March 2, 2007 Joe Volpe, former manager of the Metropolitan Opera, spoke about his career last week. The talk was given in the chapel, a humble venue for a man who deals intimately and regularly with greats like Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo. Joe, whose casual and unpretentious demeanor welcomes the use of his first name, began his career in the unglamorous world of set-design, a far cry from the position that would later allow him to take in performances with dignitaries like Rudolph Giuliani.
While the talk was engrossing and refreshingly informal, my thoughts soon drifted. The sight of Joe, who without a suit could easily be mistaken for a school teacher or social worker, suddenly made the world of opera seem more accessible. I began to fantasize about my debut on the stage. Before long I was whisked away to Covent Garden where I found myself singing alongside Maria Ewing. The opera: Carmen; the role: Don José; the performance: brilliant! As the curtain falls and the crowd roars with applause, Maria Ewing looks deep into my eyes and tells me that if I were only a little older, she might allow me to be her real-life Don Jose. I savor the compliment but only for a moment; does she mean that in other circumstances I might be her fatally jealous lover? “What the hell,” I figure, “it’s Maria Ewing. No matter what she says I’ll still be smitten.”
The fantasy swells into a compendium of glamorous affairs, family struggles, and several triumphant comebacks from the inevitable drug addictions and publicity nightmares. Right when my children are vying for my attention—the greedy son, to encourage a negotiation with EMI, the fawning daughter, to urge my return to rehab—I hear the cheers of a real audience. I found myself back in the chapel and sadly devoid of my imagined stardom. Joe Volpe took a final bow and the talk was over.
Why would a young American student choose an opera fantasy over the more typical rock star fantasy? For one thing, the duties of an opera singer fulfill the New Year’s resolutions of most educated people: learn a few languages, read more, travel the world, cultivate the artist within, etc. Besides, few other professions would put me in the company of Maria Ewing. While Joe Volpe was responsible for eliciting my most recent fantasy, I blame Hamilton for introducing the idea in the first place. The famed Opera Sophomore Seminar, taught by Lydia Hamessley and Peter Rabinowitz, opened my eyes to the expansive and fascinating world of opera. Given the opportunity to repeat my fours years at Hamilton, taking the opera seminar would be one of the few decisions I’d leave absolutely untouched. But I will work on changing my fantasy; instead of singing alongside Maria Ewing in Bizet’s Carmen, I’d rather perform with her in Strauss’ Salomé. Take the seminar if you want to know why.