Joseph Volpe first came to the Metropolitan Opera forty years ago wearing a work shirt and carrying a hammer.
He now runs the place, and has since 1990.
But he almost went into a business that has more to do with the Mets than the Met — selling baseball batting cages.
"He said, 'You come into the business, I'll give you a salary and anything from this line-up we'll share fifty-fifty,'" Volpe recalls of the man who tried to recruit him into the batting cage business. "I turned him down to come to the Met."
The decision has worked out pretty well, considering that Volpe started as an apprentice carpenter in 1964 and became the general manager in 1990.
Earlier this year Volpe announced that he'll step down from that post in 2006. But please don't think that his style of running the Met will change in his final two years.
"We'll have this odd person here or there who will have this thought of 'lame duck,'" Volpe says. "You need to dispel that rather quickly, which I did."
The stories in the opera world about Volpe and his style are legendary. A former colleague once wrote about "playing Trotsky to Volpe's Stalin." And there are plenty of others.
"I had the run-in on Christmas Eve with one of the assistants, who I had to fire," Volpe recalls. "I said, 'I want you to do this and this,' and he said, 'We don't do that,' and I said 'You're doing that now.' He refused, and I said, 'Get your bag and you are gone.'"
"I'm really an easy guy to get along with," Volpe says. "But I developed a reputation as I advanced in the Met so that people would say, 'Oh he's a difficult person, you have to be careful.'"
Volpe is nothing if not direct, and he says that comes from his father.
"Neopolitan Italians, they're very vocal and they actually sing their words sometimes," he explains. "My mother was Sicilian so she was very quiet. Every time my father would go over the line in the household, my mother would say, 'Michael that's enough,' and he would quiet down."
But Volpe's job has never quieted down. He is married to the former ballet dancer Jean Anderson, and they live only blocks from Lincoln Center. During the day he's at the office working the phones; after rehearsal he's backstage schmoozing with long-time workers and checking on performers; and then at night he's often back for performances.
"When I accepted the position as general manager, what I didn't realize was that it had to be the focus of my life," Volpe says. "My schedule is the Met's schedule, so one has to give up so many things."
"My wife said to me, 'It's your grandson's birthday, here's the card to fill out.' So I said, 'What does he call me?' and she said 'What?' and I said, 'What does he call me? I have not seen this grandson often enough to know what he calls his grandfather.' That is a sacrifice."
But Volpe loves his job, as he's apparently loved all of his jobs at the Met, from apprentice carpenter to master carpenter to technical director to assistant general manager and then general manager.
But there is one job he hasn't considered, a rather important job at the opera.
Has anyone ever dared him to sing?
"We were in Japan and we were looking at a new concert hall with Placido Domingo," Volpe recalls. "The Japanese said that Placido said I would have to sing that night to check the acoustics."
So what did Volpe do?
I said, "What's my fee?" he remembers, laughing.
Of course it's no surprise that a guy from Queens who's spent forty years at the Metropolitan Opera has a story or two to tell. Here's one he recently told to his NYU Business School students:
"An argument broke out in the balcony," Volpe said. "A fistfight ensued, one man left with a bloody nose, and a rather small woman was standing in the aisle saying 'Who's next?'" The class laughed in appreciation.
Volpe's own story began in Astoria and Bayside before the family moved to Long Island, where his Sicilian grandmother introduced him to opera.
"She had one record," Volpe remembers. "My job was to get up and turn it over, and I had to sit there while she was listening to it. That was my first contact with opera."
But Volpe wasn't really the type to sit still. He owned an auto repair shop and a small construction business — while still in high school. Then he went off to St. John's...sort of.
"I went one semester to school," he recalls. "I say one semester — I went two weeks. Then I said, 'I don't have time for this.'"
Volpe wanted to build scenery in the theater, and was told the Met was the place to be. He was called an apprentice carpenter, but in reality he was much more.
"I was telling guys what to do and one of the old-timers was looking at me from stage right. And he said to a fellow who ended up being my first assistant for many years — he said, 'You see that kid over there? The way he walks around? Someday he's going to run this place.'"
Volpe earned the respect of then-general manager Rudolph Bing. But his "let's get the job done" style did ruffle some feathers. Like the time Volpe was cutting scenery and he was approached on stage.
"I said, 'I'm busy here, I don't know who you are, get off the stage' and he said, 'Wait a minute, what are you doing?' and I said, 'What I'm doing is trying to make this production work — we got some wacko designer who designed too much and I have to make it work, so get off the stage.' And the following morning, Mr. Bing invited me into his office and there was this man I'd thrown off the stage. And he said, 'Mr. Volpe, I'd like to formally introduce you to Mr. Zeffirelli.'"
That would be famed movie and opera director Franco Zeffirelli.
Right from the start, Volpe watched and listened and learned every aspect of the business — labor negotiations, budgets, working with the crew and the company. But in 1989, when the general manager's job opened up, he didn't get it.
"There were those who felt that socially it wouldn't work out," Volpe says now. "And there were those who said, 'Who will talk to the artists? 'Cause Joe can't talk to the artists.' In fact, one of the members of that committee apologized to me a few years later, saying 'I was really wrong.'"
"All in all, it worked out better for me that we had this period where this person failed for seven months," he says. "'Cause then they had to come to me."
Under Volpe's direction the Met has traveled the world; continued to be heard on the radio (and now over the Internet); established an opera education program for New York City school children; and enjoyed labor peace with workers and performers.
And Volpe has passed on some of the lessons he's learned to his business school students.
"If you operate your life without passion in what you believe in, and it's all just what's in the book, then I don't believe you'll have the opportunities," Volpe says.
In forty years at the met, Joseph Volpe has made his own opportunities. And now, with all he's accomplished, another opportunity awaits.
"I've been lucky to be here, but I'm looking forward to my time out," he says. "Everybody has this concern — 'Joe Volpe, what's he going to do? He works night and day.' Well prior to accepting this job my wife and I had great times together; we'd go to the theater, go all over, and do things. That's what I want back."