The Sarasota Ballet scored a coup late last week when it enlisted former longtime Metropolitan Opera general manager Joseph Volpe to be its interim managing director after the departure of Mary Anne Servian. (Servian, who joined the ballet in 2010, was let go after what’s been reported as disagreement over business issues with artistic director Iain Webb.)
Volpe, who worked his way up from apprentice carpenter to general manager of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, held that position for a headline-making 16 years. Upon his retirement in 2006, The New York Times called him a “famously demanding impresario.” He and his wife, Jean, a ballet teacher and former principal soloist with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, now winter on Longboat Key while he continues his work internationally as a theater consultant. He has been on the board of the Sarasota Ballet since 2014. “When we moved here, I was very surprised to see the level of artistry,” he says.
Why did you agree to step in? “My respect for [director] Iain [Webb] and his wife [assistant director] Margaret [Barbieri]. He’s done incredible things with this company. The staff is quite wonderful; they need guidance and leadership, which I think I can provide, and the dancers are really tuned in. I believe this company will go places—not compete with New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theater, but it will be a trendsetter in the ballet world.”
What are the attributes you’re looking for in the next managing director? “A proven track record. Someone who really knows the business, maybe someone with connections in the ballet world, who knows organizations willing to present. I don’t have anyone in mind [but] I just got an email from somebody in Spain who used to work for me who said, ‘I usually don’t make recommendations, but why don’t you take a look at this person?’ I imagine that will be happening a lot.”
Is tension between a managing director and artistic director a given? “Not at all. If you look at Peter Martins at New York City Ballet, Kathy Brown has done an incredible job. Look at the [Sarasota] Opera, you have Victor [de Renzi] and you have Richard Russell, and they’re a perfect combination. I was at the Metropolitan Opera for 16 years and there was only one time [music director] Jimmy Levine and I disagreed. Every other time we found a way to compromise and work together. That one time was when I fired Kathleen Battle. It all depends on the managing director understanding—as I understand—that this is Iain’s company. My job is to make things better for the company and for Iain.”
What are your short-term goals? “What I’m discovering is that you only have to organize the administration and develop systems to get it into the 21st century—that is the century we’re in now, right?”
Your experience and connections in the art world will be hugely helpful to the Sarasota Ballet. “I’d very much like to see additional touring. When I was with the Metropolitan Opera, we toured Japan; [there are] possibilities of going to Japan, to the Middle East. I work for Theater Projects Consultants, which just built a new facility in Doha; they brought in ABT and opened with the Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus.”
How long will the search for a permanent managing director take? “Optimistically, three or four months. Then there will be a transition; I’m not going to just walk out. I might continue not as an employee but in some capacity.”