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Molto Agitato: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera

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Behind the gold curtains of the Metropolitan Opera House, amidst the elaborate sets, bejeweled costumes, and labyrinth of administrative offices, the Met has traditionally operated in great secrecy. Until now. Johanna Fiedler, who was the Met’s general press representative for fifteen years, draws upon her insider’s knowledge and rivetingly reveals for the first time the co Behind the gold curtains of the Metropolitan Opera House, amidst the elaborate sets, bejeweled costumes, and labyrinth of administrative offices, the Met has traditionally operated in great secrecy. Until now. Johanna Fiedler, who was the Met’s general press representative for fifteen years, draws upon her insider’s knowledge and rivetingly reveals for the first time the company’s Byzantine inner workings and the personal, social, economic, and artistic struggles that have always characterized the Met. Molto Agitato is a tale with an appropriately operatic cast of characters_haughty blue bloods, ambitious social climbers, determined administrators, stubborn board members, temperamental artists_all maneuvering to use their power and influence to make the Met conform to their own agendas. Fiedler brings to life the early days of the Met, with the imperious Toscanini arriving from Italy and Caruso filling the house; the post-WW II years, when the unions gained strength and plagued the company with strikes; and the ever present passions of tenors and sopranos, clashing offstage as well as on. But most revelatory are Fiedler’s portrayals of James Levine and Joseph Volpe and their practically parallel ascendancies_Levine rising from prodigy to artistic director, Volpe advancing from stagehand to general manager_and their once strained relationship that was compounded by Volpe’s much publicized firing of the soprano Kathleen Battle. With its swift-flowing narrative, Molto Agitato is a wonderfully entertaining and thoroughly engaging account not only of one of the world’s most respected and richest music institutions but also of power, politics, ambition, and egos. From the Hardcover edition.


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Behind the gold curtains of the Metropolitan Opera House, amidst the elaborate sets, bejeweled costumes, and labyrinth of administrative offices, the Met has traditionally operated in great secrecy. Until now. Johanna Fiedler, who was the Met’s general press representative for fifteen years, draws upon her insider’s knowledge and rivetingly reveals for the first time the co Behind the gold curtains of the Metropolitan Opera House, amidst the elaborate sets, bejeweled costumes, and labyrinth of administrative offices, the Met has traditionally operated in great secrecy. Until now. Johanna Fiedler, who was the Met’s general press representative for fifteen years, draws upon her insider’s knowledge and rivetingly reveals for the first time the company’s Byzantine inner workings and the personal, social, economic, and artistic struggles that have always characterized the Met. Molto Agitato is a tale with an appropriately operatic cast of characters_haughty blue bloods, ambitious social climbers, determined administrators, stubborn board members, temperamental artists_all maneuvering to use their power and influence to make the Met conform to their own agendas. Fiedler brings to life the early days of the Met, with the imperious Toscanini arriving from Italy and Caruso filling the house; the post-WW II years, when the unions gained strength and plagued the company with strikes; and the ever present passions of tenors and sopranos, clashing offstage as well as on. But most revelatory are Fiedler’s portrayals of James Levine and Joseph Volpe and their practically parallel ascendancies_Levine rising from prodigy to artistic director, Volpe advancing from stagehand to general manager_and their once strained relationship that was compounded by Volpe’s much publicized firing of the soprano Kathleen Battle. With its swift-flowing narrative, Molto Agitato is a wonderfully entertaining and thoroughly engaging account not only of one of the world’s most respected and richest music institutions but also of power, politics, ambition, and egos. From the Hardcover edition.

30 review for Molto Agitato: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera

  1. 4 out of 5

    Joan

    Fiedler was the Met's general press representative for fifteen years. She tells, if not quite all, much. She begins with the founding of the Met in 1883, by Vanderbilts and other nouveaux riches who were barred from buying boxes at the Academy of Music. "Humph," they said, "we'll start our own opera company." And so the Met was born. If you think that the world of music is pure and aesthetic and idealistic, this book will be either upsetting or instructional (or both). Tammany Hall has nothing o Fiedler was the Met's general press representative for fifteen years. She tells, if not quite all, much. She begins with the founding of the Met in 1883, by Vanderbilts and other nouveaux riches who were barred from buying boxes at the Academy of Music. "Humph," they said, "we'll start our own opera company." And so the Met was born. If you think that the world of music is pure and aesthetic and idealistic, this book will be either upsetting or instructional (or both). Tammany Hall has nothing on backstage politics, nor does junior high have anything on the gossipmongers. The maneuvering for artistic, financial and musical control of a house like the Met would have challenged Machiavelli. Fiedler's book is full of stories of which singer hates which conductor who hates which director, not to mention who is sleeping with who and who is stabbing who in the back. The book ends, chronologically, with Alberto Vilar's $25 million dollar gift and his insistence that the Grand Tier be named after him. It was, but in 2003 his name was removed because he had not fulfilled his pledges. Two years later, Vilar was indicted for fraud and money laundering, and was unable to post the $10 million bond. Board president (and later general manager) Anthony Bliss had a pillow in his office on which was embroidered a quotation from Franz Schalk: "Theater is a lunatic asylum, and the opera is a refuge for incurables." I recommend this book to all my fellow incurables.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Patrick Gibson

    There's not much dirt on the people involved, but enough to keep your interest. What really makes this a fun read, though, is the inside info you won't find in any other books. For example, I had no idea that the Schuyler Chapin administration was the almost complete failure described by Ms. Fiedler (Head of the Met Press Department for many years, regular panelist on the Opera Quiz, and Arthur Fiedler's daughter), nor had I ever read this much inside info on James Levine, a man who's always pri There's not much dirt on the people involved, but enough to keep your interest. What really makes this a fun read, though, is the inside info you won't find in any other books. For example, I had no idea that the Schuyler Chapin administration was the almost complete failure described by Ms. Fiedler (Head of the Met Press Department for many years, regular panelist on the Opera Quiz, and Arthur Fiedler's daughter), nor had I ever read this much inside info on James Levine, a man who's always prided himself on keeping his public and private lives separate. Let me just say that, whether you're an opera buff, or just interested in classical music in general, you'll find "Molto Agitato" a fascinating read. And yes, the title is one of the best parts of the book. Be warned: Ms. Fiedler may know ‘press’ but she doesn’t seem to know much about opera. Some of her mistakes sent shivers.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Katy

    This was a delight! Because supporting high culture was regarded as a mark of one's own rise in society, the book reveals as much about New York social climbers as about the Met itself. But I digress, I enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look at what it take to run an opera house, the egos, the feuds, the unions, the benefactors, the conductors, the singers, the scandals...it's just like an opera itself.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Hannah Green

    The content of this book is 💯💯💯. The problem is that the author was able to sneak regular ... problematic tonal shifts into most of the second half of the book. Listen, I get that classical music is behind the times with regards to gender, class, race, and especially victim shaming (as apparent in nearly every mention Maestro McRape), but holy crap you'd think it would be possible to write a work of nonfiction with some sensitivity. So the content of this book is six stars. I'd love to see a new The content of this book is 💯💯💯. The problem is that the author was able to sneak regular ... problematic tonal shifts into most of the second half of the book. Listen, I get that classical music is behind the times with regards to gender, class, race, and especially victim shaming (as apparent in nearly every mention Maestro McRape), but holy crap you'd think it would be possible to write a work of nonfiction with some sensitivity. So the content of this book is six stars. I'd love to see a new edition that takes the truth behind what the former Maestro has been up to into account, and maybe realizing that women are people too.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Kenneth Sherrill

    A fun read. I read this while recovering from a case of gastroenteritis and on a liquid diet. The book was easy pleasure reading, filled with dirt and dish but generally uncritical. Written before #MeToo, it seems to be incredibly blind to the effects on women of tenors behaving badly. The book's treatment of James Levine is particularly bittersweet in the light of his health issues and the allegations of sexual harassment. Still, it's a fun read, comfort food for someone killing time while recov A fun read. I read this while recovering from a case of gastroenteritis and on a liquid diet. The book was easy pleasure reading, filled with dirt and dish but generally uncritical. Written before #MeToo, it seems to be incredibly blind to the effects on women of tenors behaving badly. The book's treatment of James Levine is particularly bittersweet in the light of his health issues and the allegations of sexual harassment. Still, it's a fun read, comfort food for someone killing time while recovering.

  6. 4 out of 5

    VPM

    I learned that the Metropolitan Opera is a city with its own culture and rich tradition. And, as an example, its stage hands are like many fire departments, in terms of multiple families having many generations in the ranks. This book is quick to read and enjoyable. It was on a reading list put out by our local opera company.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Jane

    Much less mayhem than the title advertises, but, oh, the personality clashes! And unacceptable behavior! I can't get my own head about the lack of lawsuits over broken contracts, or perhaps, merely not mentioned.

  8. 4 out of 5

    David

    Things in the opera world have changed a lot since 2001. Her apologist attitude towards all of the abusive behavior at the Met is really appalling, especially now, 20 years later when the industry finally stopped enabling and put a stop to it.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Peter

    Ugh. Life imitates art. Pretty much Real Housewives of New York in book form.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Garry

    A fun, juicy, gossipy, and insider-y read. Certainly falls short of the Five Star "Amazing" standard, but I don't think the author was even aiming for that territory. The book can really be split into two sections, parts which are wildly different in tone and content. The first half is reasonably sober, somewhat detailed, theoretically well-researched and straightforward chronological telling of the first several decades of the Metropolitan Opera. There is a lot to be learned, and probably the m A fun, juicy, gossipy, and insider-y read. Certainly falls short of the Five Star "Amazing" standard, but I don't think the author was even aiming for that territory. The book can really be split into two sections, parts which are wildly different in tone and content. The first half is reasonably sober, somewhat detailed, theoretically well-researched and straightforward chronological telling of the first several decades of the Metropolitan Opera. There is a lot to be learned, and probably the most important is the early stages of THE enduring theme in the life of the Met and source of much of the spice and sizzle that dominates the second half: The Met as Magnet - and Vacuum -- of Money and Conferrer of Social Status. The second half is where things gets much less serious and where all sense of writerly discipline and historical responsibility fall apart. The second half casually rejects the chronological approach, allowing the author to settle old scores (sorry, couldn't resist) and dish dirt in a serial way about... Rudolph Bing, Anthony Bliss, James Levine, Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and -- with the most relish -- the hellish little diva, Kathleen Battle. Here we jump forward and backwards through the years and some details are told repeatedly with no nod to the fact they have been shared or cited before. This feels like -- ok, this IS -- sloppy writing and even sloppier editing. Fiedler is not above -- ok, VERY not above -- making cheap and underhanded nods to irresponsible and salacious rumors that are beyond UN-subtle. After about the, oh, fifth or sixth reference to how much James Levine "guards his privacy," how "rumors have circulated" about his private behavior, how etc etc etc. OK, OK we GET it. Move ON. What Fiedler ignores throughout the book is the fact she worked at the Met for years. We do not get any discussion of how and why she left the Met...or what she actually did while there. This is noted in the author blurb, but the absence of forthright honesty about this point in the text adds to the sense she out to exact revenge and payback. And for a woman who knowingly talks about the egos of famous musicians and in particular of conductors, Fiedler never mentions once her father... Arthur Fiedler, the iconically white haired, fire truck riding conductor of the Boston Pops. So, ultimately, if you are into opera, read this book. You will get a ton of gossip and dished dirt. Take the dirt with a grain of salt and move on.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Leah Coffin

    Interesting book. Some observations: For all that the older anecdotes no longer have people alive to confirm or deny them, they seem a lot more honest. The author minces far fewer words about, say, Toscanini's love life than she does James Levine's. (Speaking of which, the author would really, really like you to believe that Levine is straight. And in a committed relationship with a woman. Really. NO REALLY COME ON YOU GUYS.) It's also pretty obvious who gave her an interview and who didn't, as t Interesting book. Some observations: For all that the older anecdotes no longer have people alive to confirm or deny them, they seem a lot more honest. The author minces far fewer words about, say, Toscanini's love life than she does James Levine's. (Speaking of which, the author would really, really like you to believe that Levine is straight. And in a committed relationship with a woman. Really. NO REALLY COME ON YOU GUYS.) It's also pretty obvious who gave her an interview and who didn't, as they generally come off much better than whoever they're talking about. And therein lies the problem: the author isn't trying to get both sides of the story. She's accepting the anecdotes people give her as gospel truth, and not trying to corroborate it with anyone else. I mean, not that Carol Vaness telling off Kathleen Battle wasn't awesome, but surely there were other people there to give their take on it? She's also way too obsessed with the Three Tenors and their respective love lives; I for one would have been more interested in a general take on why, for example, 60 seems to be the age of mid-life male opera singer crisis, or how so many female opera singers have to choose between having a life and having a career. Furthermore, this book could for sure have used some proofreading; if you refer to a singer as a bass and then talk about him singing a baritone role, one of those statements is incorrect. Overall, the book has a nice pace and some pretty juicy gossip, but lacks both depth and honesty. A quick read, but you'll want to get your facts from several other sources.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Margaret Wichorek

    THis a very interesting book about the history of the Met opera and many of its various managers and singers. I was started by Mrs. William Vanderbilt because she couldn't get a box seat at the Academy of Music in NYC. There werh only 18 box seats at the Academy of Music , so her only recourse was to build a new house. THis one, of course, would be much bigger and luxurious. And it put the Academy our of business. There have been many colorful singers and managers there, naturally and a lot of s THis a very interesting book about the history of the Met opera and many of its various managers and singers. I was started by Mrs. William Vanderbilt because she couldn't get a box seat at the Academy of Music in NYC. There werh only 18 box seats at the Academy of Music , so her only recourse was to build a new house. THis one, of course, would be much bigger and luxurious. And it put the Academy our of business. There have been many colorful singers and managers there, naturally and a lot of stories to be told. Some quite scandalous. The book concentrates mostly on the years James Levine spent at the house. He started as a very young assistant conductor until not too many years later was made Artistic Director One of the amazing stories is about Joe Volpe, who started as a stagehand and is now director of the whole shebang. Also learned that Pavarotti and Domingo made their debuts in the same season-1968. I'm a big opera fan, so this book was a delight for me.. especially all the gossipy bits!

  13. 4 out of 5

    Robert Hund

    A history of the Met. How it was born, how it prospered, how it survived crises, it's artists, management and employees. Snobbishness, prejudice, dominance and domineering, tempermental as well as just good ol' boy personalities. 345 pages, plus acknowledgements, references by chapter, and an index. "Many singers describe themselves as athletes, with reliance on physical endurance...age takes its inevitable toll". "She (Joan Sutherland" was only sixty-one, but she knew the time had come. The grea A history of the Met. How it was born, how it prospered, how it survived crises, it's artists, management and employees. Snobbishness, prejudice, dominance and domineering, tempermental as well as just good ol' boy personalities. 345 pages, plus acknowledgements, references by chapter, and an index. "Many singers describe themselves as athletes, with reliance on physical endurance...age takes its inevitable toll". "She (Joan Sutherland" was only sixty-one, but she knew the time had come. The great ones usually do." He (Placido Domingo) did make lewd remarks to women in his dressing room and was known to grab any female within an arm's length, but most of this was clearly an act, meant as a compliment to the woman. Domingo would never grab a woman's breast in public - (what a gent!)...an autobiography that some thought a little premature.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Rachel C.

    A detailed history of the Met Opera. I liked the beginning (late 1800s, social struggles of the New York nouveau riche) and the end (lots on Domingo and Pavarotti, singers I've actually heard of). A bit dull and draggy in the middle. The financial troubles of the opera house were tedious to read about and should have been edited down. I enjoyed the gossipy bits about the performers and administrators, but unfortunately Fiedler doesn't have Malcolm Gladwell's knack for describing people in such a A detailed history of the Met Opera. I liked the beginning (late 1800s, social struggles of the New York nouveau riche) and the end (lots on Domingo and Pavarotti, singers I've actually heard of). A bit dull and draggy in the middle. The financial troubles of the opera house were tedious to read about and should have been edited down. I enjoyed the gossipy bits about the performers and administrators, but unfortunately Fiedler doesn't have Malcolm Gladwell's knack for describing people in such a way as to make them come alive for the reader. And, as with Jay-Z's book, I think you'd get more out of it than I did if you had more of a background in the musical genre to start with.

  15. 5 out of 5

    David Linzee

    In the introduction the author says the book is not about music, but about the politics of an institution. She reveals that the glamorous Met is pretty much like your office, with the same shifting alliances, ill-kept secrets, and long-simmering discontents. No doubt, though, that events are more dramatic at the Met than in the average office. Fiedler tells of a suicide in the auditorium, a sudden death onstage, and a murder backstage. She also offers insights into such celebs at Domingo and Pav In the introduction the author says the book is not about music, but about the politics of an institution. She reveals that the glamorous Met is pretty much like your office, with the same shifting alliances, ill-kept secrets, and long-simmering discontents. No doubt, though, that events are more dramatic at the Met than in the average office. Fiedler tells of a suicide in the auditorium, a sudden death onstage, and a murder backstage. She also offers insights into such celebs at Domingo and Pavarotti.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Kevin

    Filled in lots of blanks about the Met and history. Great for a newish opera fan like myself. The last chapter is tragic since she obviously thought she could stay in good graces with her sources (Levine and Volpe) and amped up the praise like crazy. Annnnd then in the afterword it's clear Volpe was a little too obviously one of her main sources and disowned the book. Put it this way: She couldn't work at Us Weekly. There, I said it.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Todd Jenkins

    An utterly fascinating look at one of New York's enduring cultural institutions. From its birth as a face-slap to the established old-money families of NYC to the present day, the Met has endured more than its share of controversy, drama and comedy. The personalities and historical elements that made the Met what it is are brightly illuminated in Molto Agitato. Highly recommended.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Kate Schindler

    This was surprisingly interesting and easy to read. I learned all kinds of fascinating things like how the Met got started, why Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti were/are so popular and their weaknesses, and who was behind the awesome subtitles at the Vienna Opera. If you have any interest in opera, you really need to read this!

  19. 5 out of 5

    Madame

    This is perfect for opera fans, especially for Met Opera lovers. It is a well-researched book that tells the story of the Metropolitan Opera House of NY, with a good writing style and a lot of anecdotes, including divas acting like divas, love affairs, a lot of incurable opera fans, money issues and, more than once, death at the opera house. (First book of the year!)

  20. 5 out of 5

    Kimberley Smith

    Well written and fascinating! This history about the Metropolitan Opera from its beginning is one of the very best books written about this period of opera. Johanna Fiedler is a good writer that keeps my interest and helps me understand just what makes the Met so great.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Hoyadaisy

    Fascinating read. It's a tribute to Fiedler's writing, as I have only the vaguest interest in opera. She kept me with her. If you like this, you'll like "Making the Mummies Dance" about the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Patricia

    If you have wondered what goes on backstage at the Metropolitan Opera, this is the book for you. Egos are inflated, competition is deadly, and there is plenty of humor in the scheming and screaming.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Tiffany

    So awesome! If you like hearing about the behind the scenes antics of crazy, megalomaniac opera singers, this is the book for you.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Michael Sarratt

    A breezy history of the Metropolitan Opera by a behind the scenes observer. Very chatty and entertaining especially for opera fans.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Katy Dickinson

    This is an entertaining history of the Met in New York City, a fast and fun read full of gossip and self-important but very talented personalities.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Marjorie

    Great insight into the history and workings of the Metropolitan Opera

  27. 4 out of 5

    Sharon

    Since I lover opera, the behind-the-scenes stories of the Metropolitan Opera were a lot of fun. A lot of egos involved and not just those of the singers.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Holly Weiss

    What goes on behind the opera curtain. Oh, my. Surprises galore

  29. 4 out of 5

    Siobhan Burns

    Lots of fun information, but heavily weighted toward recent history (especially the 1990s), and her partisanship comes through (e.g., her hero worship of Joe Volpe).

  30. 5 out of 5

    JanetLand

    Loved it. Didn't learn all that much about opera as an art form, but I very much enjoyed the stories about various singers and other characters.

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