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

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.

Opera Fan/atic

 on September 16, 2013
By Altair93
This book is one of several books about the Metropolitan Opera in my collection. It is an easy read, Mr. Volpe pulls no punches about anything and he is pretty much on target when it comes the divas and divos :-)) The book also takes the reader into the “bowels of the opera house”so to speak where the sets are constructed which is fascinating. Having once had the good fortune to be backstage just prior to a performance and seeing the jumble of set pieces, and a short time later seeing everything assembled on the stage from my seat was amazing. Of course, nowadays one sees this via the HD transmission of the

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!

The Toughest Show on Earth

 on August 29, 2013
By Kathleen
Wonderful insightful tome into the inner workings of one of the premier Opera Houses in the world, The Metropolitan Opera. Joe Volpe comes across as tough but you would have to possess that quality to ascend to General Manager. Enjoyed this tale and would definitely recommend it to opera lovers.

Just me….

One person found this helpful.
 on October 22, 2010
By Therese M. Bednarowski
This was wonderful. I read it following the reading of the book on the previous head of the Met. Rudolph Bing. Gave a contrast in how to deal with people assiciated with the Met. Just a great book…great insight into personalities of the Singers at the Opera House. Someone who grew to know Opera from the ground up. A great read…….

Four Stars

 on July 22, 2015
By michael franklin
It was a great behind the scenes account of his rise to the top of the Met.

Great book.

 on March 4, 2014
By Barbara Chisler
I read this book in two days. It held your attention and gave insight to the Met operations besides showing his years coming thru the ranks.

The Toughest Show on Earth

 on January 9, 2014
By Mary K. Magnuson
I read this after reading Rudolf Bing’s book “Five Thousand Nights at the Opera.” This book was different, because Mr. Volpe started out building stage sets at the Metropolitan Opera and worked his way up to being General Manager. So his experience was quite different from Mr. Bing’s account of his time as General Manager, some years before. I enjoyed Mr. Volpe’s book very much, because he tells of his rise to and his years at this very difficult and exciting job, and also how it had changed in the intervening years. I would recommend it to all opera lovers, especially ones who are familiar with several operas as I was, who would like to know more about what goes on “behind the scenes” at the Met.

Five Stars

 on January 12, 2015
By Robert E. Holladay
Great!!!

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

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