Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Enjoyed: The Toughest Show on Earth

Posting has been skimpy lately here at Unedit My Heart, for which I blame illness, overwork and, oh yes, my new tendency to jump from elitism to elitism—ie. from art to opera. Yeeeeehawwwww!

To this latter point, I've just finished reading The Toughest Show on Earth: My Rise and Reign at the Metropolitan Opera by Joseph Volpe. And y'know what? I really enjoyed it. Volpe--a longtime manager of the Met who retired in 2006, just as the book was being published--has a reputation as an outspoken figure in a genteel field, and he does a super job of slicing and dicing the behind-the-scenes tensions in a large arts organization. (Granted, having a co-author like Charles Michener couldn't have hurt on the expository front.)

There's also some great quotes Volpe includes from other opera figures. This one, from the diary of past Met director John Dexter, seemed particularly worth repeating. It starts out as a rant prompted by a request to keep production expenses low, and ends with some interesting inversions of the art/cash equation:

Economy is not a policy, it is a fact. Imagination/Simplicity is a policy. It is an approach to opera for the twentieth century. When the theatre began to remove elaborate "realistic" effects, it became free so that from Schiffbauerdam to Sloane Square, any physical and emotional demand a playwright could make was capable of fulfillment. Time and place could flow freely in the audience's imagination (which, according to Coleridge, is where the excitement lies).

Only at the Metropolitan has time stood still. The curtain can sitll rise on a performance and the audience can be transported back to the nineteenth century and sit and wallow in an imaginary world. Unfortunately drama is reality given meaning and form. Opera and drama are not a drug for the feeble-minded, they are an essential enhancement of our lives from which we can enrich ourselves and from which we can learn.

Only when the operatic stage can share the freedom of the dramatic stage can the medium exist in the twentieth century and maybe help us understand the world and ourselves, instead of remaining a morphine of the overprivileged.

Economy is a watchword is meaningless. Imagination costs more in the mind but less in the purse. But the imagination must swing out from the stage to embrace the audience and the audience must be trained to join in an act of imagination.

To hell with economy, spend imagination.

That last line's a good one.

Also of interest to me in the book were Volpe's stories about board trustees and donors--some huge, some small--who fell in love with opera in their youth due to free nationwide broadcasts of Met performances. It's a little lesson on the value (and possible returns) on free programming that I hope isn't lost on other other cultural institutions.

Now I'm on to Renee Fleming's The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer. Also good so far, and also containing some interesting laments for the demise of regular arts education in public schools. I'll keep you posted!

(Image from Bookapex)


Ingrid Mida said...

Thanks for posting this. I like opera too and look forward to reading this. I love the line "To hell with economy, spend imagination".

Leah Sandals said...

Hey Ingrid,

Yes, it takes a while to get to that line, but that one line is what made me want to post the quotation!

The Fleming book is also really good so far. She has a great way of outlining the way she has developed a career (sometimes unexpectedly) in her own creative field.