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The Metropolitan Soap Opera

A $1 billion plan to fix Lincoln Center's aging halls has spawned enough offstage intrigue to rival any Verdi work. And one of its warring siblings may have to be exiled if there's going to be peace by the end of Act III.

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Across the hall from Beverly Sills, the office of the president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts lies vacant; in the last year, two different chiefs have departed abruptly. But the diva who has occupied the chairman's office for the past eight years remains flamboyantly in residence. The walls are still chockablock with mementos of her career as a prima donna; who could miss the queen-size quilt studded with bisque dolls' heads representing each of Sills's most famous roles, from Cleopatra to Baby Doe? Long the darling of the people and the media, the former opera star her fans know as Bubbles continues to be the public face of Lincoln Center, and the audiences thronging its houses every night assume that it's business as usual at the nation's leading performing-arts complex.

Behind the scenes, however, Lincoln Center is a community in deep distress, riven by conflict over a grandiose $1 billion redevelopment plan that was supposed to repair its deteriorating buildings and bring the cultural jewel of New York into the twenty-first century. But instead of uniting the center's constituent arts organizations behind a common goal, the project has pitted them against one another in open warfare more reminiscent of the shoot-out at the OK Corral than of a night at the opera.

"To say that it's a mess is putting it mildly," says Johanna Fiedler, the author of Molto Agitato: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera and a former staff member there. "There's nobody running the show right now."

Except for Sills, a woman of legendary charm. The 72-year-old powerhouse -- who is given to drawing cute little hearts on mash notes to mollify associates she has offended -- can be warm and ingratiating if she chooses. When I compliment her youthful appearance, she flashes me a winning smile. "That's because I'm chubby," she says with a giggle. "My mother always said, 'Stay fat; the wrinkles will fall out; nobody will know.' "

But ask unwelcome questions about the renovation plan, which was submitted to the city of New York last December in a bid to qualify for public funds, and Sills turns as chilly as the cold winds that sweep across Lincoln Center's plaza. "The plan has been submitted with options, which is the only way you can submit a plan with ten companies," she says sternly. In this case, "options" is code for "we're still fighting about that."

The battles have raged for more than a year. Last winter, Joseph Volpe, the fearsome general manager of the Metropolitan Opera -- the richest and most powerful of Lincoln Center's thirteen constituent arts organizations -- stormed out of the negotiations and was lured back into the fold only on the condition that each participant would have veto power over any plan that was adopted.

The defections were just beginning, however. In late September, Gordon Davis -- who had served as president of Lincoln Center for only nine months since replacing Nathan Leventhal -- suddenly quit. October brought the equally startling resignation of Marshall Rose, the real-estate mogul who had headed up the project for just sixteen months. The departure of Rose, a man renowned for his patience, diplomacy, and civic-mindedness, was so unsettling that some Lincoln Center constituents privately suggested that maybe he quit to shock the squabbling siblings to their senses. "He had a snootful," admits Linda LeRoy Janklow, chairman of the board of Lincoln Center Theater.

The new year opened with more bad news. Although Mayor Rudy Giuliani had promised $240 million to the redevelopment effort over the next decade, Michael Bloomberg had scarcely taken the oath of office before announcing that the recession-stricken city might not be able to come up with the money.

The redevelopment plan was originally prompted by the woeful condition of Lincoln Center's infrastructure, which -- from its antiquated heating and air-conditioning to the crumbling travertine plaza -- is in shameful disrepair. Other major problems include the acoustics at Avery Fisher Hall, which are so troublesome that many analysts say it should be renovated or rebuilt -- in either case, leaving the New York Philharmonic without a place to perform.

But as the project evolved, the initial agenda of must-fix items quickly ballooned into an extravagant wish list that included an elaborate Frank Gehry design for a steel-and-glass dome to enclose the Lincoln Center plaza and a matching glass-topped arcade running across the campus from 62nd Street to 65th Street. The Gehry proposal prompted a storm of controversy so furious that the idea was tabled, at least for now.

Still unresolved -- and equally explosive -- is the question of a new home for the New York City Opera, which has long shared the New York State Theater with the New York City Ballet in a notably unhappy partnership. The City Opera wants to build its own house, but Volpe is so vehemently opposed that negotiating the issue has become tantamount to stepping in between the Hatfields and the McCoys.

With his carefully trimmed beard and mustache and volcanic temper, Volpe is the obvious heavy in this saga. But his Mephistophelean image has provided convenient cover for the real backstage story. With Lincoln Center buzzing like an angry hive, it has finally dawned on its major players that they underestimated the Machiavellian role played by the reigning grande dame, a longtime City Opera star who then headed up the company for ten years during the eighties. Because of her glory-filled past there, even the most astute insiders were remarkably slow to figure out that the former Queen of City Opera had become its most insidious enemy.

That leaves Paul Kellogg, the general and artistic director of City Opera, caught between a rock and a very hard place. "Joe's main condition in agreeing to the master plan was that no new theater could be built for City Opera on campus," Kellogg explains. "And Beverly made it clear that if we left the vicinity, there would be no sense in calling City Opera a part of Lincoln Center."

"Who's the bad guy in the lincoln center redevelopment? It's me!" Joe Volpe crows, grinning diabolically. "Who's the bad guy with all the other constituents? It's me!" He beams, somewhat undercutting his preferred pose as the spawn of Satan.

Volpe has begun our conversation by complaining about a recent photograph that showed him smiling. "Joe loves to have pictures taken that make him look like the Devil," Sills had explained to me, and certainly Volpe cultivates that image with relish. Subordinates say he "rules by terror."

"If you're slightly aggressive about your position, people take it as an affront," Volpe says with a shrug. "But I find that if you're not slightly aggressive, they don't pay any attention to you."

Nobody ever accused Joe Volpe of not being aggressive, particularly toward the Met's younger sibling and next-door neighbor. The New York City Opera has long been a disgruntled tenant at the New York State Theater, which was built to George Balanchine's specifications as a ballet house, with acoustics designed to muffle dancers' footfalls. "It was very well designed to achieve its purpose, so that no sound would be heard from the stage -- but that's exactly what you don't want for an opera performance," explains Kellogg.

City Opera's desire for a home of its own generated a proposal to build a new house adjacent to the Met in Damrosch Park, which is most familiar to Lincoln Center-goers as the annual site of the Big Apple Circus. But Volpe hit the roof, and the result was much yelling at ensuing meetings.

Other Lincoln Center officials privately describe Volpe as an obstructionist bully who exercises power simply because he can get away with it; "gleefully destructive," "out of control," and "the biggest, baddest wolf in town" are typical comments. But Volpe remains thoroughly unrepentant. "I'm not going to waste a lot of time," he says. "If I believe something is wrong, I say so. I don't beat around the bush. I get to the point and move on. If I didn't do that, running the Metropolitan Opera, we would never survive."

Although we are sitting in Volpe's imposing high-ceilinged office with the door closed, suddenly the sounds of hammering and the hubbub of voices fill the air. Startled, I turn around to see speakers and a television monitor placed directly in Volpe's line of vision, and I realize that he has surveillance cameras trained on what's happening backstage. "Of course I'm a spy," he says smoothly. "Then I know what's going on." His smile conveys more than a hint of menace. "Whenever there's a problem, the Shadow appears!"

Volpe, who lives across the street from Lincoln Center and can materialize in moments when the occasion demands, has built his reputation on knowing everything that's going on at all times. He began working at the Met nearly 40 years ago as an apprentice carpenter and earned his power the old-fashioned way, through hard work, ferocious tenacity, and unassailable competence. "The reason I'm here is that when I was an apprentice, I took home the manuals for every piece of equipment and learned everything about them," he says. "I'm a nut, you know. I'm a head case. There's something wrong with me." He is beaming again.


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