Five by Fiedler

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Ten years ago, when Johanna Fiedler's Metropolitan Opera tell-all, Molto Agitato, hit shelves, I devoured every word of it. I hid the hulking hardback underneath the cash register at my high-school job in a suburban mall and tried to not noticeably guffaw during lulls in shopping hours while I eagerly lapped up stories about the Met from its tentative, even spiteful beginnings to the heydays of Callas and Pavarotti.

For Fiedler, the Met's press exec from 1975 to 1989, it may not have been the book to win her friends and influence people—and it may not have given away all of the Met's juiciest secrets—but it was a delightful exposé of the opera world that put a human face on the oft-deified people who converge at Lincoln Center to make (generally) great art. 

Though she did not author any books past Molto Agitato (which was preceded by an equally-candid memoir of her father, conductor Arthur Fiedler), Fiedler's untimely passing at just 65 leaves a small gap in the world of arts management and journalism. Norman Lebrecht called her the "last clear voice at the Met." With a little over a week between Fiedler's death and the New York Times's obituary, little else has been written about her. And while there may be few other facts to report about her life, her words speak for themselves. Below, five of Fiedler's finest moments in Molto Agitato:

  • On Toscanini's temperament:
    “Toscanini’s fits of temper extended as well to some of the leading singers, whom he offended by his insistence on their attendance at all rehearsals and by his zealousness in correcting them. The American soprano Geraldine Farrar was one of the Met’s reigning divas at the time Toscanini arrived, and, with Caruso, one of the first classical musicians to achieve superstar status. Toscanini was not the least impressed by her fame and a clash was inevitable since Farrar was not short of temperament herself.

    “The two rehearsed together for the first time when Toscanini prepared a revival of Madama Butterfly in which Farrar sang the title role. She had performed the company premiere of the work and felt she owned the role, at least in New York. So she was astonished when Toscanini made clear that he expected her to follow him instead of the other way round. ‘But I am the star,’ she protested. “‘Madame,’ Toscanini replied, ‘the only stars are in the heavens.’”
  •  On Rudolph Bing's uniquely complicated relationship with (then-recently-svelte) Maria Callas:
    “At this point, Bing became interested in her. Previously, he had decided he had enough fat sopranos, and when her first contract fell through because of her husband’s visa difficulties (he had belonged to the Italian Fascist Party), Bing did not try very hard to solve the problem. Callas made her American debut with the Chicago Lyric Opera.

    “When she finally came to the Met, in 1956-57, she did not even rate a new production, and she was unhappy with her conductors and fellow singers. But she and Bing discovered their mutual love of dogs; he even expressed sympathy when her toy poodle peed on one of the stage trees during a rehearsal of Norma. ‘Pip would probably have done the same,’ Bing told her, and a bond formed between the two.”
  • On the gallows humor of executive director Anthony Bliss:
    “Bliss had been around the Met long enough to know that good news was frequently followed by bad. He kept a pillow prominently displayed in his office on which was embroidered, ‘Theater is a lunatic asylum, and the opera is a refuge for incurables.”
  •  On the antics of soprano Kathleen Battle in a production of Le Nozze di Figaro:
    “Battle’s malicious behavior was directed not only toward [soprano Carol] Vaness. She was continuously rude to the wardrobe ladies, who are a vital component of the backstage support staff. She would ask them to fetch food and drinks for her, which was not part of their jobs, and then castigate them. Like Carol Vaness, the wardrobe ladies said nothing; they, too, waited.

    “…Several of the critics were aware of the tension on opening night. ‘Kathleen Battle is the one thing I thought this irresistible singer could never be—irritating,’ wrote Peter Davis in New York magazine. In the fourth act of the final performance of the Figaro run, Battle came out to sing ‘Deh vieni,’ one of the most moving moments in opera. Alone in the center of the stage, she stepped forward toward Levine’s supportive beat, expecting to be bathed in light from her follow spot. For some reason, the spotlight never came on, and Battle sang the entire aria while standing in the dark. Everyone backstage was doubled up with laughter. The master electrician, who controlled lighting onstage, was married to the wardrobe mistress.”
  •  On Angela Gheorghiu's famous battle with Joseph Volpe and a wig:
    “Anyone could have predicted a clash between the Alagnas and Joseph Volpe; it took place on a Met tour to Japan in 1997. Gheorghiu, who was to sing the role of Micaëla in Carmen, had appeared in the premiere of the Zeffirelli production, for which she wore a blond wig covering her jet-black hair. In Japan, she decided not to wear the wig. Rather than explaining to Volpe quietly why she hated it, Gheorghiu made a loud scene, screaming that she would not wear the wig under any circumstances.

    “Volpe’s reply was to the point: ‘That wig is going onstage, whether you’re in it or not.’ And so it did, perched on the head of Gheorghiu’s cover. The soprano spent the performance sitting in the lobby of the Tokyo theater.”

Molto Agitato: Frothy exposé or slight on the Met's artistic legacy? Favorite Met gossip (from there or elsewhere)? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.