MOLTO AGITATO: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera

Johanna Fiedler, Author . Doubleday/Talese $30 (416p) ISBN 978-0-385-48187-8

Fiedler is the author of an affectionately critical memoir of her father Arthur Fiedler of Boston Pops fame, and since she spent 15 years at the Met as its press representative, she is well placed to offer a lively history of an institution often involved in controversy and personality clashes. She is particularly good on its early history—the Met began when the newly wealthy Mrs. Vanderbilt was turned down for a box at the old Academy of Music, then New York's opera house, and decided, in 1883, to start her own—and gives a delicious picture of an era when opera in the city was essentially a social rather than a musical milieu, and the music (not that anybody listened very hard) was largely Wagner. Then came decades of expansion, the legendary rule of Rudolf Bing, the move to Lincoln Center and the long tenure of Anthony Bliss. The story comes up to the present with the dual regime of Joseph Volpe, who rose through the stagehand ranks to become a tough and admired general manager, and conductor James Levine, who has covered himself and the Met orchestra with musical glory for 30 years but seems unknowable behind his mask of warm geniality. Along the way, of course, are innumerable tempestuous scenes: with Callas, with the increasingly weird Kathleen Battle and with the often insecure Luciano Pavarotti. An orchestra member is raped and murdered behind the scenes. And always, there are union problems, and agonies about how to pay the bills. Fiedler's book is workmanlike, but to any opera buff who has read the New York Times carefully over the years, nothing much here is new. A book on London's Covent Garden that, by a strange coincidence, appears the same week, is infinitely more revealing and dramatic (see review above). (Oct. 30)

Reviewed on: 08/20/2001
Release date: 10/01/2001
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