Should you read this publicist’s memoir: Molto Agitato by Johanna Fiedler

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for the NYT and not him; threatening not to perform another concert in a series he opened if Pavarotti’s image isn’t withdrawn from the printed program…), but his statements meant to deny his womanizing must be among the most hilarious material collected here.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.

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Here’s the Meier-Domingo Seguedilla:

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17 thoughts on “Should you read this publicist’s memoir: Molto Agitato by Johanna Fiedler

  1. Domingo… I suspected. Did I mention I mistrust men who are charming at all times on principle?

    I have to display my lack of education: I don’t know this specific Carmen, and will listen to it tomorrow when I have headphones.

    Zeffirelli: Everything has its place in history. It’s surely not my preferred style. His settings are neither an accurate picture of the time the piece is set in, nor from the time where it was written. It’s glossed-over, too much of everything, imho.
    (Oh, Carmens… Yes, Von Otter’s collarbone on the DVD cover impresses even me.)

    Domingo’s line cracked me up: “It is beautiful, you know, beautiful that they have something in life to look forward to.” Oh god, how arrogant. It sounds as if it was the only thing on earth! I consider myself quite a mad fan as well — even if not of Domingo — but, there is life beyond! Even if a lover would say this quote… Hell, sounds as if he’s looking down on some slaves that are waiting, hungrily, for him to toss them a bone to gnaw on. Eeeeeks!

  2. I know. He doesn’t come out too well, but not that these things ever harmed him. He’s still going on and on and on and will never retire.

    Found this video from his recent Tamerlano performance in Barcelona — wondered if I could see von Otter’s curtain call, but the person recording was only interested in Domingo and Bejun Mehta…

  3. Argh I have to listen to it tomorrow. I have heard parts of his Tamerlano — I thought all snippets on youtube, but not this one. I like him as Bajazet. It’s a tricky part, very low for a tenor and a very large one too — very uncommon for Baroque opera. Tamerlano is such a great opera. What part did von Otter sing? Irene?? She’d make a great Andronico. Alright, agreed, I wouldn’t cast Mehta as Irene. 😀

  4. Oh and this selling of prejudices as if it was praising a strong point, as Zeffirelli did there… Erghs… We had that with “inverse prejudice” a while ago.

  5. On the issue of Jessye Norman’s performances at the Met, wondering what Fiedler meant by “rare”? It seems to me that JN was there pretty consistently for about 15 years, or at least as often as was afforded by her repertoire at that time.

  6. Re. rare–I wonder. JN is not a frequent name in the book; she appears twice or thrice, so when Fiedler said she had not been a Met regular, it was easy to believe her based on how infrequently she mentions Norman.

    Lank: I’m told by a voice coach I know that tenor tessitura lowers as they age, so if Bajazet is lower than is usual for tenor, I guess the geezer tenors will like it. I think Domingo is something of a baritone now anyhoo, or in-between.

    Yes, Otter was Irene.

    1. Yeah, so I had a look at the Met db, and she was there almost every season 1983-1996. It’s just she was doing things like Troyens, Ariadne, Erwartung, Dialogues of the Carmelites, etc. so they probably had short-ish runs? Still, not like parachuting in amid great fanfare once in a decade or anything. Maybe Fiedler prefers the Italian rep. Or maybe the Italian rep is just better for scandalous back-stage behavior.

      I remember John Dexter’s productions of Lulu and Mahagonny. It was at a time when the Met ran telecasts of all its new productions no matter what they were, and PBS was actually willing to run them. Nobody made money off that venture, but as one of the twelve people who were watching them on tv, I can attest to their excellence.

  7. Just to stumble in again… Now I have headphones and listened to the Meier recording. I just find it has a weird sense of sexiness or lack of it. I don’t like a body language that finishes with leaning back in a lewd way displaying boobs a lot. But I guess that was Zeffirelli’s idea and concept.
    And… I dislike the term “teutonic” really. All this racist vocabulary is just disgusting. The wild animals that “gipsies” and black people are supposed to be etc, blablabla. I always think I hear a slave-driver talking or one who sells women on the internet.
    Black? There’s half a world where people are not white, asshole, so they are all the same? Seriously? Gipsies… Do you have any idea how complex the issue even is and what is referred to as “gipsy?” Do you know anything at all?

    Even Mödl is not “teutonic”, she’s just… “Mödl”?

    Carmen is supposed to be… Carmen. She is an individual, and stands out from the background. That’s the point. She’s not just another gipsy. So, what the serious,…..etc….

    I wondered why I find the clip aove tedious to watch. It must be that I sense no big chemistry or even love lost between Meier and Domingo, neither in their acting nor vocally. For comparison,…

    They make it positively sound like a love duet, especially at 2:30.

    1. And here I was thinking I’d be listening to the vengeance duet from Otello in a whole new light. Damn. Well, DC goes without saying.

  8. Thanks for the review and highlights. Can only concur with above expressions of “eeeeeek” and “WHAT?!” etc. The Met’s glorious past of doing new/non-standard rep was a part of its history that had fallen off the map for me. Dare I hope for such times to come again?

    Waltraud Meier… I was, I confess, curious about the Carmen debacle not least because I have never felt eroticism to be something that Meier has any trouble portraying and communicating on stage. Vividly. Ahem. But I have to agree with Lankin in saying that I just don’t see chemistry in the video above. And the staging doesn’t help.

  9. That Carmen is the same one during which a certain Angela Gheorghiu refused to wear a blonde wig. The legend has it that Volpe told her “This wig will be worn tomorrow, with or without you.” (It was without; a cover sang Micaela the following night)

    stray–interesting that nobody cared about the telecast. The tickets for the performances themselves sold well, it seems.

    1. Okay twelve is probably exaggeration on my part — Teresa Stratas was in both and she would have drawn pretty well no matter what she was doing — although that did end up being the conventional wisdom vis a vis opera telecasts and why not to fund them.

      Anyway in the Dexter Era the Met had an iron-clad artistic mission and a flame-red budget deficit to prove it, iirc. Things tightened up a lot after that, although it’s also true that the advent of home video not long after changed the economics of opera on video considerably.

  10. @Stray … Yes, the picture is totally funny. I wonder why it seemed a good idea to put it in that video.
    @Lucy. Yes. vividly. hehe.

    I am totally so uninformed concerning opera-gossip, as I just noticed! *sitting back to listen…

  11. The lavish Zeffirelli sets are described by various decision-makers in the book as “singer proof”. They will get the applause and overshadow the singer, if the singer needs overshadowing…

    I wish any North American cable package offered Mezzo or Arte, which regularly broadcast operas. There’s TV5 and a couple of francophone channels here, but I don’t know if anybody has any way of subscribing to Arte. I know some East Europeans get Mezzo here and there.

    According to various sources, this book included, Renata Scotto realized for the first time how heavy she was after the Puccini telecast she hand sung in with Pavarotti. Fiedler’s line is that “she’s been irritable ever since she lost weight” kinda thing…

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