- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 30, 2001

By Johanna Fiedler
Doubleday, $45, 393 pages, illus.

One night in 1980, during a Metropolitan Opera production of "Un Ballo in Maschera," the famed tenor Luciano Pavarotti slipped on the poorly designed set and injured himself. He gamely limped through the rest of the performance but sought treatment from the house doctor immediately following the show. That led to an odd confrontation with conductor Giuseppe Patane, a man apparently as prone to fake heart attacks as Redd Foxx, who had decided he needed to see the doctor first and started a shoving match with the tenor.
That's the kind of backstage dish promised by the subtitle of Johanna Fiedler's "Molto Agitato: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera." And, indeed, the book is sufficiently full of scandal and intrigue murder, suicide, stage fright and injury to have rated an excerpt in Vanity Fair. The author, though, is ultimately less interested in gossip than in portraying the administrative and financial workings of the institution. This is a book less for music lovers than for people who might be interested in fundraising and labor disputes.
Johanna Fiedler worked for 15 years as a Met press representative, which helped gain her access to such notoriously press shy figures as conductor James Levine. But the book is clearly the work of a loyalist. The author tries to present all sides of any dispute and her unwillingness to render harsh judgments along with her pedestrian prose makes the book a sluggish read. The book opens with a chronology of the Met's history, from its first production in 1883 until the present day, and the text that follows is essentially just an annotation of that list of dates.
The Met was founded by parvenu robber barons in Manhattan who could not secure boxes at the old Academy of Music in which to see and be seen. One passage that describes the Depression 50 years later is typical of the author's repetitious and sometimes contradictory history of the company's early years. Because of the financial panic, she writes, the Met's wealthy patrons "could no longer even offer token support to keep the opera house open." Yet she notes on the next page that boxholders pledged $150,000 to do just that. The author briefly mentions the contemporary demise of other prominent opera companies around that time but doesn't describe what about the Met engendered the public loyalty that allowed it to survive and thrive.
You get no sense of what the Met sounded like at different points in its history. Johanna Fiedler is the daughter of famed Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler, but that lineage does not make her descriptions of conductors or other musical talent any more evocative. Thomas Schippers "was handsome and charming and possessed that indefinable quality to communicate with audiences." Rafael Kubelik "would lope out onto the podium, and, in the way of great conductors, somehow instill in each musician the desire to play his or her best."
The author does offer a fine portrait of Mr. Levine as a child, a prodigy but already an old soul, borrowing his grandmother's knitting needles to "conduct along" with the Cincinnati Opera. But the adult music director, clearly the defining presence with the company today and conductor of the most performances in Met history, largely escapes her.
Her profiles of important management figures including Anthony Bliss, Rudolph Bing and Joseph Volpe are long on dates and details, but still sketchy about character. People at the Met are ambitious, we learn, but we don't learn what daily life at the place is like. Time and events rush by in a barely-distinguished blur, as when she informs us, "In 1963, Rudolf Bing realized how tired he was." When was that exactly? Arbor Day? Her brief treatment of Bing's final dementia, though, is poignant.
The area where the author's determinedly nondescript writing is most curious is in her own field of press relations. The Met long has had a reputation for secrecy, which she acknowledges but neither explains nor criticizes. The author describes how a Newsday reporter received unusual access to rehearsals of a 1996 "Carmen," but then does not follow up with news of what he learned and wrote. She says there was a big buildup to bass Bryn Terfel's 1994 debut, but does not mention or explain why the New York Times review of his performance landed on the front page. She recounts a spat between tenor Placido Domingo and a Met "press representative" in 1983. The event happened during her tenure, but she does not out herself as that person.
No one misses Johanna Fiedler's absence as a character in this book, but her refusal to express opinions about much of anything is a major mistake. She notes that present-day donor Alberto Vilar has given the Met more than $25 million, but also less than graciously sent his lawyers around to make sure that his name went up on a plaque in the elevator. "What makes me less important than Placido Domingo?" Vilar asked the author in their interview. "Why shouldn't I take curtain calls?" She doesn't record her responses to those questions and, more importantly, never lends us any sense that she has wrestled with the larger question of who can claim ownership of artistic institution the creative talent, the management, the donors or the fans.

Alan Greenblatt writes frequently about music for a number of Washington publications.

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