Five Books About The Opera Business

Eddie Pensier writes:


The Toughest Show On Earth: My Rise And Reign At the Metropolitan Opera Joseph Volpe and Charles Michener

Volpe was the Met’s General Manager from 1990 to 2006. In retrospect his tenure may have been conservative, but he mostly avoided the labor disputes, censorship and fondness for trashy, trendy productions that have marred the administration of his successor, Peter Gelb. Volpe wasn’t without controversy, though: he presided over two of the most infamous flops in Met history; Graham Vick’s Il Trovatore (a shockingly inept effort from a director with a normally great theatrical imagination); and Robert Wilson’s Lohengrin (say the words “minimalist Wagner” to yourself and you’ll realize how this project may have been ill-advised from the get-go)*. Volpe describes his rise to management from his early days as a carpenter, talks about his infamous firings of Kathleen Battle and Angela Gheorghiu, and gives a well-rounded look at the challenges of running an institution as massive as the Met.


The King and I: The Uncensored Tale of Luciano Pavorotti’s Rise to Fame by his Manager, Friend and Sometime Adversary Herbert Breslin and Anne Midgette

It can’t be denied: Luciano Pavarotti was created by Herbert Breslin. A brusque, canny, perma-tanned fast talker who promoted himself every bit as well as his clients, Breslin was one of the first to meld the professions of classical music manager and publicist. His unerring instinct for talent led him to notice the bumpkinish young Modenese tenor, sign him up, and turn him into the most famous opera singer since Caruso and Callas. Breslin correctly deduced that what would make Pavarotti so beloved was not his voice (magnificent) or his technique (above reproach) or his theatrical skills (negligible): it was something altogether more important, which cannot be taught—the ability to connect and speak to an audience. The book is naturally self-serving but vastly entertaining.


Cinderella and Company: Backstage at the Opera with Cecilia Bartoli Manuela Hoelterhoff

Hoelterhoff, a former Wall Street Journal critic, doesn’t spare the snark in this Bartoli bio combined with general backstage gossip-tome. Worth it merely for her account of the colossal preparations for the Met’s 25th anniverary tribute to James Levine, an eight-hour megaconcert which your humble correspondent was privileged to attend.

molto agitato

Molto Agitato: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera Johanna Fiedler.

A history of the Met, from late 19th century social-climbing nouveau riches to, well, late 20th century social-climbing nouveau riches. The style is only somewhat stilted, but the point of view reads like it was dictated by the Met’s press agent (which Fiedler, in fact was). Some good yarns though, including the grim backstage murder of a violinist in the 1980s, the stormy tenures of Sir Rudolf Bing and John Dexter, and the infamous La Gioconda fiasco of 1982.


Fortissimo: Backstage at the Opera with Sacred Monsters and Young Singers William Murray

Possibly the most fun of the lot, the late Murray weaves rollicking recollections of his own youth as an amateur opera singer with the stories of the twelve young artists entering the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s intensive training program. Auditions, coachings, costume fittings, and rehearsals form part of the narrative, and Murray gives due credit to Chicagoans for their loving support of the organization.

*I should add that while I fully recognize the futility of avant-garde productions such as these presented at a conservative venue like the Met, I personally had less of a problem with them than many other operagoers and critics. The Lohengrin, while obviously not terribly interesting in a visual sense to fit in with its Minimalist values, was still mesmerizing in a very literal way…I found myself almost falling into a trance and being sucked into the musical aspects of the work in ways a “normal” production might not have achieved.
The Trovatore was Vick’s third Met production after his satirical, Pop Art Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and his grimly perverse Moses und Aron. It’s possible that Vick’s sensibilities, including a genuine risk-taking streak all too uncommon in today’s opera directors (not to be confused with the cheaply narcissistic sensationalism displayed by many Europeans), was not suited to one of the most beloved warhorses of the operatic canon. But what the production inspired most was laughter. Truly, Vick played up the inherent comedy of Trovatore better than anyone since the Marx Brothers. Whether this was the wisest tack to take at the Met is certainly debatable. The premiere, which I watched, was a genuinely absurdist theatrical delight. After the public and critical outcry, many of the most ludicrous bits were excised from the staging, which was an error in my view. Vick’s vision was unattractive, but with a weirdly light-hearted sense of the ridiculous. The sanitized production was still unattractive and boring to boot. No wonder it was replaced a few years later.

About Eddie Pensier

Television junkie, opera buff, connoisseur of unhealthy foods, fashion watcher, art lover and admirer of beautiful people of all sexes.
This entry was posted in Books Publishing and Writing, Music and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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