"I might as well sell my weekend house. I'll never see it again." This was the reaction of Joseph Volpe on his first day as the new general director of the New York Metropolitan Opera.
Volpe was named Wednesday to run the nation's largest opera company. He will also be in charge of financial operations and public relations. At the same time Marilyn Shapiro was promoted to executive director of external affairs (in charge of fund-raising and marketing). Both are former assistant managers and will report to board president Mrs. Gilbert W. Humphrey. Conductor James Levine, who remains artistic and music director, also reports to Humphrey.
In an interview Thursday, Volpe said: "What I want to do in the future is attempt to relieve the pressures on the company, which is stretched to its limit with the seven-performance-a-week schedule. I want to be involved directly in collaboration with Jimmy (Levine) on deciding what productions are to be and who the directing/designing teams will be. Already I'm involved artistically in trying to make peace with Eva Marton (the soprano who left the Met when she was told by Volpe she would not get the TV performances of the "Ring" operas this past season). I am not afraid to jump in.
"I believe our performance levels are high, but I believe they can be higher. I have learned a lot from Bruce Crawford (former Met general manager). Yes, you can say I am his protege. After 26 years, I'm here for the long haul."
The new management structure at the Met seems to reach back for something old.
After failing to find a new general manager this summer, the Met Opera retired the title of general manager and promoted Volpe, 50, and Shapiro. The new management team revives the troika structure of the late-'70s, when executive director Anthony A. Bliss (later general director) ran the company with Levine and production director John Dexter.
The promotions are seen as consolidating the power of Levine after the forced resignation June 22 of general manager Hugh Southern after only seven months on the job.
According to reliable sources, the move also enhances the power of Bruce Crawford, who for four years was the Met Opera general manager. He resigned last year to become CEO of the advertising conglomerate Omnicom, and is now chairman of the Executive Committee of the Met board.
Board officials are elected annually, and Crawford is widely thought to be in line to succeed Humphrey, 71, when she steps down as president. Humphrey was said to be traveling and was unavailable for comment.
Volpe, 50, joined the Met as a carpenter in 1964 and has risen steadily through the ranks, becoming backstage technical director in 1978 and assistant manager in 1981. He has been in charge of all backstage activities and, since 1980, chief labor negotiator. Asked about his purported indifference to opera itself, he once stated, "If you ask me when I get home after a hard day or night's work, do I put an opera record on the phonograph, chances are, I don't."
Before Southern's appointment in November, Volpe was considered a strong candidate for the job, but there were reports that some board members thought him unsuitable because of his brashness and blue-collar background. He expressed no disappointment at receiving the title of general director rather than general manager or about his work being closely scrutinized by both Levine and Humphrey, and also, presumably, Crawford.