problems - if you can't deal with that, then you shouldn't pursue this career. And I tell everybody today, I teach patience. And one of my big donors said, "Where? In the hospital? What patients? You don't have any patients/ce." I said, "I teach it. I don't have to practice it." But you have to learn to be very patient and let things develop. I used to hate the word Tony Bliss would use, "Things have to evolve." I said, "Evolve is not in my vocabulary," because you have to make business decisions, but things evolve and you have to be able to work with that. Also learn as much about what's going on in every aspect of what's being produced, and that will make you feel more comfortable no matter what happens. I guess those are the couple of things.

Marc A. Scorca: Great advice, Thank you.