TWILIGHT OF THE GOD?

New York­er, Octo­ber 3, 1994

NIGHTS AT THE OPERA James Levine has ruled the Met for over a decade. The gen­er­al man­ager, Joseph Volpe, who rose from the car­pen­try shop, may have ambi­tions of his own.
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BY FREDRIC DANNEN

IT had been a bad week for James Levine. First, Levine, the artis­tic direc­tor of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera, came down with the flu dur­ing a vaca­tion in Flori­da, which forced him to can­cel a con­duct­ing engage­ment in Dres­den, and mean­while he got word that his father, in Cincin­nati, was grave­ly ill. And now, on Sat­ur­day, Feb­ru­ary 5, 1994, he was being told over the phone that Kath­leen Bat­tle, a sopra­no from his home state of Ohio, whom he had nur­tured and helped turn into one of opera’s great­est stars, was about to be fired from the Met. The man at the oth­er end of the line was Joseph Volpe, the Met’s gen­er­al man­ager, and he told Levine that he had decid­ed to fire Bat­tle, who is noto­ri­ous­ly dif­fi­cult, large­ly because of com­plaints of her abu­sive­ness toward oth­er cast mem­bers dur­ing rehearsals of Donizetti’s “La Fille du Reg­i­ment,” in which she had the title role. Levine had seen Battle’s bad side, but he had always been able to work with her, and he now won­dered whether Volpe wasn’t going too far. Couldn’t she be got through her five per­for­mances and then, if need be, sim­ply not rehired? “Joe,” he said, at last, “you’re the one sit­ting in that chair. My job is to tell you what I think. I’m telling you.”
     Volpe not only fired Bat­tle that Mon­day, despite a phone call in which she essen­tial­ly plead­ed for one last chance, and despite a vis­it from her man­ager, Ronald Wil­ford, who man­ages Levine as well; he also put out a press release so caus­tic that music crit­ics found it hard to believe that it had come from the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera. In it he said, “Kath­leen Battle’s unpro­fes­sion­al actions… were pro­found­ly detri­men­tal.… I could not allow the qual­i­ty of the per­for­mance to be jeop­ar­dized.” (On learn­ing that she had been fired, the cast of “La Fille” broke into spon­ta­neous applause.)
     The Bat­tle inci­dent under­scored the con­trast in per­son­al­i­ty between Joe Volpe, who is fifty-four, and Jim Levine, who is fifty-one. Volpe is a Brooklyn-born ex-carpenter, tough and deci­sive, who was once sum­moned before a union tri­bunal to explain why he had fired a stage­hand on Christ­mas Eve (because, Volpe said, the man was insub­or­di­nate), and who, when some­one recent­ly called him a “charmer,” object­ed, say­ing, “Don’t ruin my rep­u­ta­tion.” Levine, a for­mer child prodi­gy on the piano, and now an inter­na­tion­al­ly famous con­duc­tor, is known to mil­lions of tele­vi­sion view­ers world­wide through broad­casts of “The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Presents”—a chub­by, good-natured man with a coro­na of frizzy hair and a round, angelic face. Levine (rhymes with “wine”) is a favorite of many singers; opera’s two biggest stars, the tenors Luciano Pavarot­ti and Placido Domin­go, per­form more opera with him than per­haps with any oth­er con­duc­tor.
     While Volpe enjoys the aura of pow­er, Levine acts uncom­fort­able when any­one refers to the pow­er he pos­sess­es. “I’m not an admin­is­tra­tor or a politi­cian,” he says. “I am an artist. But, you see, Ronald”—Wilford, his manager—”said some­thing inter­est­ing to me a few years ago. He said, ‘Do you have any idea how many peo­ple think of you as the sun com­ing up every day? And if you are irri­tat­ed, or you are dis­turbed, they go into a real tizz.’ Well, I’ve seen that. I see that if I tap the table some peo­ple react as if I’d used a base­ball bat.”
     In fact, Levine’s pow­er at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera has long been enor­mous. He is approach­ing a quar­ter cen­tu­ry there, hav­ing made his debut in 1971, con­duct­ing Puccini’s “Tosca” at the invi­ta­tion of the gen­er­al man­ager, Sir Rudolf Bing, who retired from the Met a year lat­er. Levine was appoint­ed prin­ci­pal con­duc­tor in 1973, music direc­tor in 1975, and artis­tic direc­tor in 1986, but those titles do not begin to con­vey the extent to which he filled the pow­er vac­u­um cre­at­ed by Bing’s departure—and, indeed, has made the house a reflec­tion of his per­son­al taste. Like Bing, Levine has been able to dic­tate the reper­toire, the cast­ing, and the hir­ing of con­duc­tors, stage direc­tors, and design­ers; and, in addi­tion, he has shaped the Met from the podi­um, con­duct­ing around a quar­ter of each season’s more than two hun­dred per­for­mances. Since its found­ing, in 1883, the Met has wit­nessed noth­ing like James Levine; prob­a­bly the near­est equiv­a­lent was his idol, Arturo Toscanini, but Toscanini’s reign at the opera house last­ed a mere sev­en seasons—from 1908 to 1915. Levine has seen four gen­er­al man­agers come and go since Bing retired (not count­ing one who died in a car crash just after tak­ing office). The job has been dif­fi­cult to fill, because Levine’s artis­tic con­trol has made it seem too lim­it­ed.
     Volpe is not eas­i­ly con­fined, how­ev­er. He has been at the Met even longer than Levine—a full thir­ty years. Big and stocky, with a rich bari­tone voice and a trim beard, Volpe joined the opera com­pa­ny as an appren­tice in the car­pen­try shop at the old Met—the one-square-block house, near the the­atre dis­trict, that was razed after the company’s move, in 1966, to Lin­coln Cen­ter. He advanced steadi­ly, to tech­ni­cal direc­tor and labor nego­tia­tor, but he was passed over once for gen­er­al manager—because, he believes, some mem­bers of the Met board found him too head­strong. When the top post became open again, in August, 1990, Volpe was appoint­ed to it but was ini­tial­ly given less author­i­ty than his predecessor—an indi­ca­tion that the board remained wary of him. He has been huge­ly effec­tive, and his pro­ba­tion is over. “Every mem­ber of the board today gives me a pat on the back, say­ing, ‘I knew you could do it, Joe,’“ he says, amused. Though Volpe plays down the sig­nif­i­cance of his very pub­lic fir­ing of Kath­leen Bat­tle, it has been inter­pret­ed as a demon­stra­tion of strength. The odd pair­ing of Volpe and Levine has been likened by one Met exec­u­tive to “a street­wise tab­by try­ing to work with a high­ly bred Per­sian,” and no one is quite sure just yet how well the com­bi­na­tion will work.

 

THE Met begins its new sea­son this week, with Levine con­duct­ing Puccini’s “Il Tabar­ro” and Leoncavallo’s “Pagli­ac­ci” at the opening-night gala. For most of the year, and espe­cial­ly dur­ing the Met sea­son, Levine main­tains such a back­break­ing rehearsal and per­for­mance sched­ule that access to him is all but impos­si­ble. Ear­ly this sum­mer, how­ev­er, as he pre­pared to con­duct the four-opera “Ring” cycle at the Wag­n­er fes­ti­val in Bayreuth, he agreed to a series of inter­views, to be held at his hotel in near­by Peg­nitz. Each after­noon, he came down­stairs in his stan­dard attire—a polo shirt, dark poly­ester pants, and scuffed brown desert boots—with a terry-cloth bath tow­el draped over his left shoul­der, to mop up per­spi­ra­tion. (Levine, who is five feet ten and weighs more than two hun­dred pounds, gets so drenched dur­ing a per­for­mance that he changes all his clothes between acts, from his black tie down to his under­wear.)
     Levine is remark­ably artic­u­late but is pos­sessed of such a busy mind that he almost nev­er answers a ques­tion direct­ly; a con­ver­sa­tion with him is more like a sym­po­sium on Music and Art and Lit­er­a­ture. Yet, unlike Leonard Bern­stein, whom Tom Wolfe dubbed “the Vil­lage Explain­er,” there is noth­ing pedan­tic about Levine. Sprawled com­fort­ably in a chair, with his feet up, he drinks Evian, talks rapid­ly, and laughs eas­i­ly, com­ing across as very lik­able.
     Levine had checked into the hotel with his younger broth­er, Tom, and lat­er they shared a rent­ed house near­er the Fest­spiel­haus in Bayreuth. Tom is the per­son clos­est to Levine, apart from Suzan­ne Thom­son, an oboist, who has lived with the con­duc­tor since 1971, and per­forms the chores of a house­wife, a sec­re­tary, and a music researcher, and is paid a salary; and Jonathan Friend, a thirty-nine-year-old Eng­lish­man who is the Met’s artis­tic admin­is­tra­tor. Tom is employed by Levine as well, and his job is a demand­ing one—it ranges from over­see­ing Levine’s finances and help­ing to coor­di­nate his tour dates to look­ing after his per­for­mance clothes—but it leaves Tom time to pur­sue his art. (He is a tal­ent­ed painter and print­mak­er whose work has been exhib­it­ed most­ly in Ger­many.) Tom’s praise for his broth­er is rap­tur­ous: “He’s always opti­mistic and enthu­si­as­tic, and he has the most incred­i­ble ener­gy of any per­son I’ve ever known,” he says.
     Levine’s ener­gy is unde­ni­able. He can get by on as lit­tle as four hours’ sleep, he says, because the music stim­u­lates him end­less­ly. (Last sea­son, he con­duct­ed Berlioz’s five-hour “Les Troyens” on a Thurs­day night and, two days lat­er, a mati­nee of Verdi’s “I Lom­bardi” and an evening per­for­mance of Strauss’s “Elektra”—a hat trick that few would dare to imi­tate.) There is no deny­ing his con­stant cheer­ful­ness, either; and, unlike one of his men­tors, the con­duc­tor George Szell, he is unfail­ing­ly pleas­ant with his musi­cians. “There’s a big psy­cho­log­i­cal com­po­nent to con­duct­ing,” he says. “Let’s face it. It isn’t sim­ply a ques­tion of telling peo­ple what you want them to do. Some of them respond to you because they respect you. And oth­ers respond because they love you.”
     To hear Levine tell it, how­ev­er, he was not by nature cut out to direct a huge orches­tra and cho­rus, let alone provide the artis­tic lead­er­ship for an insti­tu­tion the size of the Met. “I’m shy, and very, very hap­py by myself,” he says. “But I fell in love with the music of ensemble—operas, ora­to­rios, sym­phon­ic music—and, real­iz­ing I had a tal­ent for absorbing and com­mu­ni­cat­ing that music, I went with it. I didn’t fight it. But if my tal­ents had made me a poet, a painter, or a com­poser, which are careers that I could have pur­sued more or less alone—well, that would have been very close to my nature.”
     Levine may be shy, but he is also a man of supre­me self-confidence. In May, Levine and the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Orches­tra and Cho­rus were invit­ed to Frank­furt, as the star attrac­tion in the city’s twelve-hundredth-anniversary cel­e­bra­tion. There was con­sid­er­able argu­ment in Frank­furt over whether a Ger­man city ought to be spend­ing so much mon­ey on Amer­i­can musi­cians, and Levine knew it. Unper­turbed, he put on four con­certs of which three con­sist­ed only of dif­fi­cult Ger­man repertoire—Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde,” Wagner’s “Der Fliegen­de Hol­lan­der,” and excerpts from the “Ring.” He was a sen­sa­tion.
     Among singers—at least, those singers who are Met perennials—there may be no more pop­u­lar con­duc­tor than Levine. He works reg­u­lar­ly with a large group of audi­ence favorites, who, in addi­tion to Pavarot­ti and Domin­go, include Hilde­gard Behrens, Renee Flem­ing, Aprile Mil­lo, Jessye Nor­man, Dawn Upshaw, Vladimir Cher­nov, Thomas Hamp­son, James Mor­ris, and Sher­rill Mil­nes. He is said to be a superb vocal coach; per­haps one rea­son the Met is among the very few opera hous­es at which Pavarot­ti still sings is that he is a noto­ri­ous­ly slow study, and Levine patient­ly coach­es him through his parts (as he will need to do before Pavarot­ti sings his first live per­for­mance of Giordano’s “Andrea Che­nier,” at the Met next sea­son).
     Levine devotes an extra­or­di­nary amount of time to the Met and does rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle guest con­duct­ing. As a con­se­quence, he has been able to devel­op the Met orches­tra from a medioc­re pit band into a world-class ensem­ble. (For two decades, he led the Chicago Sym­pho­ny every sum­mer at the Ravinia Fes­ti­val, but he gave that up this year, in part to spend more time tour­ing and record­ing with the Met orches­tra.) Levine is such a fix­ture in New York that some peo­ple think the crit­ics take him for grant­ed. His con­duct­ing gen­er­al­ly gets good, though sel­dom exu­ber­ant, reviews, and crit­ics occa­sion­al­ly com­plain about his tem­pos. Yet many crit­ics, when they are pressed to name the best all-around con­duc­tor of opera now liv­ing, con­cede that it is prob­a­bly Levine.
     He some­times gets bad, and even nasty, reviews for his artis­tic stew­ard­ship of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera, how­ev­er. As far back as 1980, the music crit­ic and Met his­to­ri­an Irv­ing Kolod­in wrote a cov­er sto­ry for the now defunct Sat­ur­day Review enti­tled “Is James Levine Wreck­ing the Met?” Kolod­in com­plained that Levine, then only thirty-seven, had “neglect­ed, alien­at­ed, or mis­used” some of the best singers of the day, and that he had a habit of fill­ing lead­ing roles with singers well past their prime—such as the sopra­no Renata Scot­to, whom, when she was in her mid-forties, Levine had cast as the teen-age vir­gin Manon Lescaut. Kolod­in also not­ed that oth­er big-name con­duc­tors rarely appeared at the Met, as they fre­quent­ly had done in pre-Levine days, and accused him of hog­ging the podi­um. The­se charges have since been echoed by oth­ers, to sup­port the the­sis that the Met has declined in qual­i­ty since Levine took over.
     Levine is impa­tient with the crit­i­cism; it is one of the few sub­jects that can punc­ture his equa­nim­i­ty. “I don’t want to sound petty—it’s not my per­son­al­i­ty,” he says. “But there is an ele­ment that doesn’t under­stand what the Met’s achieve­ments are. I think we’ve improved the Met a great deal, and con­tin­ue to do so. I don’t mean I’m break­ing my arm pat­ting myself on the back. But I believe we have a con­sis­tent­ly higher-quality result than you will find else­where. There is a ten­den­cy nowadays—don’t ask me why—for a lot of crit­i­cism to be sar­don­ic, cyn­i­cal, reduc­tive, arro­gant, beside the point, sort of strange. And I think it is symp­to­matic of the cur­rent state of our culture—this mania in Amer­i­ca the­se days for piss­ing on every­thing, which is some­thing I just don’t under­stand. I think life is too short and too good.”
     One of Levine’s great accom­plish­ments, his sup­port­ers say, is the high lev­el of musi­cian­ship at the opera house. The Met has a longer sea­son (up to thirty-two weeks), dur­ing which it per­forms more dif­fer­ent operas (as many as twenty-six), than any com­pa­ra­ble com­pa­ny in the world. Alec Treuhaft, the for­mer artis­tic admin­is­tra­tor of the Nether­lands Opera, who is now an exec­u­tive at BMG Clas­sics, says, “The musi­cians play like clock­work. For my mon­ey, the Met has the best opera orches­tra in the world. The cho­rus is the best. The prepa­ra­tion of singers in small roles is the best. That kind of con­sis­ten­cy is remark­able, and it can be laid at Jim’s feet.”
     It can also be argued that the Met’s most pro­found artis­tic prob­lem is beyond Levine’s con­trol: the sheer size of the the­atre. The house at Lin­coln Cen­ter has thirty-eight hun­dred seats and one of the largest stages in the Unit­ed States. It is vir­tu­al­ly too big to accom­mo­date operas such as Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tut­te” and “La Clemen­za di Tito,” and even Rossini’s “Il Bar­bi­ere di Siviglia.” Iron­i­cal­ly, the­se are operas that can be bet­ter cast today than in Bing’s time, while the oppo­site is true of the larger-scale Wag­n­er, Verdi, and Puc­cini works, around which the new house was designed. Dur­ing Bing’s last sea­son at the old Met, in 1965–66, he pre­sent­ed four dif­fer­ent Toscas—Renata Tebaldi, Bir­git Nilsson, Dorothy Kirsten, and Regine Crespin. Now Tosca is a dif­fi­cult role to cast at all.
     Even with­in the field of obvi­ous choic­es for cer­tain roles, the Met, for all its glo­ry, can­not always get the singer it wants. “Peo­ple assume that you only have to ask,” Levine says. The fact is that most top singers can make more mon­ey in Europe, where the the­atres are closer togeth­er and the fees run high­er. The Met’s top fee is thir­teen thou­sand dol­lars a per­for­mance, with no excep­tions, while the fees at La Scala, for exam­ple, are said to climb as high as thir­ty thou­sand dol­lars.
     Despite all this, the dis­con­tent over Levine’s cast­ing is not lim­it­ed to a few crit­ics. Bruce Craw­ford, who used to be the Met’s gen­er­al man­ager and is now pres­i­dent of the board, has main­tained a run­ning debate with Levine over whether the active ros­ter is in fact too old. “Jim­my knows I’m always push­ing for the younger side,” Craw­ford says. He admits that Levine has usu­al­ly been right in reject­ing the younger singers he occa­sion­al­ly rec­om­mend­ed (“They would crash and burn some­where,” Levine says), but he still thinks that Levine has favored too many singers who have “over­stayed their time,” and says he has “spent some anguished nights at the Met” as a result. Until a few years ago, Levine con­tin­ued to use Fioren­za Cos­sot­to, the last of a gen­er­a­tion of great Ital­ian mezzo-sopranos, though her voice had large­ly given out. Levine is unre­pen­tant, say­ing, “There comes a moment in a cast­ing deci­sion when you have a singer who is aging but who brings an aging ver­sion of all the right qual­i­ties, and your alter­na­tive is a fresh per­son but a per­son of no par­tic­u­lar artis­tic indi­vid­u­al­i­ty.”
     It is also prob­a­bly true that the Met’s resources are heav­i­ly skewed toward Levine’s projects, and the least char­i­ta­ble view is that he hoards for him­self the choice casts and pro­duc­tions. A decade ago, Erich Leins­dorf refused to con­duct Strauss’s “Ara­bel­la,” because he was unable to get a tele­cast. (Levine has con­duct­ed about eighty per cent of the Met’s tele­vi­sion broad­casts.) Apart from Car­los Kleiber, Sei­ji Oza­wa, Leonard Slatk­in, and a few oth­ers, big-name guest con­duc­tors have large­ly avoid­ed Levine’s Met. Craw­ford says, how­ev­er, that the short­age is not Levine’s fault. The real prob­lem, he says, is that fre­quent­ly the top con­duc­tors want to do new pro­duc­tions, and not revivals, but they are unwill­ing to com­mit the amount of time that new pro­duc­tions require.
     Anoth­er thing that Levine has been crit­i­cized for is not mak­ing the reper­toire more diverse and adven­tur­ous. Levine responds that while he is “a ban­quet per­son,” who likes vari­ety, he is also a believ­er in depth over breadth. (Between the Met and Bayreuth, he has con­duct­ed Wagner’s “Par­si­fal” about a hun­dred times.) It is also an eco­nom­ic real­i­ty that famil­iar reper­toire plays bet­ter at the box office. Favorites like Puccini’s “Madama But­ter­fly,” which is being given twen­ty times this sea­son, in a new pro­duc­tion, reg­u­lar­ly sell out the house, and would prob­a­bly be done even more often were it not for the fear of bor­ing sub­scribers. As it hap­pens, the Met is also pre­sent­ing three con­tem­po­rary works this sea­son, one more than usu­al: the Met pre­miere of Shostakovich’s “Lady Mac­beth of Mtsen­sk,” and revivals of Britten’s “Peter Grimes” and John Corigliano’s “The Ghosts of Ver­sailles,” an opera com­mis­sioned by the Met and given its world pre­miere there in 1991. Levine will con­duct Berg’s “Wozzeck” next sea­son and, he hopes, again in 1997.
     The Met under Levine has sim­i­lar­ly been accused of being too tra­di­tion­al in stage design and direc­tion. Otto Schenk’s pro­duc­tion of the “Ring,” for exam­ple, struck some review­ers as sur­pris­ing­ly literal-minded. Levine acknowl­edges that “there is a world­wide cri­sis in how opera should look,” but he has con­clud­ed that the increas­ing­ly pop­u­lar “anal­o­gy” approach, tak­en per­haps to its extreme by the direc­tor Peter Sel­l­ars, “has large­ly been a flop” and is not well suit­ed to the Met. Levine says that he saw Sel­l­ars’ pro­duc­tion of Wagner’s “Tannhauser” at Chicago’s Lyric Opera—in which the title char­ac­ter was pre­sent­ed as a TV evan­ge­list and Venus as a hooker—and “had a ter­ri­ble time.” He says, “If I’d hap­pened to be the direc­tor of a small avant-garde fes­ti­val, I’d have been very hap­py. But the Met is the Met. It is a kind of tem­ple. And if you turn it into a place where peo­ple can­not wor­ship the art form, they won’t thank you.”

 

LEVINE could have eas­i­ly avoid­ed the respon­si­bil­i­ty of shap­ing a giant opera com­pa­ny if he had not strayed from his first musi­cal dis­ci­pline, the piano. At the age of ten, he per­formed Mendelssohn’s Sec­ond Piano Con­cer­to with the Cincin­nati Sym­pho­ny. As a present, the con­duc­tor gave Levine the score to Verdi’s “Aida,” and Levine’s father took him to the old Met. The boy was hooked. “The day we land­ed in New York, I had the fun­ny meta­phys­i­cal sen­sa­tion that I lived here,” Levine says.
     He was born in Cincin­nati on June 23, 1943, to par­ents who had both aban­doned the enter­tain­ment field after ear­ly suc­cess­es. In the thir­ties, Lawrence Levine was a pop singer and band­lead­er, whose Lar­ry Lee & His Orches­tra was broad­cast on the radio night­ly from the Bev­er­ly Wilshire Hotel. He returned to Cincin­nati in 1940 to join the fam­i­ly dress­mak­ing busi­ness as a sales­man, and mar­ried a for­mer actress, Helen Gold­stein, who, as Helen Gold­en, had once tak­en over the lead in the Broad­way play “Hav­ing Won­der­ful Time.”
     “My father told me I could sing before I could talk,” Levine says. As a child, he had a ter­ri­ble stam­mer, and his par­ents gave him piano lessons, on the advice of a pedi­a­tri­cian who believed that play­ing the piano would cure his imped­i­ment. The stam­mer soon dis­ap­peared. His pro­gress on the piano was so rapid that by the time he was in third grade the school offi­cials in the Cincin­nati sub­urb of North Avon­dale, where Levine grew up, gave him per­mis­sion to go home ear­ly every day so that he could prac­tice. Tom Levine says that he and their younger sis­ter, Janet (who is a psy­chother­a­pist in Mass­a­chu­setts), saw Jim­my most­ly at din­ner. Music had become his life. Levine recalls that the first time he heard Bach’s “St. Matthew Pas­sion” he “walked around like a zom­bie for a week.”
     When Levine was ten, his par­ents hired Wal­ter Lev­in, the first vio­lin­ist of the LaSalle Quar­tet, to super­vise his musi­cal edu­ca­tion. Lev­in found the boy to be gift­ed but also rather cocky and undis­ci­plined, and once threw him out of his house for com­ing to a lesson unpre­pared. After three years of study, Lev­in rec­om­mend­ed his pupil to the pianist Rudolf Serk­in, and in 1956 Serk­in invit­ed Levine to study at the Marl­boro Music Fes­ti­val, in Ver­mont. Levine says that Serk­in and Lev­in taught him “that tal­ent and flu­en­cy are dangerous—that if your per­son­al­i­ty is as pos­i­tive as mine was, and you’re very tal­ent­ed, you may be short with your­self on the dis­ci­plines.” After Marl­boro, he became a reg­u­lar at the sum­mer Aspen Fes­ti­val for thir­teen years. By the time Levine, at eigh­teen, enrolled at Juil­liard, where he was to car­ry a dou­ble major in piano and con­duct­ing, he had attained post­grad­u­ate lev­el. He dropped out in his third year and moved to Cleve­land when George Szell, the con­duc­tor of the Cleve­land Orches­tra, offered him the job of appren­tice con­duc­tor. He remained with the Cleve­land for six years, until Szell’s death, in 1970.
     By then, Levine had firm­ly cho­sen con­duct­ing over the piano, but he has kept up his facil­i­ty at the key­board, and he fre­quent­ly accom­pa­nies singers in concert—a prac­tice he began as a teen-ager. Back in 1962, he had played a recital tour with the bari­tone Cor­nell Mac­Neil, and while they were on the road Levine asked Mac­Neil ques­tions about how to devel­op his career. Mac­Neil told him, “You ought to ask Ronald.” MacNeil’s man­ager, Ronald Wil­ford, was then an asso­ciate at Columbia Artists Man­age­ment, Inc.—CAMI—and was to become its pres­i­dent, a posi­tion he still holds. Wil­ford, whom Levine calls “one of the most phe­nom­e­nal human beings I know,” has played a key role in Levine’s career and, as a con­se­quence, in the mod­ern his­to­ry of the Met. At sixty-six, Wil­ford is acknowl­edged to be the most pow­er­ful man in clas­si­cal music. CAMI man­ages more than nine­ty con­duc­tors in addi­tion to Levine, among them Clau­dio Abbado, Sir Col­in Davis, Kurt Masur, Ric­car­do Muti, Sei­ji Oza­wa, Andre Previn, and Klaus Tennst­edt. CAMI’s list of vocal­ists takes up two pages of small type in Musi­cal Amer­i­ca; its list of instru­men­tal­ists is also exten­sive. Wilford’s fam­i­ly holds more than fifty per cent of CAMI’s stock, and he is mar­ried to the for­mer Sara Delano Roo­sevelt.
     Wil­ford, who nev­er stud­ied music, grew up in Salt Lake City, the sec­ond of sev­en chil­dren of a Greek immi­grant who owned a main­te­nance com­pa­ny. After get­ting a start by book­ing a high-school tour for the Utah pianist Grant Johan­nesen, Wil­ford moved to New York to form what turned out to be an ill-fated part­ner­ship with Johannesen’s man­ager, and then opened his own com­pa­ny, Ronald A. Wil­ford Asso­ciates, though he had no asso­ciates and no clients. “I lived in a cold-water flat,” he recalls. “I would cash a check for five dol­lars on Fri­day, and it would bounce on Tues­day.” By 1958, the year he joined CAMI, Wil­ford had brought to Amer­i­ca the French mime Marcel Marceau and was man­ag­ing a num­ber of classical-music per­form­ers. In the mid-sixties, he took over CAMI’s con­duct­ing divi­sion. He revamped its Euro­pean roster—he helped make Her­bert von Kara­jan one of the most revered and best-remunerated con­duc­tors in the world—and turned the divi­sion into a pow­er­house.
     Levine was nine­teen when, at the end of his tour with Mac­Neil, he made an appoint­ment to see Ron Wil­ford. “I remem­ber he asked me one of the most intel­li­gent ques­tions I have ever been asked,” Wil­ford says. “He said, ‘Assum­ing I have a cer­tain amount of tal­ent and dis­ci­pline, is there any­thing that I don’t know about that could pre­vent me from hav­ing a life in music?’ And I remem­ber my answer: ‘Absolute­ly noth­ing.’“ Levine want­ed Wil­ford to man­age him, but Wil­ford said it was too ear­ly. “He kept com­ing in,” Wil­ford recalls. “ ‘Now?’ ‘No, no, keep going—get as much reper­toire under your belt as you can. Wait until you’re around twenty-seven. Given your tal­ent, when you do start your career it will go like a rock­et, and the ride will be very fast.’”
     Wil­ford was almost exact­ly on tar­get: Levine was just shy of twenty-eight when Rudolf Bing need­ed a con­duc­tor for two per­for­mances of “Tosca” dur­ing the Met’s 1971 post-season fes­ti­val. When Wil­ford pro­posed Levine, Bing was a bit dubious—he had nev­er heard of the young man—but he was will­ing to gam­ble, since Levine had con­duct­ed “Tosca” the pre­vi­ous year at the San Fran­cis­co Opera. Yet, when Wil­ford called to relay Bing’s offer, Levine says, “my impulse was to turn it down.” Levine did not have any spe­cial fond­ness for “Tosca”—”I had fan­ta­sized a Met debut with ‘Don Gio­van­ni’ or ‘Otel­lo,’“ he says—and he would have only two orches­tra rehearsals. “Well, Ronald was very can­did, as he always is,” Levine recalled. “I had done a whole num­ber with him about ‘What’s wrong with the Met?’ And he said, ‘If you can demon­strate to the Met man­age­ment the qual­i­ty of your com­mit­ment and musi­cal­i­ty, that’ll be your best chance to get in there and change the sys­tem.’ I have to con­fess, that sound­ed slight­ly pre­pos­ter­ous to me, and I agreed to con­duct ‘Tosca’ almost on a dare. And a fas­ci­nat­ing thing happened—I was imme­di­ate­ly asked to become prin­ci­pal con­duc­tor.”

 

LEVINE’s appoint­ment did not become offi­cial until 1973. In the mean­time, the board had replaced Bing with Goer­an Gen­tele, of the Roy­al Opera of Stock­holm, a for­mer the­atre direc­tor and film­mak­er, and had appoint­ed Rafael Kube­lik, the Czech-born con­duc­tor, the first music direc­tor in the Met’s his­to­ry. In July, 1972, after only a few weeks in office, Gen­tele was killed in a car acci­dent in Sar­dinia, and in Feb­ru­ary, 1974, Kube­lik quit, hav­ing found the job not to his lik­ing. Gentele’s assis­tant, Schuyler Chap­in, who was a music-business vet­er­an and had worked close­ly with Leonard Bern­stein, remained as act­ing and then actu­al gen­er­al man­ager; he was the last ever to have both admin­is­tra­tive and artis­tic respon­si­bil­i­ties.
     Chap­in, who today is com­mis­sion­er of cul­tur­al affairs for New York City, was des­tined not to last long. “About a week after I was appoint­ed act­ing gen­er­al man­ager, the comp­trol­ler came to see me with some charts,” he recalls. “There was a black hor­i­zon­tal line show­ing an accu­mu­lat­ed deficit approach­ing the two-million mark, and a big red ‘X’ at March of 1973. He said, ‘This is when we go broke.’“ Chap­in nev­er had the con­fi­dence of the board, and its pres­i­dent, George Moore, was report­ed to have bad-mouthed him in pub­lic. When the board brought in Antho­ny Bliss, a Wall Street lawyer and for­mer Met pres­i­dent, as exec­u­tive direc­tor, to help cope with the fis­cal cri­sis, Chap­in knew that his days were num­bered. He blames Ronald Wil­ford for has­ten­ing his down­fall. “Wil­ford told George Moore, ‘If you want to save the Met, get rid of Schuyler Chap­in,’“ he says. “Mr. Wil­ford and I didn’t speak for ten years.” (Wil­ford acknowl­edges that a board member—not Moore—asked his opin­ion of Chap­in but says, “I can’t take cred­it for Schuyler leav­ing the Met—though I might like to.”)
     By July, 1975, Chap­in was out and Bliss had tak­en his place. Bliss made no pre­tense of hav­ing musi­cal exper­tise or a cre­ative vision for the Met; instead, he devot­ed most of his atten­tion to the Met’s finan­cial cri­sis, which con­tin­ued to wors­en. Mean­while, Wil­ford had nego­ti­at­ed a new con­tract for Levine, mak­ing him music direc­tor. The Met was now being run by a troika, con­sist­ing of Bliss, Levine, and John Dex­ter, an Eng­lish stage direc­tor, who had just won a Tony for the Broad­way pro­duc­tion of “Equ­us.” Dex­ter was par­tic­u­lar­ly inspired by twentieth-century oper­at­ic reper­toire, and his pro­duc­tions of Poulenc’s “Dia­logues des Carmelites,” Berg’s “Lulu,” and Britten’s “Bil­ly Budd” in the sev­en­ties are still ranked among the Met’s tri­umphs of the past quar­ter cen­tu­ry. But by the eight­ies his health had begun to dete­ri­o­rate, and so had his rela­tion­ship with the Met. In 1981, he was demot­ed to pro­duc­tion advis­er, and three years lat­er he was forced out. Dex­ter, who died in 1990, was a testy and dif­fi­cult man; even Levine, who rarely speaks ill of any­one, remem­bers him with mixed emo­tions. “His best work was real­ly bril­liant, but in many respects he stood in the way of pro­gress more than he helped us,” Levine says. “And when he became ill I don’t think he could tell his friends from his ene­mies any­more.”
     In 1983, with Dex­ter on his way out and Bliss near­ing retire­ment, Levine demand­ed, and got, a con­tract nam­ing him artis­tic direc­tor, to take effect in 1986. The title was a mere for­mal­i­ty; Levine had been mak­ing all the key cre­ative deci­sions for sev­er­al years. Bliss stepped down in 1985, at the age of seventy-two. (He died in 1991.) A year ear­lier, the board had turned to its new­ly elect­ed pres­i­dent, Bruce Craw­ford, for help in locat­ing some­one to replace Bliss. Craw­ford, an impres­sive man, with a full head of white hair and a slight Brah­min accent—he is from Massachusetts—had made his mark in adver­tis­ing, and was at that time the pres­i­dent and chief exec­u­tive offi­cer of B.B.D.O. Inter­na­tion­al, but his layman’s knowl­edge of opera was excel­lent. Offered the post of gen­er­al man­ager him­self, he had turned it down, but he was find­ing it dif­fi­cult to fill, because of what he calls Levine’s “tow­er­ing artis­tic pres­ence.” As the search dragged on, Craw­ford changed his mind, and decid­ed he would take the job after all. He did so on Jan­u­ary 1, 1986.
     His rela­tion­ship with Levine was a com­pli­cat­ed one. “I like Jim, and we’ve had an awful lot of laughs togeth­er,” Craw­ford says. “But he’s an unusu­al cat. He’s very intel­li­gent and artic­u­late, but not what I would call direct. He doesn’t like confrontation—you don’t get into heat­ed argu­ments with Jim—although you can see the dis­plea­sure he’s expe­ri­enc­ing when you say some­thing with which he is in com­plete dis­agree­ment. We made a great effort to accom­mo­date one anoth­er, and it worked rea­son­ably well. Some­times, though, I wished it had been a bit sim­pler.”
     One thing that Levine could not dis­agree with Craw­ford about, how­ev­er, was that the more inno­v­a­tive and less lav­ish pro­duc­tions of the pre­vi­ous admin­is­tra­tion had large­ly failed at the box office. By 1984, the Met’s deficit had climbed to a record eight mil­lion dol­lars. (Bliss had unwise­ly put his empha­sis on gov­ern­ment sub­si­dies, which today cov­er less than one per cent of the Met’s oper­at­ing expens­es.) While Craw­ford over­saw improve­ments in the Met’s fund-raising, Levine restored a lot of the con­ser­v­a­tive grandeur of ear­lier years, and by the late eight­ies the deficit had been trans­formed into a small sur­plus. Craw­ford resigned as the Met’s gen­er­al man­ager to return to adver­tis­ing in ear­ly 1989, and, after a hia­tus, the board replaced him with Hugh South­ern, an Eng­lish­man, who had been a deputy chair­man of the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts. South­ern had lit­tle pri­or expe­ri­ence in opera, and after eight months he was forced out. His depar­ture paved the way for Joseph Volpe, the suc­ces­sor that Craw­ford had want­ed all along.

 

CAN you imag­ine what it means being gen­er­al man­ager of this insti­tu­tion?” Joe Volpe said one recent after­noon. He took a moment to look around his office and lux­u­ri­ate. It is the only office at the Met with a fifteen-foot ceil­ing and any trace of Old World ele­gance. When Bruce Craw­ford occu­pied it, he moved the gen­er­al manager’s large wal­nut desk to a spot near­er the door, so that he could look down the hall; Volpe moved it back—”for sen­ti­men­tal rea­sons,” he says. “Rudolf Bing sat right here when he made me an offer to take over the stage as mas­ter car­pen­ter.” Volpe speaks rev­er­ent­ly of Bing, though he was reput­ed to be cold, and one says “the auto­crat­ic Rudolf Bing” the same way one says “the reclu­sive Thomas Pyn­chon.” (Bing is now ninety-two and is suf­fer­ing from Alzheimer’s dis­ease; he lives in an old-age home in the Bronx.) Volpe remem­bers him differently—accessible, prac­ti­cal, and wit­ty. “But all-powerful,” he says. “All-powerful.”
     As he spoke, Volpe was draw­ing lit­tle dia­grams on a pad—perhaps a habit left over from his days as a car­pen­ter. He had his suit jack­et off, and was wear­ing a crisp white shirt, sus­penders, a flo­ral tie, and gold jew­el­ry. His beard makes him look faint­ly Mephistophelian—a dev­il, one sup­pos­es, to Levine’s cherub. Volpe’s life has revolved around the Met for thir­ty years. “Pavarot­ti calls me grande capo,” he said. “When I start­ed in this house, I can remem­ber the stage­hands say­ing, ‘See that kid Volpe over there? Look at him. He walks around like he thinks he’s gonna run this place some­day.’ My role has changed over the years, and I want you to know that some peo­ple have had dif­fi­cul­ty with that.”
     Cer­tain mem­bers of the Met board, sev­er­al of whom are in the Forbes Four Hun­dred, were among those peo­ple. Today, Volpe refers to the brief appoint­ment of Hugh South­ern as “a minor hic­cup,” though it could not have seemed minor at the time. “Now, why did the board make such a deci­sion?” Volpe says. “I can’t answer that. Was it because Volpe was com­ing from the inside? Was it because he is strong-willed?” (Volpe often talks about him­self in the third per­son.) Craw­ford was able to build a con­sen­sus for Volpe only after South­ern had been pushed out, by which time Craw­ford was serv­ing as chair­man of the board’s exec­u­tive com­mit­tee. Even then, Volpe got the top job with dimin­ished respon­si­bil­i­ty and with a dif­fer­ent title—general direc­tor. Craw­ford told him to sit tight. In May, 1991, Craw­ford replaced the phil­an­thropist Louise Humphrey as board pres­i­dent. With­in two years, Volpe was the gen­er­al man­ager. “Craw­ford had that title, and Bliss had it, and so did Rudolf Bing,” he says. “And I want­ed it.”
     Volpe was born in Brook­lyn and grew up in Glen Cove, Long Island. His father was the prin­ci­pal part­ner in a suc­cess­ful men’s-clothing busi­ness, and he want­ed Volpe to go to col­lege and take up a pro­fes­sion. “So, stub­born son that I was, I did the oppo­site,” Volpe says. Upon grad­u­at­ing from high school, in 1958, he opened an automobile-repair shop in Glen Cove, but he soon sold it. In 1964, he scored first on a test to join Local 1 of the stage­hands’ union, and went to the Met as an appren­tice car­pen­ter, to learn how to build scenery. Live opera held no inter­est for him, he says, until one day after repair­ing a loose bolt plate he stepped into the audi­to­ri­um and heard Bir­git Nilsson rehears­ing the title role of Puccini’s “Turan­dot.” As he recalls it, he turned to Charles Per­in, the carpenter-shop fore­man, and said, “You know, Char­lie, may­be there’s more to opera than build­ing scenery.”
     The Met moved to Lin­coln Cen­ter two years lat­er, and the first sea­son at the new house, Bing recalls in his mem­oir, “5000 Nights at the Opera,” brought “one dis­as­ter after anoth­er.” He had over­am­bi­tious­ly planned nine new pro­duc­tions, four of them for the first week, and the musi­cians and dancers and stage­hands were being worked to exhaus­tion. Volpe, now a jour­ney­man, was called in to help sort out prob­lems with Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopa­tra,” which had been spec­tac­u­lar­ly over­pro­duced by Fran­co Zef­firelli. Not know­ing who Zef­firelli was, Volpe ordered him off the stage; the next day, Bing for­mal­ly intro­duced the two men, telling Volpe, “This is the design­er you accused of being a wacko.” A week lat­er, the Met’s mas­ter car­pen­ter resigned, and Bing inter­viewed Volpe for the job. “I had an answer for every­thing,” Volpe says. “Bing looked at me and said, ‘Either you’re very naive or you know what you’re doing, but I’ll take a chance.’“
     Volpe moved from labor to man­age­ment in 1977, as the pro­tege of John Dex­ter. Dex­ter told Antho­ny Bliss that the Met need­ed a tech­ni­cal director—someone who could look at a blue­print of a pro­duc­tion and deter­mine whether it would work and what it would cost—and Volpe was appoint­ed on his rec­om­men­da­tion. Three years lat­er, the Met’s open­ing was delayed for eleven weeks by a labor dis­pute, led by the pow­er­ful Local 802, which rep­re­sents the Met orches­tra. (Today, the Met has twenty-eight con­tracts with eigh­teen unions.) Volpe was called in, and he helped reach an accord with the union to end the dis­pute. Bliss and three mem­bers of the board’s labor com­mit­tee, includ­ing Bruce Craw­ford, sub­se­quent­ly asked Volpe to become the Met’s chief labor nego­tia­tor, but he refused at first, he says, because the com­mit­tee also want­ed to hire an out­side attor­ney to speak direct­ly to the board. “I can speak,” Volpe recalls point­ing out. Bliss final­ly gave up on hav­ing out­side coun­sel, and Volpe rene­go­ti­at­ed the union con­tracts nine months ahead of sched­ule.
     Bliss was so impressed by this feat that he made Volpe the Met’s assis­tant man­ager, in charge of all back­stage activ­i­ties. “My rela­tion­ship with John Dex­ter went down the tubes,” Volpe says. “I was respon­si­ble for the bud­get, so when­ev­er there were prob­lems with over­time it would be Volpe ver­sus Dex­ter. We nev­er made the peace, which both­ers me, because I had a great deal of respect for him, as I know he did for me.” Dex­ter got posthu­mous revenge last year, when his diaries were pub­lished in book form as “The Hon­ourable Beast.” He wrote, “(This Hurt.) My own dis­cov­ery, some­one I took from the floor and trained and pro­mot­ed to an office posi­tion betrayed me. JV chose the mon­ey over loy­al­ty.”
     When Craw­ford replaced Bliss, he kept Volpe on as assis­tant man­ager. “I was run­ning the house on a day-to-day basis for Bruce,” Volpe says. His respon­si­bil­i­ties grew to include super­vis­ing the Met’s tours and its tele­vi­sion and radio broad­casts; he also main­tained his role as chief labor nego­tia­tor, and han­dled the Met’s record­ing con­tracts. In the mean­time, Volpe could see Craw­ford get­ting rest­less in the gen­er­al manager’s job. “Bruce would say, ‘Let’s do XYZ,’ and peo­ple would ignore him,” Volpe says. “I’ve been here too long: when I say some­thing around the Met, peo­ple jump.”
     The Met has run at break-even or at a small sur­plus for six of the last eight years, and one of Volpe’s biggest respon­si­bil­i­ties is to keep it that way. Tick­et sales account for most of the Met’s earned rev­enues, and for the past few sea­sons the house has sold at a healthy eighty-nine to nine­ty per cent of capac­i­ty. (A drop of one per cent at the box office rep­re­sents lost annu­al income of near­ly six hun­dred thou­sand dol­lars.) Last year, the Met had a bud­get of a hun­dred and twenty-seven mil­lion dol­lars, of which eighty mil­lion came from oper­at­ing income and the remain­ing forty-seven mil­lion came from dona­tions. More than eighty-five per cent of the Met’s dona­tions are made by indi­vid­u­als. Mar­i­lyn Shapiro, who runs the fund-raising depart­ment, is a pow­er­ful fig­ure at the Met; she has a proved tech­nique with wealthy donors which she calls her “firm ask.” (In her office she keeps two framed pho­tographs of Sybil Har­ring­ton, who is the wid­ow of an oil baron from Amar­il­lo, Tex­as, and who under­writes entire new pro­duc­tions, at a cost of over one and a half mil­lion dol­lars per pro­duc­tion.) Shapiro works close­ly with Craw­ford, who is a large con­trib­u­tor him­self.
     Craw­ford and Volpe seem to work well togeth­er, although, Craw­ford says, “you will find that Joe has a very dif­fer­ent approach from mine.” Volpe says he intends noth­ing less than to change the char­ac­ter of the insti­tu­tion. “The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera has been crit­i­cized over the years for being arro­gant, and that’s some­thing I plan to turn around,” he says. “The Met will deal with artists, will deal with employ­ees, will deal with the pub­lic the way I do. I’m personable—I don’t have to tell you this. I’m warm. I’m rea­son­able. And at times I’m con­sid­ered com­plete­ly wacko, because, when I make up my mind to do some­thing, watch out.”

 

THOUGH Volpe denies it, there is rea­son to sus­pect that he had decid­ed to fire Kath­leen Bat­tle a full year before he actu­al­ly did so, and that he held off only because the Met need­ed her for a post-season tour of Japan. Volpe seems eager to talk about his show­down with Bat­tle, but says he has to tem­per his remarks, because she has a pend­ing arbi­tra­tion again­st the Met alleg­ing breach of con­tract. (A hear­ing is sched­uled for Novem­ber.) Levine calls the Met’s rup­ture with Bat­tle “a ter­ri­ble, ter­ri­ble tragedy” and “so, so sad,” but he is also care­ful to point out that “this sit­u­a­tion didn’t involve me, and there wasn’t any way I could affect this.” He has noth­ing to say about Bat­tle, apart from express­ing con­tin­ued affec­tion and respect for her, though he has made the gen­er­al obser­va­tion that “I don’t real­ly under­stand peo­ple who ruin their own qual­i­ty of life with mak­ing dif­fi­cul­ties.”
     Although Bat­tle decli­nes to com­ment, her bad behav­ior has been wide­ly report­ed. “I don’t know many peo­ple who aren’t scared of Kathy,” says Alec Treuhaft, who once worked at CAMI, her man­age­ment com­pa­ny. Bat­tle seems obliv­i­ous of the ill will she gen­er­ates. “I stood behind Kathy in Japan in 1988 when a sopra­no told her she would nev­er appear on the same stage with her again,” Bruce Craw­ford recalls. “Kathy was shocked, and ran to Jim­my. She couldn’t believe it.”
     Bat­tle is a slen­der and attrac­tive black wom­an of forty-six, who grew up in an all-black neigh­bor­hood in Portsmouth, Ohio, the youngest of sev­en chil­dren; her father, Grady Bat­tle, was a steel­work­er who sang in a gospel quar­tet. As a child, she was con­stant­ly praised for her pret­ty voice, but at the con­ser­va­to­ry of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cincin­nati she received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music edu­ca­tion, rather than per­for­mance, and then got a job teach­ing music in an inner-city school. In 1972, at the urg­ing of a friend, Bat­tle audi­tioned for the late Thomas Schip­pers, the con­duc­tor of the Cincin­nati Sym­pho­ny, and he there­upon hired her to sing the sopra­no solo in Brahms’s “Ein Deutsches Requiem” at the Spo­le­to Fes­ti­val in Italy. The fol­low­ing year, Schip­pers rec­om­mend­ed her to James Levine, who was a guest con­duc­tor at the Cincin­nati May Fes­ti­val and was about to become the Met’s prin­ci­pal con­duc­tor. Levine has recalled being “blown away” by her first audi­tion; Bat­tle once described Levine to a Times reporter as “a real cat­a­lyst” in her career, and “a won­der­ful friend.” She made her Met debut in 1977, as the shep­herd boy in “Tannhauser,” and moved on to lead­ing roles, such as Rosi­na in “Il Bar­bi­ere di Siviglia,” that showed off her bril­liant, lyric col­orat­u­ra. She got sen­sa­tion­al reviews. The crit­ic Tim Page has writ­ten that “at her best, she sang with a delight­ed shiv­er.”
     Peo­ple from her home town remem­ber Kathy Bat­tle as sweet and unspoiled, but some­thing evi­dent­ly hap­pened to her en route to becom­ing one of the biggest female opera stars in the world. In 1985, she peremp­to­ri­ly took over the sopra­no Car­ol Vaness’s dress­ing room at the Met, which was iden­ti­cal in size to her own but was closer to the stage. Two years lat­er, she with­drew from an appear­ance with the Vien­na Phil­har­mon­ic just three hours before cur­tain, forc­ing the orches­tra to can­cel an entire per­for­mance for the only time in its his­to­ry. In 1988, when she was rehears­ing Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” at the Met, she gave the con­duc­tor, Trevor Pin­nock, a lesson in Baro­que con­duct­ing style, which is his spe­cial­ty, and drove the late mezzo-soprano Tatiana Troy­anos to tears by repeat­ed­ly ask­ing the stage direc­tor for changes that put Troy­anos at a dis­ad­van­tage. With each year, her behav­ior grew increas­ing­ly bizarre. Dur­ing rehearsals, she would for­bid peo­ple to look at her and accused them of star­ing at her mouth.
     Kathy Bat­tle and Joe Volpe were clear­ly head­ed for con­flict. She was haughty with the stage crew, from whose ranks Volpe had risen; and the man he so admired, Rudolf Bing, had, in 1958, with far less provo­ca­tion fired the sopra­no Maria Callas. In late Jan­u­ary, 1993, the con­duc­tor Chris­tian Thiele­mann was rehears­ing Strauss’s “Der Rosenkava­lier” for a Met per­for­mance in ear­ly Feb­ru­ary. Bat­tle, who had been cast as Sophie, com­plained that Thiele­mann was tak­ing a pas­sage too slow­ly, and that she was run­ning out of breath. When he refused to pick up the tem­po, she walked out and went to her dress­ing room, where she called Volpe on the phone and demand­ed that he come to see her imme­di­ate­ly. When he did not arrive, she went home. Through her per­son­al man­ager at CAMI, Michae­la Kurz, she demand­ed of Volpe that the Met take her side. Volpe backed Thiele­mann, and Bat­tle quit the pro­duc­tion. Volpe says that he then spoke to Kurz, telling her, “I will let this go, I will not make a big thing of it, but this is the last time.” The Met had a con­tract with Bat­tle for the tour in Japan, with Luciano Pavarot­ti, and it had already been sold out. Volpe says, “We went to Japan, and she was a per­fect cit­i­zen. So I had hopes.”
     Bat­tle was sched­uled to sing the title role of Marie in five per­for­mances of “La Fille du Reg­i­ment” at the Met begin­ning on Feb­ru­ary 14, 1994, but there were indi­ca­tions of trou­ble, despite her good behav­ior in Japan. She had recent­ly per­formed the same role at the San Fran­cis­co Opera with the same tenor, Frank Lopar­do, as Tonio, and the expe­ri­ence had been such an ordeal for the com­pa­ny that after­ward mem­bers of the stage crew and the cho­rus wore T-shirts that said “I SURVIVED THE BATTLE.” Sure enough, in the weeks before the first Met per­for­mance was to take place she repeat­ed­ly had the rehearsal sched­ule changed to suit her, and then arrived late, left ear­ly, or did not show up. Her treat­ment of the mezzo-soprano Ros­alind Elias, who had been cast as the Mar­quise of Berken­field, may have trig­gered Volpe’s deci­sion to fire her. In the opera’s sec­ond act, the Mar­quise is seat­ed at the piano, coach­ing Marie in a song, and Bat­tle made an ugly scene over Elias’s piano play­ing, claim­ing that it was throw­ing her off. Elias, who is in her six­ties, is a beloved vet­er­an at the Met; she and Volpe go back to 1966 and the open­ing of the new house.
     Ronald Wil­ford got word on Sat­ur­day, Feb­ru­ary 5th, that Bat­tle was in immi­nent dan­ger of being fired, and he request­ed a meet­ing with Volpe, to take place at ten o’clock the fol­low­ing Mon­day morn­ing. The two men don’t appear to be the best of friends; Volpe says that Wil­ford has referred to him pri­vate­ly as “that ter­ror­ist.” (Wil­ford denies hav­ing done this.) Dur­ing the Mon­day meet­ing, which last­ed about an hour, Wil­ford plead­ed with Volpe not to fire Bat­tle. Lat­er that day, Volpe spoke with Bat­tle on the phone. “She said, ‘What can I do to make you change your mind?’” he recalls, but by then he had issued the press release announc­ing her fir­ing. In a press release of her own, she said she had not been told of any “unpro­fes­sion­al actions,” and called the dis­missal “unex­pect­ed.” Wil­ford says, “It is my posi­tion that she was wrong­ful­ly ter­mi­nat­ed, and should be paid for the engage­ments. Kathy Bat­tle is a per­fec­tion­ist, and she always fights for that per­fec­tion. That’s noth­ing new.”
     Levine had the good for­tune to be out of town dur­ing most of the deba­cle, but oth­er­wise that peri­od was not a lucky time for him. After catch­ing the flu dur­ing his vaca­tion in Flori­da, and hav­ing his ini­tial dis­cus­sion with Volpe about Bat­tle, he flew to Cincin­nati to be at the bed­side of his father. (Lawrence Levine died, at eighty, of heart fail­ure, on Feb­ru­ary 8, 1994, the day after Bat­tle was fired.) Levine passed through New York on the day of the fir­ing and met with Volpe to express, for the last time, his qualms about the deci­sion, and then went on to Lon­don for a guest-conducting appear­ance.
     Despite the­se qualms, even Levine had final­ly lost patience with Battle—though he will not dis­cuss it publicly—and he had done so in front of plen­ty of wit­ness­es. In April of last year, Levine and the Met orches­tra were record­ing with Bat­tle an album of Mozart ari­as for Deutsche Gram­mophon. With less than fif­teen min­utes to go in the ses­sion, Levine hand­ed out a new piece, to be rehearsed for the first time, and the clar­inet­tists began pack­ing up their instru­ments to leave, since the piece had no parts for them. Bat­tle appeared to take this as a ges­ture of hos­til­i­ty, and cre­at­ed a scene, mak­ing it impos­si­ble for Levine to fin­ish the ses­sion. Deutsche Gram­mophon had a his­to­ry of prob­lems with Battle—she had held up the release of a record­ing of Handel’s “Semele” for months because she was unhap­py with the way her dress looked on the album cover—and after she was fired from the Met she felt com­pelled to with­draw from a Deutsche Gram­mophon record­ing of Mozart’s “Idome­neo” with Levine and the Met orches­tra.
     In April, two months after the fir­ing, Levine, as pre­vi­ous­ly planned, accom­pa­nied Bat­tle on the piano at Carnegie Hall. Though they put on a show of sol­i­dar­i­ty at the con­cert, and Bat­tle, resplen­dent in a bright-yellow gown, sang eleven encores, the affair was said to be a less than joy­ful expe­ri­ence for Levine. Bat­tle had made it impos­si­ble to rehearse the pro­gram ade­quate­ly with him, and, with­out telling him, had given a tri­al recital of the same pro­gram out of town with anoth­er pianist. At the moment, Bat­tle, as far as is known, has no con­tract with any opera com­pa­ny in the world, and Volpe says he will con­sid­er invit­ing her back to the Met only if she can demon­strate prop­er deco­rum some­where else. “No one has ever tak­en a strong posi­tion with her before,” Volpe says. “May­be this will help her.”

 

AS Levine approach­es his twenty-fifth anniver­sary at the Met, to be cel­e­brat­ed next sea­son, he does so in a cli­mate of doubt con­cern­ing his own future at the opera house—though recent rumors of his immi­nent fir­ing turned out to be false. The rumors appar­ent­ly stemmed from per­sis­tent yet nev­er proved accu­sa­tions about his pri­vate life, involv­ing, as Time once care­ful­ly phrased it, “liaisons with peo­ple of every age and hue.” To coun­ter­act the rumors, Bruce Craw­ford extend­ed his con­tract, ahead of sched­ule, to July of 1999. But after years of steadi­ly gain­ing in authority—of turn­ing the Met into a place where the oper­at­ing code was said to be “What Jim­my wants, Jim­my gets”—he is faced for the first time with a gen­er­al man­ager who has ambi­tions of his own.
     “Is there a pow­er strug­gle at the Met? That’s what every­body wants to know,” Volpe said not long ago. “Well, it’s a lot of non­sense. Volpe was nev­er con­cerned with his pow­er.” He began to draw a dia­gram on his notepad. “I start with the premise that James Levine is one of the finest opera con­duc­tors in the world. He gives the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera more time than we’d ever get from any oth­er con­duc­tor, music direc­tor, artis­tic director—whatever you wish to call that posi­tion. Jim knows he has in me a gen­er­al man­ager who is, yes, a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent personality—I have no prob­lem mak­ing a deci­sion, where­as some­times Jim would like to con­sid­er all the options. But he sees in me some­one with the strength to help him do what he has to do at the Met. His respon­si­bil­i­ty here is to make music. And my respon­si­bil­i­ty is to run the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera.”
     Levine, in describ­ing his own view of his busi­ness rela­tion­ship with Volpe, sounds slight­ly defen­sive. “I don’t ever get the feel­ing that Joe wants my job,” he says. “He knows I don’t want his. Joe and I meet to col­lab­o­rate about what we want to do and whom we want to do it with. That’s the essence of it. But, under­stand, Joe isn’t com­ing with the expe­ri­ence of know­ing the artis­tic tech­ni­cal­i­ties, the spec­trum of the reper­toire, the pros and cons of this piece and that piece. That’s the rea­son they’ve got me.”
     Yet, as Volpe is fond of point­ing out, “every artis­tic deci­sion is a finan­cial deci­sion,” and he has vetoed pro­pos­als by Levine that were not fea­si­ble from a busi­ness stand­point. For exam­ple, Volpe can­celled five per­for­mances of Britten’s “Death in Venice” that Levine had planned for this sea­son, because the opera was expen­sive to mount and had been a huge dud at the box office last win­ter. (“Il Bar­bi­ere di Siviglia” will be done in its place.) “We sim­ply could not afford to go ahead with ‘Death in Venice,’“ Volpe says. “Jim­my under­stood.”
     Volpe has made one move whose sig­nif­i­cance may be enor­mous. He has brought in Sarah Billinghurst, who joined the com­pa­ny on August 1st as assis­tant man­ager. She had been artis­tic admin­is­tra­tor of the San Fran­cis­co Opera and had a strong say in many of the areas that Levine has con­trolled at the Met, among them cast­ing, reper­toire, and the com­mis­sion­ing of new works. Her role at the Met has not yet been ful­ly defined, but Volpe describes it in terms that make it sound very much like her job in San Fran­cis­co, and thus sug­gest that Levine’s artis­tic hege­mony is com­ing to an end. Bruce Craw­ford, on being asked whether Billinghurst’s appoint­ment, which he autho­rized, rep­re­sent­ed a shift of artis­tic con­trol away from Levine, said, “There’s no ques­tion that you can inter­pret it in that con­text.”
     Matthew Epstein, who was until recent­ly the gen­er­al direc­tor of the Welsh Nation­al Opera, says, “This feels like a time of change”—and although Epstein thinks high­ly of Levine, he believes the change is for the good. “Jim­my is one of the best opera con­duc­tors in the world. May­be the best,” he says. “But how long can one artis­tic influ­ence, no mat­ter how good, be fresh? A great era in a major opera com­pa­ny takes about three years to devel­op, five or six to play out, and then it is done. I think ten years is a good length of time, and then the intro­duc­tion of some­one new can only be help­ful, to make sure you main­tain excel­lence.”
     Billinghurst, who is fifty-two, comes to the Met with such a good rep­u­ta­tion that, she says, “it makes me ner­vous.” She is a native of New Zealand who moved to San Fran­cis­co in 1966 with her hus­band, a struc­tural engi­neer whose spe­cial­ty was con­struc­tion in earth­quake zones. (They are now divorced.) Billinghurst has some musi­cal training—”I was a bad piano play­er, a bad clar­inet play­er, and a not good con­duc­tor of my boarding-school choir,” she says—and in 1972 she was offered a job in the public-relations depart­ment of the San Fran­cis­co Opera. Soon, she caught the eye of the gen­er­al direc­tor, Kurt Her­bert Adler, an inten­dant very much in the Bing mold (and, like Bing, of Aus­tri­an descent), whom she describes as “an extra­or­di­nary man, and absolute­ly my men­tor.” Adler retired from the San Fran­cis­co Opera in 1982, and the same year she was named artis­tic admin­is­tra­tor.
     Billinghurst had already turned down a job offer in Europe when Joe Volpe, over lunch one day last year, asked her to come to the Met. The time was right—her son and daugh­ter were both of col­lege age—and she hit it off with Volpe. “I like that Joe start­ed off at the bot­tom, just like me, and now he’s run­ning the com­pa­ny,” she says. Volpe explained that he want­ed an assis­tant man­ager who would be to him what he had been to Bruce Craw­ford.
     It was not that sim­ple, how­ev­er. Billinghurst’s skills direct­ly over­lap those of Jonathan Friend, the Met’s artis­tic admin­is­tra­tor and Levine’s most impor­tant ally at the Met. Though Friend remains at the Met with his job title unchanged, Billinghurst’s arrival obvi­ous­ly means a dimin­ished role for him. Friend was only twenty-seven, and an employ­ee in the Met’s rehearsal depart­ment, when, in 1983, Levine offered him the job of artis­tic admin­is­tra­tor, a pow­er­ful posi­tion that involved col­lab­o­rat­ing with Levine on cast­ing deci­sions, and then see­ing that those deci­sions were imple­ment­ed. Friend brought a num­ber of use­ful skills to the job, includ­ing a prodi­gious memory—he can rat­tle off with ease the cast list of an opera per­formed at the Met ten years ago. What he did not bring was inde­pen­dence; Bruce Craw­ford has described the cast­ing process at the Met as one in which “Jonathan pro­pos­es and Jim­my dis­pos­es.” Levine, who does not alto­geth­er dis­pute that descrip­tion, says, “Very few peo­ple appre­ci­ate what a suc­cess Jonathan has made of that, to bring to nego­ti­at­ed real­i­ty what­ev­er vision I might have had.”
     Billinghurst already has ideas of how she will affect the Met. In Jan­u­ary of this year, she was a judge at the Rimsky-Korsakov vocal com­pe­ti­tion in St. Peters­burg, and has a broad acquain­tance with singers in the for­mer Sovi­et Union who might be appro­pri­ate for Met pro­duc­tions. She hopes to devel­op a cre­ative alliance between the Kirov Opera and the Met, as she did pre­vi­ous­ly between the Kirov and the San Fran­cis­co Opera. She has trav­elled exten­sive­ly to the­atres all over the world, and wants to recruit new stage direc­tors; her view of what is an appro­pri­ate mise-en-scene for Met pro­duc­tions may prove to be some­what broad­er than Levine’s. “Over the next few years, I think you’ll see sev­er­al more inter­est­ing, and less con­ven­tion­al, new pro­duc­tions at the Met,” she says. “They will be con­tro­ver­sial. Some of the Met audi­ences will like them, and some will hate them.”
     Billinghurst is also a firm pro­po­nent of Eng­lish titles at the Met, which, at the insis­tence of Bruce Craw­ford, are to make their debut next sea­son. The San Fran­cis­co Opera has had titles for years—and so have oth­er major opera com­pa­nies, includ­ing Chicago’s Lyric Opera, the Paris Opera, and Covent Gar­den. In 1985, Levine told the Times crit­ic Will Crutch­field that titles would be used at the Met only over “my dead body,” and he says the com­ment is still applic­a­ble if one is talk­ing about titles pro­ject­ed over the proscenium—the sys­tem that is gen­er­al­ly in use. But the Met’s pro­posed sys­tem, if it works—to dis­play the titles on two-inch-by-eight-inch screens mount­ed above seat backs—is less objec­tion­able, he says, because the titles will not be imposed on any­one who doesn’t want them. The screens can be switched off, and spe­cial fil­ters will make the text almost invis­i­ble to one’s neigh­bor.
     Billinghurst is care­ful to point out that, while she may have been recruit­ed by Volpe, “I report just as much to Jim­my as I do to Joe, and I will be equal­ly loy­al to both of them.” In fact, she says, peo­ple who expect her to dri­ve a wedge between Volpe and Levine will find her doing pre­cise­ly the oppo­site. She is well known as a conciliator—it was she who saw to it that Kath­leen Bat­tle made it through her tension-filled engage­ment in “La Fille du Reg­i­ment” in San Fran­cis­co. “I am very good at bring­ing peo­ple closer togeth­er,” she says. “And I am per­fect­ly capa­ble of say­ing to Jim­my and Joe, ‘Lis­ten, you two—you have to agree on this.’“
     In any case, the future of the Met and its fif­teen hun­dred employ­ees will depend on how well those two remark­ably dis­sim­i­lar men can devel­op a modus operandi. Levine, who calls him­self a “glass-is-half-full per­son,” is typ­i­cal­ly opti­mistic. Ronald Wil­ford, a more sat­urnine per­son­al­i­ty, says, “I don’t want Jim Levine to be the sole arbiter of every­thing at the Met. I’m all for Joe tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty. I also think Joe should take some heat when it comes.” Because the Met plans its sea­sons so far in advance—repertoire and casts have already been cho­sen through the spring of 1997—it may be a while before a change is appar­ent. Still, it is safe to pre­dict that the Met is going to be a dif­fer­ent place.♦