The Metropolitan Soap Opera

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.

Although Volpe was originally passed over for general manager because of his less-than-lofty social origins, he eventually triumphed over even the Met’s entrenched institutional snobbery, finally claiming the job in 1990. He has wielded something close to absolute power ever since – and in recent months, that power has expanded far beyond his own opera house. “The Met is the 900-pound gorilla,” says a representative of one Lincoln Center company. Another complains, “Joe’s only interested in the Met – and in keeping the other institutions in their place.”

“When Joe comes into a room and has a need, he’s got his blinders on,” Sills admits with a sigh. “It’s very hard to shout him down.”

Volpe justifies his opposition to a new house for City Opera on the grounds of fiscal prudence. “We will not agree to any addition in public space that is not financially self-supporting,” he declares. “We’re not going to add expense to the Met’s annual budget.” Nor is he persuaded by the feasibility studies cited by City Opera to prove that it could support a new home. But other Lincoln Center potentates claim that the issue of financial liability is bogus – “a red herring,” as Kellogg puts it.

“This is absolute nonsense,” scoffs Martin Segal, Lincoln Center’s chairman emeritus. “There is no financial responsibility of any consequence that the Metropolitan Opera has for any shortfall the City Opera or any other constituent incurs.”

Other officials offer an alternative reason why Volpe is blocking a house for the City Opera: “He doesn’t want the competition,” they say, sotto voce. “Sheer jealousy,” sneers one.

City Opera managers protest that they are hardly in competition with the Met. “What we’ve tried to do is establish a very different identity in our choice of repertoire, production style, and the atmosphere of the house,” explains Kellogg. “We really do serve a different audience. We were set up to be a people’s opera.”

None of this has placated Volpe, who is equally exercised about other aspects of the redevelopment plan – such as a proposal to reroute traffic and make Broadway one-way, forcing uptown traffic to detour via the residential Central Park West. He was particularly appalled by the Gehry dome and arcade, two big-ticket items in a project that has already cost $14 million. “What are we searching for in Manhattan?” he demands. “Open space, sky, air to breathe! Now you’re going to make Lincoln Center the second-largest mall in the United States?”

This is an obvious swipe at Marshall Rose, who was responsible for building one of the country’s largest shopping complexes, in Columbus, Ohio. “Can you imagine?” Volpe adds, shaking his head in disgust. “Why did we spend that money? I find this incredible. They said you could have shops under the dome. You could sell T-shirts and have vendors go by selling peanuts. You could talk to Michael Eisner and have Disney characters come by and attract children!” He chortles. “Who wants to sell T-shirts out there? The whole thing was ridiculous! So I said, ‘No dome! No arcade!’ And Beverly supported my position.”

Volpe’s disdain for Rose as a mall-builder is ironic, considering the slights that Volpe has endured as a former laborer who was seen as lacking sufficient cachet – not to mention sufficient finesse – to run the rich and glittering prize of the Met. Such social nuances still surface, albeit behind his back; detractors ooze condescension as they invoke the word “carpenter,” and when they describe Volpe’s style, “primitive” is a recurring refrain. “It’s kind of a clublike atmosphere here. There are rules in a club, and understandings that are never stated,” one constituent representative says, choosing his words carefully. “Passionate feeling is one thing, but incivility is another.” While Rose, who remains vice-chair of Lincoln Center, has been exquisitely circumspect about his resignation, many insiders shake their heads at the way he was treated – or “battered,” as one puts it.

But as Volpe points out, Beverly Sills was on his side, and it seems to have been her velvet-gloved hand that precipitated the bloody dénouement in which both Rose and Gordon Davis left the stage in quick succession – hastily followed by Janice Price, the interim executive director, who quit in January.

With his trademark silk bow tie, Paul Kellogg looks jaunty and dapper – but he also appears to be coiled tight as a spring. Unlike Volpe, with his grand office at the Met, the City Opera head occupies a small underground bunker at the New York State Theater, where he has good reason to seem tense and embattled.

“We just can’t achieve the status this company can achieve if we stay here,” Kellogg says wearily. “We really feel squeezed out more than we feel like a defector. The City Opera has always been a stepchild, and that’s not good enough anymore. It’s a little like Harry Potter living in the cupboard underneath the stairs.”

For now, Lincoln Center is playing what one insider describes as “a game of chicken” with the City Opera, hoping to call Kellogg’s bluff. Sills is publicly derisive about the company’s threat to leave Lincoln Center, pointing out that the City Opera has a ten-year lease at the State Theater. But any plan to build another home would be a long-range effort, and the City Opera seems determined to pursue that goal – aided by an impressive starting pledge of $50 million from Robert Wilson, the company’s former chairman, which the organization would otherwise forfeit. “This has stiffened our resolve,” says Kellogg.

Since Lincoln Center was built 40 years ago, no constituent has ever picked up its marbles and stomped out in a huff, and many supporters are deeply concerned about the possibility. “City Opera will go elsewhere if we don’t accommodate them,” warns Martin Segal. “If they leave, the New York City Ballet has to be concerned about who will occupy that space during the weeks the City Opera is not there. What about the shortfall in dollars?”

It’s like a game of musical chairs: If City Opera bails out of the State Theater, the New York City Ballet would probably try to fill the empty weeks there with the American Ballet Theatre. Since ABT currently performs at the Met, that would leave the Met with a hole in its own schedule to fill. The City Opera would also have to fill the weeks it didn’t use at its own new house – all of which would create a great deal of competition for bookings among the various organizations.

“I think this is shortsighted; I think Joe is unwise,” Segal continues. “In my opinion, the Metropolitan Opera needs and benefits from the existence of the City Opera. Look at the artists who performed at the New York City Opera and went on to the Met!”

Like Beverly Sills, famously shut out by the Met during Sir Rudolf Bing’s tenure there. Back then she used to get furious at her mother for reminding her, “If you ain’t sung at the Met, you still haven’t hit the big time” – but today she invokes the same quote herself.

Sills was nearing the end of her career when she finally made her Met debut in 1975, before retiring from singing in 1980. Her stellar history with the City Opera has made her ever-more-aggressive alliance with the Met particularly puzzling. City Opera officials were stunned when Sills stepped down as head of the company and, instead of joining its own board, chose the Met. “She left here, walked across the plaza, and went onto the Met’s board,” marvels one observer, still amazed. Since Sills is a world-class fund-raiser, that was a major loss to City Opera – but “she’s always gone where the money and the glamour are,” says Martin Bernheimer, the New York music correspondent for Opera Magazine and the Financial Times.

“There is a really strong bitter streak in Sills, who always felt she had not been given all the things she thought she had coming to her in her career,” explains Peter G. Davis, the author of The American Opera Singer (and New York’s longtime classical-music critic). “As an arts administrator, she saw a way to get to the top, and she did it. The prestige and power is what she always wanted, the idea that she could be accepted by and be part of the cultural elite in New York City – and she finally got it.”

At this point, even a casual observer can’t fail to recognize Sills’s antipathy toward Paul Kellogg. Incredibly, she even denies there are acoustic problems for opera at the New York State Theater. “I never had an unhappy moment there,” she says majestically. “When I sang there, there were no acoustic problems.” Those who knew Sills as an opera singer remember things differently: “She was very concerned about the acoustics when she was there,” Davis reports. But these days Sills prefers to imply that Kellogg is a lone malcontent who is manufacturing an imaginary problem. “I’m saying that one voice began making noise about it,” she says, her tone icy.

And yet Sills’s well-known penchant for offering conflicting versions of reality – a tendency that prompted one major donor to describe her as “a terrible liar” at a recent gathering, much to the consternation of other Lincoln Center bigwigs in attendance – manifests itself even within the course of one conversation. When I press her, she concedes that maybe there are acoustic problems at the State Theater after all, but she then attributes them to what she calls “the silos,” or wooden panels that were installed some years ago in an attempt to distribute sound more evenly. This contention also amazes City Opera leaders. “She’s the one who put them in!” says Sherwin Goldman, executive producer of the City Opera. “She made the additions she would now strip off.”

When I mention that I don’t understand Sills’s animus toward City Opera, one powerful insider sighs and says, “Nobody does. She was spurned by the Met, and she had to make her career abroad and at the New York City Opera, and now she’s busy lining up with the Met. It makes no sense, and she has no business taking sides. Going onto the Met board was wrong, as is publicly declaring yourself as favoring one constituent over another. As chairman, she should be having an even hand.”

But Sills has always been known as a fierce competitor who is willing to play hardball to achieve her ends. In The American Opera Singer, Davis describes how Sills bullied Julius Rudel, then the City Opera’s general director, into giving her the role of Cleopatra he had already promised to Phyllis Curtin: Sills threatened to quit and use her wealthy husband’s money to rent Carnegie Hall and perform all of Cleopatra’s arias, making Rudel “look sick.” Such cutthroat tactics were typical; when Sills replaced Renata Scotto at La Scala and her request for a new costume was denied, she snatched a pair of scissors from the costume designer and sliced Scotto’s gown in half. Sills’s insatiable need to dominate the limelight even extended to having her manager throw out all La Scala press photos that included her co-star Marilyn Horne.

So is the real issue City Opera’s success under Kellogg? “The place has never been better off artistically,” reports Davis. “They have one hit after another, and Kellogg has managed to raise attendance in a way Beverly never did. She’s very sour about her failures at the New York City Opera, and about the fact that someone could do better. She holds grudges, and she’s very jealous.”

Sills’s role in precipitating Lincoln Center’s recent high-level departures is therefore the subject of intense speculation. “These guys keep falling like dominoes, and she’s still there,” notes Bernheimer, who won a Pulitzer Prize as the classical-music critic of the Los Angeles Times. This pattern is long-standing; Sills’s conflicts with Gordon Davis’s predecessor, Nat Leventhal, were so notorious that the New York Times actually covered their efforts to make peace.

Sills attributes Davis’s resignation (in exchange for a $1 million buyout) to his disappointing discovery that the $525,000-a-year job of president wasn’t what he expected. “To an outsider, the president’s job appears to be far more glamorous than it actually is,” she says airily. “A lot of people felt this was much more of an entrepreneurial job, like Sol Hurok, where you go off to Moscow and audition ballerinas. But this job also involves sewerage, electricity, infrastructure, security, garage maintenance, leaks, revenues, costs, cleaning, restaurant contracts – it’s so full of nitty-gritty that you have to leave the auditioning of ballerinas to other people.”

Those in the know scoff at the patronizing suggestion that Davis – who had served as a Lincoln Center board member for more than two decades, not to mention as founding chairman of Jazz at Lincoln Center – didn’t know what he was getting into when he signed on as president. “It’s simply not true,” says one of his confidants. A tall, elegant lawyer who is one of the city’s most prominent black men, Davis is nobody’s fool, and when informed about Sills’s comments, he shakes his head in disbelief. But on the record, he says only this: “I met almost every usher and every security guard, crawled through every nook and cranny of the halls, and spent hours observing the operation of the garages.”

The real problem, according to many insiders, is that the president of Lincoln Center will never have genuine authority as long as Sills – a far more hands-on chairman than her predecessors – sticks around. “A great diva does not like to have a tenor standing in front of her,” says one. “Beverly is used to being in charge. She’s the real president, and the person who’s called president is effectively the vice-president and has to take orders.”

Sills also tries to gloss over the resignation of Marshall Rose, claiming he never agreed to stay beyond the time when the redevelopment master plan was presented to the city. Her explanations have failed to persuade knowledgeable observers. “Here he gave a year of his life, pro bono, to Lincoln Center, completely idealistically, and he came up with compromise solutions time and time again – only to be greeted with scornful opposition,” says one participant. “He realized he was going to be hampered at every turn.”

After one particularly rancorous meeting in October, the New York Times reported that Rose complained to Sills, “You stabbed me in the back.” Both Rose and Sills later denied that he said it, although other participants confirmed that he had. “We’re very good friends,” Rose tells me, poker-faced. “The day the story appeared, my wife” – Candice Bergen – “and Beverly and I went to see Dance of Death together.” And the real reason he left the redevelopment project? “I was never asked to sing in the opera,” he says with a grin. “I was never asked to dance. That’s why I left.”

Rose has been replaced on an interim basis by Martin Oppenheimer, the chairman of City Center. For how long? “I don’t have a specific time frame,” Oppenheimer says. “But I don’t have the skill or the will to do this for the next ten years, so ultimately we will have a successor.”

Then why not now? The appointment of a temporary head for a such a lengthy project only raised more eyebrows, creating the unseemly impression that Lincoln Center couldn’t find a suitable long-term successor.

As for a new president, the current party line is that Lincoln Center will have one by February. Sills claims she will depart soon thereafter. “Once we have a new president, then I’ll make my move,” she says. “I’ll certainly stay for a transition, but I think it’s a mistake ever to stay too long at the fair. And I have something else I want to do, a new project I can’t talk about now.”

But colleagues wonder whether Sills will really be able to relinquish the spotlight; as one notes, her service has been motivated by “huge ego needs” as well as altruism. “She’s not leaving so fast,” says Linda LeRoy Janklow. “Don’t believe her when she tells you that.” Another associate comments, “It’s her way of making people say, ‘Please, Beverly, don’t leave!’ “

Some associates are genuinely loath to see her go. “We’re all holding on to her ankles,” Janice Price insisted brightly, shortly before handing in her own resignation. Certainly no one disputes Sills’s contributions. “She’s an absolute genius at fund-raising, and therefore of inestimable value to them,” notes Bernheimer.

But among the stewards of Lincoln Center – a high-level roster of board members that constitutes a virtual Who’s Who of New York money and power – there is a growing consensus that this fractious era should be concluded as quickly as possible. “I think it’s time for Beverly to move on, because she’s become a lightning rod for a lot of positive and negative feelings,” says one official. “Someone with better vision, and larger vision, and a lot of patience is going to have to come in.”

Her successor will face formidable challenges. “This process has ripped the fabric that holds Lincoln Center together, the sense of common purpose and pride,” says Kellogg. “I think it created so much antagonism that it will be a very long time before we can restore a sense of cooperation. There is a sense that we have to find a way to come together again – or come apart. We have lost a lot of public confidence, and the image of Lincoln Center has certainly been tarnished.”

Loyalists maintain that the redevelopment flap is secondary to the real business of Lincoln Center. “It’s not in disarray,” Janklow insists. “We are performing every single day. The companies are all working exceedingly well. It only seems in disarray because of the redevelopment project.”

As for Sills, she has a lifetime of experience in putting the best face on things and marching onstage to prove that the show will go on. “Five years from now, we’ll look back and say, ‘It’s really a miracle that those organizations were able to pull themselves together and make it happen,’ ” she claims.

“It will happen,” she adds, with such a steely edge to her voice that her prediction sounds very much like a royal command. Cleopatra herself couldn’t have said it better.

The Metropolitan Soap Opera