The Toughest Show on Earth: My Rise and Reign at the Metropolitan Opera

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A fascinating, anecdote-filled behind-the-scenes look at more than forty years of the highlights, successes, and day-to-day inner workings—all about productions, the divas, and backstage dramas—of New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, by Joseph Volpe, the only general manager to have risen through the ranks.

This book is the story of Volpe’s years leading up to those at the Met, from his first job as a stagehand at the Morosco Theater to the odd jobs he picked up moonlighting: setting up a searchlight or laying down a red carpet for a movie premiere, changing titles on the marquees at the Astor, Victor, and Paramount theaters. It is his Met years—from apprentice carpenter to general manager—that give us a story about New York and the business of culture. Volpe looks at the Met today, an institution full of vast egos and complicated politics, as well as its glittering past—the old Met at Thirty-ninth and Broadway, and the political and artistic intrigues that exploded around its move to Lincoln Center. With stunning candor, he writes about the general managers he worked under, including Rudolf Bing and Anthony Bliss; his own embattled rise to the top; the maneuverings of the blue-chip board; his bad-cop, good-cop collaboration with the conductor James Levine; and his masterful approach to making a family of such highly charged artist-stars as Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Teresa Stratas, and Renée Fleming, and such visionary directors as Franco Zeffirelli, Robert Wilson, and Julie Taymor.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (May 2, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307262855
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307262851
  • Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1.1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds

Customer Reviews

Part autobiography, part history of the Met, and part stories about the performers

17 people found this helpful.
 on July 26, 2006
By Craig Matteson
Opera is dramatic and bigger than life on stage and back stage. Now we learn about all the drama that also goes on in managing the Metropolitan Opera, the largest opera company in the world and an arts organization that puts on more opera performances each year than any other company on earth. Its budget is more than $200 million for something like 240 performances per year. I was quite surprised to read how the monies to fund this huge budget are raised. No, it isn’t the government, corporate, or even the richest donors that provide the bulk of the money as I had suspected.

Bravo Volpe! From Blue Collar Carpenter to General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera!

23 people found this helpful.
 on May 14, 2006
By C. M Mills
Joe Volpe is an American success story! Volpe was Brooklyn born; street tough and eager to learn! In over 40 years at the

The House of Diva

8 people found this helpful.
 on July 24, 2006
By Jon Hunt
Joseph Volpe’s “The Toughest Show on Earth” is a remarkably comprehensive look at the recent history of the Metropolitan Opera as told through the eyes of the retiring general manager, himself. Volpe has the best “view” in the house and no wonder…he’s been there for over forty years.

A standing ovation for this outstanding performance!

15 people found this helpful.
 on May 7, 2006
By Stephanie Pierson
You don’t have to be an opera love to love this book. Mr. Volpe is a great story-teller and what stories and backstage drama there is. This is a book that combines brilliant business insight with an amazing personal success story. It offers an insider’s look at the stage of the world’s best opera house and a backstage tour of divas and dramas. It’s got something for everyone and Mr. Volpe’s story is both candid and compelling. You feel like you have the best seat in the house after you finish reading this book. And I am waiting for an encore!

Tough Love

5 people found this helpful.
 on July 12, 2006
By Douglas Delisle
Joseph Volpe was a tough as the job he took on when he grabbed the reins of the Metropolitan Opera House, having to deal with the likes of James Levine and Luciano Pavarotti.

Candid and inspiring!

9 people found this helpful.
 on June 13, 2006
By Marie Lamb
As a trained singer, broadcaster and opera fan, I couldn’t pass up the chance to read this. It was worth it, believe me! Whatever one’s opinion of Volpe’s work at the Met, there is much to admire about him. From an early age, he was no stranger to hard work, and that was a large part of what got him into the top spot at the Met. Also, Volpe has been willing to act on his convictions; this especially showed in the firing of Kathleen Battle, whose unstable behavior and unprofessional treatment of colleagues had to be dealt with for the sake of the company. Volpe is also a hilarious storyteller; his account of a “diet” lunch with Luciano Pavarotti left me shaking with laughter! While I haven’t agreed with some of Volpe’s decisions, I have to hand it to him for his hard work, his forthrightness, and for his willingness to stick to his guns on many occasions for the sake of the Met’s survival. Quite a story, and quite a person!

Behind the scenes!

4 people found this helpful.
 on June 29, 2006
By John Stewart
Volpe’s as-told-to Charles Michener book is a fascinating look at the rise of an exceptionally confident and brilliant man. The voice of the book sounds like what Volpe sounds like in his interviews. There is an excellent balance between personal history (pretty discreet), the history of the Met, how it’s run, with a liberal dose of reportage of some of the famous episodes, such as the Battle firing. I did not sense any score settling: when Volpe doesn’t like someone his reasons are convincing. He is expecially touching about Levine but what in the end I was happiest about was learning how Volpe fell in love with opera AFTER he began work there as a carpenter. Well-written and fascinating. Highly recommended

Behind the scene with refreshnig honesty

3 people found this helpful.
 on June 30, 2006
By M. Kirouack
I found this book absolutely fabulous. Mr. Volpe is to the point and shall we say, extremely honest, in his account of his years at the opera, including via himself. One finishes this book with a greater understanding of what goes on behind the scenes. It reads well, with enough details to keep the average reader riveted and without the unnecessary clutter found in some of those books that insist on giving us an hour by hour acount of events. I especially liked the way the book was subdivided. If it does follow a certain chronological order, each chapter focuses on a specific subject matter, for example signers… that serves as the guide thru the different events. Hence, this book is delightful and I strongly recommend it to all and especially, if not exclusively, to opera lovers. Even ones who do not know a lot about opera will love this book.

Sneak view at the world’s greatest opera house

3 people found this helpful.
 on December 1, 2009
By Aanel Victoria
Volpe worked (and virtually lived) at the Met for 42 years, rising up steadily from the position of master carpenter to become its General Manager from 1990 to 2006. He wrote this book before his resignation (for which he gave a year and a half notice), having decided to retire because running the Met leaves absolutely no time for a personal life!

Well-done memoir

 on December 1, 2014
By Lance A. Wallace
A very thoughtful and well-proportioned memoir not only of the author’s time as general manager at the Met, but a fairly full autobiography of his early days in blue-collar New York, work as a carpenter, and the gradual awareness that he had what it takes to combine all the major requirements of the general manager–deciding on the operas to be presented, the right mix of premieres and new productions with the reliable stand-bys, and the ever-present problem of finding millions of dollars a year from private bequests to cover the shortfalls. Of particular interest were the negotiations with the unions, particularly the troublesome musicians’ union, which led to the strike amputating one of the Met seasons. I felt I could trust Volpe’s view of all these elements, even the union negotiations, where he was an interested party. The most affecting scene in the book was when he was backstage hammering scenery while Birgit Nilsson was rehearsing a Wagner opera. He was asked to hammer more softly so he wouldn’t disturb her. He agreed, found that he could now hear her, and for the first time understood what opera was all about. He asked his boss if he could go hear her, and the boss, now also listening, said “I’ll go with you.” They snuck in to the empty auditorium and listened to their heart’s content.

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