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Retired Met Opera GM At Sarasota Ballet Helm For Now

Mar 21, 2016

Joseph Volpe had only been on the job for a short time when WUSF spoke to him at his new office with the Sarasota Ballet. In his role at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, he had about 850 employees, now it's more like 70, including the dancers.

And he is someone who enjoys tackling problems, he said. "When I was at the Met, I couldn't wait to get there to see what problem would be waiting for me. I come here, only been here a few days, I look forward to seeing what problems we're facing and how we'll deal with them. So to me, it's very exciting."

Volpe wants the Sarasota Ballet to grow during his tenure, even though that will be limited. Right now the organization is conducting a nationwide search for a new permanent business manager. Volpe will be leading the ballet for about six months and usher in the new manager. But in that time, he has many goals, growth among them.

For him, that doesn't mean personnel. It means performances. Volpe has contacts all over the world from his time at the Met, and from his work as a consultant. So he reached out to the presenter who brought the Met to Japan for five years. And the Sarasota Ballet may have opportunities to perform in Doha, Qatar and Dubai, because of people Volpe knows.

The Sarasota Ballet has already carved out a worldwide reputation for its interpretations of late British choreographer Frederick Ashton. Volpe, who's on leave from the ballet's Board of Directors said he saw Richard Bonynge, at the Sarasota Ballet's Ashton Festival in Sarasota. I said, "Good Lord, Richard, what are you doing here? He said, I come to see the Ashton Festival...because they are performing things here that they aren't even doing in London with the Royal Ballet."

Meg Booth directs Dance Programming for the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, where the Sarasota Ballet performed twice by invitation. She says as a midsize regional ballet company, it stands out. "Quality of performance, the artistic caliber, all of those. With their unique blend of choreography that they're doing, they do more Ashton than I think any company in the United States. That's definitely unique. There aren't many companies that do Ashton, much less do it well, and they do it exceptionally well."

The Sarasota Ballet has garnered attention for recent performances at Jacob's Pillow in the Berkshires and at New York  City Center's "Fall For Dance" festival.

And Volpe wants the community to know Sarasota Ballet has a firm financial footing. And after 16 years leading the Met Opera with a multi-million dollar budget, he says he knows how to find the balance between creativity and the bottom line. "When Rudolf Bing was at the Met, the BBC interviewed him, the chap from the BBC said, 'I know the Met has a lot of money.' " Bing said, "Are you mad? We're almost broke. All performing arts are on the edge." So, in Volpe's words, "One needs to balance the artistic energy and direction with the financial reality."

But the fiscal reality in Sarasota is not what it might be in other cities without such a dedicated arts community. It's a community well versed in cultural offerings of cosmopolitan cities all over the world.

And says, Carrie Seidman of the Herald Tribune, the community is one of the secrets to the Sarasota Ballet's success. "Their largesse has allowed the company to grow at a faster rate than it would in most other areas of this size," she said.

Volpe believes in shooting for excellence. He said, "And I will push people and I am going to try to do that in a kind, gentle way, and I have the ability to do that. But really let them grow, individual grow, let them understand, learn from my experience, I think we can do great things in that way."

The Sarasota Ballet performs Ashton's Engima Variations, based on Elgar's composition of the same name.  It will be the first company outside of The Royal Ballet and the Birmingham Royal Ballet to perform it.