NEW YORK — JOSEPH VOLPE'S appointment last summer as general director of the Metropolitan Opera was an odd choice by conventional standards. Mr. Volpe wasn't a professional manager. He started with the company as an apprentice carpenter. That was back in 1964, when the Met was in the old house on 39th Street. He rose to head carpenter, then to technical director. Finally he worked his way up the management ladder to the top administrative post. He is the first Met chief to have come up from backstage, and he hit the ground running. A number of problems were vying for his attention:
Film director Werner Herzog was slated to stage Mozart's ``Magic Flute'' but had submitted next-to-nothing for a project only six months off. Volpe informed Mr. Herzog that there would not be sufficient time to execute a production from scratch and made arrangements to borrow a production designed by David Hockney. ``That's not the way to start off,'' recalls Volpe. ``It would be very nice if one didn't have to cancel a new production ..., but it was one of those things that had to be done.''
Next Volpe had to resolve the problems surrounding the sets for last season's ``Rigoletto,'' which turned out to be too massive to manage in a repertory theater like the Met. His bold decision: scrap the troublesome first scene altogether.
One of Volpe's greatest assets in the new job is his inside-out knowledge of the company. ``I believe it very important that you know firsthand what's going on,'' Volpe explains about his approach to the job. ``And it's important for the singers, too. This is what's so wonderful to me - the relationship that has developed between myself and the artists in such a short time. [It] has been the most rewarding thing, the most phenomenal thing.
``I think there will come a time when certain decisions will have to be made ... where I won't be as popular as I have been these last few weeks. ... But overall, they know that I always have dealt with everyone in a fair manner. I think my reputation over the years has been that I do what I believe is right for the [Metropolitan Opera] Association and right for this company. And although that might go against the grain with some, that's just the way it is.
``I'm aggressive about things. I know that I have probably a better understanding than anyone as to how this theater runs. I have a lot of ideas as to what it should be, and I also know three months from now I'll have a lot of new ideas. We'll have to see where it all takes me. Yes, it takes me! I don't take it.
``In a company such as the Met, there is nothing that is short-term. You can't make changes next year.
``Karajan said to me, `Joe, it's never the work in opera; it's the resistance.' I didn't know what that meant when he told me, but I learned. He also said to Jimmy [James Levine], `It's 10 years [to make a change happen].' And it's true.
``What the [Met board] has come up with is somebody who understands that it is the long-term that you're here for. There is no quick fix - not in this business.
``I'll devote that time and energy ... until I'm ready to go fishing!''