Dishing the Divas
By Adam Baer
November 18, 2001
AGITATO: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera, by Johanna Fiedler.
Talese/Doubleday, 393 pp., $30.
ONE OF THE GREAT challenges of writing a tell-all is bringing your subject to life so that readers connect to and engage themselves with your narrative. Who's interested in a scandal that involves people you've never heard of, and worse yet, who you still don't care about at the end of the book?
Johanna Fiedler's "Molto Agitato," a gossipy history of the Metropolitan Opera, falls prey to this problem: Despite its attention to minutiae - budget reports, concert calendars, social hierarchies - it fails to give life to the dramatic stories on which it is based.
The people who make opera happen - singers, conductors, administrators - are some of this world's most extreme characters. They have to be. Their lives are devoted to dramatic interpretations of love, lust and licentious behavior. So it hardly comes as a surprise that the Metropolitan Opera, the world's preeminent house, should have its own share of salacious stories: This soprano slept around; that conductor is of a certain sexual persuasion; these two administrators hate each other, and this stagehand is a murderer.
But placing these tales in context - rendering them as part of a cogent argument, say, or drawing from them insights that shed light on the personalities involved - is another story altogether, one to which Fiedler, a former Met press agent and the daughter of former Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler, chooses not to attend. The result is a laundry list of trivial tales about managerial conflicts, financial problems, repertorial choices and the exploits of opera celebrities.
Look at Fiedler's account of Met conductor and artistic director James Levine, the contemporary character she adorns with the most attention. The rotund, aviator-glassed Levine, famous for wearing his curly black-grey hair in a semi-Afro, comes off as an intensely private, powerful talent with honest intentions and a fair disposition. We're told he keeps his personal life secret and that, even though he lives with a woman, he often has affairs. Then, Fiedler casually resurrects age-old rumors about Levine's sexuality and sensationalist tales of his activities. Then, the former Met spin-doctor promptly dismisses said rumors and moves on to another subject.
The problem with this approach is that Fiedler doesn't add anything new in the way of insight to this case. She raises these dramatic issues without analyzing them, merely reprinting information that has already graced the pages of
's newspapers and
magazines. We don't learn anything about Levine that we can't find at our local
library or on the Internet. Despite her support of Levine, our understanding of
him as a person is sketchy at best, due to his story's being denied the benefit
of a thoughtful analysis.
This technique - resurrecting gossip, describing it briefly with the help of other people's reportage, making a predictable snap judgment on it and moving on - is prevalent throughout the entire book. Consider her presentation of the case of the late Met Orchestra violinist Helen Hagnes, who was the victim of a backstage felony murder committed by stagehand Craig Crimmins in 1980. Fiedler paints an animated scene of the events that led up to the violinist's disappearance. But she never delves into the character of Craig Crimmins or into specific examples of the animosity present between the opera's orchestral musicians and stagehands (of which there are plenty). In fact, she simply uses the story as a springboard to her discussion of the ascent of Joseph Volpe, a former stagehand who became the Met's general manager, a position more powerful than the artistic director. Since the murder alerted the media to the Met's rampant backstage drug and alcohol use, Volpe quickly became authoritarian in his work to clean up the streets. And it was this incident, in Fiedler's eyes, that secured him a powerful future in the front office.
Fiedler also tracks the fame and philandering of Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo, the once- competitive duo who both debuted at the Met in 1968 and now comprise two-thirds of "The Three Tenors," an ongoing spectacle that began as a tribute to José ("the other tenor") Carreras' victory over cancer. These accounts work a little better, because most people are familiar with the characters. But when Fiedler traces historical battles of will - like that between famed '50s diva Maria Callas and one-time Met general manager Rudolph Bing - the reader is only presented with summarized exchanges and the facts. We don't really get a sense of what these people were about. And in the end, their accounts seem less than important, less than dramatic and make for less than interesting reading.
That said, "Molto Agitato" will likely interest those who both know a little bit about the Met and want to learn about the headlines and rumors it has faced over the years. But the book is neither a successful tell-all nor an engaging narrative as much as it is an annotated timeline of notable Met events. There is a compelling, objective story to be told about the Met's many backstage melodramas; interested parties will have to wait for it to be written.
Copyright © 2001, Newsday, Inc.