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Performing Art
"There's a lot of arts going on in Sarasota," Joseph Volpe says. "Working in the arts all my life, I was attracted to this area."
Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Jun. 25, 2014 5 years ago

Aria of the American dream

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by: Mallory Gnaegy A&E Editor

At the end of July, contracts between The Metropolitan Opera and The American Guild of Musical Artists (representing singers, stage managers, dancers and chorus members) and The Met’s 15 other unions expire. For the first time in decades, The Met is seeking to cut pay by 16% and cut benefits of its workers. The orchestra has threatened strike.

It’s the first time General Manager Peter Gelb is leading negotiations. In the last round of labor negotiations in 2011, former General Manager Joseph Volpe negotiated contracts. Volpe, a part-time resident of Longboat Key, started work as The Met’s apprentice carpenter in 1964 and rose to general manager by 1990; he retired in 2006.

In fact, in a Jan. 17 article of  The New York Times, Alan S. Gordon, executive director of The Guild, directly correlated the loss of Volpe from the bargaining table to “exponentially increasing the likelihood of a strike.” Volpe’s tenure in management provided more than two decades of labor peace — unprecedented in The Met’s history.

But, instead of negotiating contracts this summer, Volpe is busy getting his furniture transported from New York, figuring out where to store 45 boxes worth of opera and ballet books and getting his new boat from the East Coast to his slip at Sarasota Yacht Club.

“So,” he says in a less pugnacious demeanor than newspapers have labeled him with in the past, “if you read any bad press about it, it’s not me.”

A mechanic’s overture
Before he landed his white-collar job at The Met, Volpe was a blue-collar man living on Long Island, N.Y.
“When I was 17, I was brilliant and I knew everything,” he says and then pauses dramatically and grins widely. “You go through that stage (when you’re a teenager), but that’s when I decided to open an automobile-repair shop.”

When a gas-leak-turned-fire burned the shop and forced it to close, he began working as a stagehand on Broadway in 1961. Volpe dreamed of eventually owning his own scenic shop; then someone told him the best scenery in the world is built at The Met.

Fortunately, the stagehand union was giving an apprentice test. Out of 1,000 applicants, Volpe tested the highest. Because of this, he could select his placement. He became The Met’s apprentice carpenter in 1964. In two years, Volpe was promoted to master carpenter.

Rising to principal role
In 1975, Executive Director Tony Bliss announced a 10% salary cut to help The Met out of bad financial times.

Volpe bluntly told then General Manager Bruce Crawford he wouldn’t take a pay cut. He, instead, explained other ways The Met could save money other than trimming his paycheck. Bliss heeded some of his advice. In three years, Volpe was promoted to technical director.

The Met rose out of its deficit by 1979, but with the prior unstable finances, Bliss opted to change a few things in the contracts. This agitated labor unions. The pinnacle of struggle was the closing of the 1980 fall season. Volpe, as Bliss’ trusted adviser, worked as his negotiator to reopen The Met 11 weeks later.

During those years of struggle, Volpe was responsible for his own budgets and labor relations and was developing the proficiency it would take to one day work at the helm of opera in the U.S.

 And in another three years, he became assistant manager. Each time Volpe was promoted, his degree-wielding colleagues had objections, but his opinionated, gruff and aggressive demeanor won him the titles. Plus, his know-how of the inner operations helped secure his success. He didn’t need a degree — he learned on the job.

“I had been at the center of everything — watching, learning and not keeping my mouth shut,” says Volpe in his autobiography, “The Toughest Show on Earth.”

Crescendo to curtain call
If you ask Volpe to summarize his management in three highlights — he’ll tell you a lot happened in 16 years.  It’s true: During that time, The Met had 26 premieres (including four world premieres) and expanded international touring. In those 16 years, Volpe also  fired famous singer Kathleen Battle, redeveloped the Lincoln Center, instituted a children’s education program, developed subtitle screens for each seat, brought new software to the box office and more.

“The most important highlight was the friendships and relationships I had with everyone,” he says. “That’s where I get the most satisfaction. That bond, to me, is the most important.”

The most memorable night he had was his closing-night gala in 2006 when all 700 of his friends and employees from four decades celebrated Volpe’s tenure. Famed opera singers Anna Netrebko and Mariusz Kwiecien even sang to him (his friend Luciano Pavarotti would have, but he was ill that night).

After 42 years, it was time for his curtain call. And he went out in style — he turned it into a fundraiser to raise $10 million in contributions.

Volpe’s final cadenza
When Pavarotti made his debut in 1968, Volpe was the master carpenter. And, as Volpe tells the story, in 1990 (when Volpe was promoted to general manager), Volpe walked up to Pavarotti on stage and said, “What are you doing next year?” To this, Pavarotti said, “What do you care?” and Volpe said, “Oh, because I’m your new boss.”

Pavarotti told Volpe that only in America could someone hammer his way up from the carpentry shop to the general manager’s office. In Italy, it’s a political appointment.

But Volpe doesn’t see himself as an enigma.

“I think it’s doable today,” he says. “It’s really a question of commitment and belief in if you want to run an opera company, and if you’re aggressive and have a lot of initiative, sure, I think it’s possible.”

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