Molto Agitato: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera by Johanna Fiedler. Doubleday, 2001 (paperback 2003)
Things you may not have known:
— Contrary to his persistent image as an all-round Good Guy (professional, multi-repertory, devoted husband et ad nauseam cetera), the memoir gives a revisionist account of Plácido Domingo. There are many unflattering episodes of his divo-ism (screaming at a press officer because Mirella Freni & the Don Carlos production dogs get to be photographed for the NYT and not him; threatening not to perform another concert in a series he opened if Pavarotti’s image isn’t withdrawn from the printed program…), but his statements meant to deny his womanizing must be among the most hilarious material collected here. “Women follow me to many, many places. It is beautiful, you know, beautiful that they have something in life to look forward to.” (p. 277)
— The degree to which the Met’s rich donors affected the company’s artistic decisions. I was vaguely aware that the influence was considerable, but Fiedler details the many instances of mega-donors underwriting a particular production then making artistic decisions about it via the chosen director (often, ahem, Zeffirelli).
— Believe it or not, there was an anti-Zeffirelli period in the Met history: the period of relative austerity with John Dexter as the lead stage director in the mid-1970s. Dexter, a Brit of working-class origin who developed professionally during the Angry Young Men period of the British theatre and the European theatrical avant-garde, understood budgetary restraint as an invitation to creativity and artistic freedom. He also avoided standard operatic repertoire and preferred the less performed works and 20th C opera.
— The whole miserable story of the failed Carmen with Waltraud Meier and Zeffirelli’s part in it. He ended up becoming the director of the production after many others refused to get involved, and couldn’t stand the idea of Meier as Carmen. This displeasure took form of avoiding to direct her, something she had to improvise and organize for herself with supers and a stage assistant friend. (!) The reviews were particularly bad for Meier, who became something of a lightning rod for every grievance the critics had about this Zeffirelli kitsch-o-rama with live animals. In interviews, Zeff managed to insult both Meier and Denyce Graves who he preferred and who was scheduled as the next Carmen. Graves is “more animal, more Gypsy… What I am saying is not racist. Graves is a great artist, and each one has an interpretation that derives from her own culture. Blacks have this fierce quality, and since Meier was criticized for being too Teutonic, I see that Americans want something more selvaggio…” (p. 314) What can one say to this but Shut up, you fool.
Things you might have heard before:
— This book is not a Jimmy-hagiography. Fiedler demonstrates through story-telling, if not by exactly stating it, that James Levine likes to be liked (therefore will shy away from open conflict), hates making difficult decisions, and prefers old-fashioned clunker stagings à la Zeffirelli. The persistence of the famous ‘rumours’ gets addressed.
— Kathleen Battle was hell on earth. (Fiedler quotes Beverley Sills’s interpretation of Battle’s behaviour: “She must be frightened to death”)
— Yes, Renata Scotto and Pavarotti did not see eye to eye, confirms Fiedler. My impression was that Fiedler diplomatically takes his side in the many accounts of the clashes between the two. Since I’ve first read Scotto’s account of these episodes in her memoirs, I’m still on her side in this utter time-waster of an issue.
— No, Pavarotti could not read music.
— Everything you heard about the Alagnas… is probably close.
What I wish she wrote more about:
— Tatiana Troyanos makes just one appearance (as Cesare in Handel‘s Cesare in rehearsals in which Battle singing Cleopatra behaves particularly badly) before the news of her death.
— It’s mentioned in passing, never elaborated, that Jessye Norman’s performances at the Met were very rare. No reasons offered.
Should you read this memoir: an adequate beach read, if a little old. Get the paperback–the hardcover is huge and heavy.
Here’s the Meier-Domingo Seguedilla: