The much-anticipated opening of the Met Opera’s 2017-2018 season is one month away. Beginning this weekend, the company begins warming up its audience with outdoor, HD transmissions of previous productions. As the audience stares at the facade of America’s most beloved opera house, they might also be wondering, “What’s going on while the Met is dark all summer?”
Dance Director Joe Fritz was recently awarded for 30 years of service at the Met. As soon as the Met closes its season, he’s already below deck organizing the next season. I spoke with Fritz earlier this summer and learned all about what he does, how he got there, and what it’s like working with opera’s greatest stars.
OperaWire: After the Met season ends and the American Ballet Theater gets underway with rehearsals, are you up to in the office?
Joe Fritz: Already, as soon as one season is down your work is never finished. You immediately go into preparing for the next year. [Deputy Dance Director] Andrew Robinson and I are doing our casting, scheduling, and then reaching out to all of the dancers to offer them whatever performing or understudy contracts we have to offer for next year.
I’ll be here through June and then I get a six-week vacation so I’ll go out most of July and couple weeks in August. I then have to come back about a week before we start back so I can send a rehearsal schedule to all the dancers and choreographer so they know how long we are rehearsing. We will have an audition I have to set up for two new productions next year, one being “Exterminating Angel.”
OW: Your 30 years of service at the Met didn’t start as a director. You were first a dancer in the company. How did you get here?
JF: I started as Principal Dancer with the New Jersey Ballet when I auditioned for The Met. At that time, it wasn’t like how you audition now, where there’s an open call and then a callback and that’s it. When I auditioned, I went to an open call. There had to be like 150 men and they kept making callbacks. It wasn’t just one, they would cut down from 100 to 50 and then call 50 of us back then they would cut to 25 and then cut down to 10.
At the time my contract was up with New Jersey Ballet and the director was pressuring me to re-sign my contract or else she would have to give it away, but I was trying to hold off to see what the Met would say. I remember it was a Friday morning, I finally said to my wife, I haven’t heard anything from the Met, so I’m going to go ahead and sign my contract with New Jersey Ballet. Literally, as I was walking out my door, the phone rang and it was Diana saying “Hi Joe, letting you know we are offering you a full-time contract for next season.” I was like “Hallelujah!” I went to Jersey and I told the director I wasn’t signing the contract. She was bummed out and she tried everything in her power to try to match the salary. I said, “ You aren’t gonna able to match the salary and I get benefits dental benefits.” It was a no-brainer. If it was 10 minutes later it would have been a done deal!
OW: The Metropolitan Opera Ballet has undergone significant changes since you started. In fact, it used to be recognized as it’s own company with its own season. How has that changed? How many productions did you dance in?
JF: Over the years …30 or more… 40…50. It’s hard to say; so many productions I’ve been in!
There used to be a full-time company with 16 dancers when I was hired back in the ‘86-’87 season. The ‘87 season is when I started and I danced until the 2001-2002 season. From there I managed.
At the end of every New York season, they would go away for five weeks and tour Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, all the big cities pretty much. The year I joined, they stopped doing that, so I did miss out on touring at all of those places, but I did end up going to the tour in Japan.
OW: So what got you into management?
JF: It was kind of strange. The company manager Diana and another woman who worked here at the time called me in for a meeting. They started the meeting by saying, “We don’t know how much longer you plan on dancing” and I thought, “Well, I guess not a whole lot, because I thought they were firing me!”
I sat there thinking, “This doesn’t sound good” and then they responded by saying, “ We really like you and we want to keep you in the building. We don’t know if, when you’re ready to retire, that there will be an opening in the Met for you. It’s your choice if you want to continue dancing, but we have a spot in management that we want to offer you.” It was in the super department, so I was going to run the supernumeraries for a year and it was with the intention that when Diana left, who was the dance director at the time, they would bring me back to the dance department. but what happened after one year of me being in the super department, Diana’s assistant Marcus left and went to Vegas. So they brought me back down to be with Diana. My title was Deputy Dance Director. I did that for a few years until Diana left. It’s been six years or so that Diana has been gone. I moved up and then Andrew Robinson moved in.
I would tell my wife we have to start watching what we spend, because I’m not gonna be dancing in a couple of years, but she always had this premonition that I would be okay. I would have never thought they would have chosen me to do it!
OW; Were you prepared for the administrative role?
JF: I had no idea about how to run the administrative part. All I would do is show up for my rehearsal when I was told!
My job is to cast all the dancers and revival. It’s a full-time deal. Of course, if it’s a new production the choreographer is allowed to hire who they want, but once it is a revival, I recast it most of the time with the same people who did it before. Then I have to build a template for next season, listing all the operas and all the performance dates so when I offer them work they know the dates and they can look it over and see when they are available. I also do the rehearsal schedule every Thursday. We’re one of the few departments that handle with both artists and administrative because we do the budgeting and payroll.
We just finished our budget for next season and every year the general manager will tell me it’s too high and I have to find places to cut here and there. With money being so tight and me having to cut my budget, if it was a production that was done earlier in the season and it comes back later, I don’t give it a lot of rehearsal time because I figure you’ve done this two months ago and you won’t forget it. Now, if I have somebody bail then I have to put a new person in, and I don’t have the budget, then I’m screwed.
OW: When you re-stage productions, do you ever rehearse the singers yourself?
JF; I have to teach dances to singers. It’s like pulling teeth for me! “It’s step, touch, step, touch.” To me, being a dancer, it seems so simple, but I guess when you’re not a dancer or have that kind of training I guess it’s very hard for them. I’ll go through a couple days of rehearsals. Some of them will get it and some will never get it!
OW: Do you find that opera is in danger?
JF: What’s so great about opera is you get to see all talents: good singers, good dancers, live orchestra, great sets. It’s a great art form, yet it seems not to attract people these days and I don’t know why.
The one good thing that the Met is doing is busing in school kids for free to watch the final dresses, to get them interested in opera. Because the future is dying off. They love it when they come!
OW: These days it seems companies are constantly looking to cut the ballets or dancers from operas. Do you find that to be the case?
JF: There are many of those, but lately the choreographers seem to like to use the dancers a lot more. Even the directors, because they have a better presence on stage. It’s somewhat disappointing at times because we aren’t really recognized for our contribution. Sometimes if it’s a new production you’ll get a little bit of a feature but basically we are sorta just the background.
The one thing I can say about working at the Met is even though dance isn’t a major part, it is an amazing place to work. Everyone is top-of-the-line professional. You’re dealing with great stage managers, directors choreographers. I get a ton of emails from dancers saying performing here has been the best experience of their life. I get to work with great dancers, modern dancers, Flamenco dancers. That’s the fun part of the job, dealing with all of the talents. It’s rewarding when dancers are saying you’ve made work an enjoyable place.
OW: Oftentimes us dancers have spare time backstage between scenes, and I’ve heard you were quite the jokester. You have any stories to share?
JF: We used to get quite active in the dressing room! Once we had this long break so we decided to raid the girls’ dressing room with water guns. After that, every Faust turned out to be a different battle. No one thought I was a part of this, but I was the ring leader! The next day the girls raided our dressing room and stole our water pistols. So then we had to get some more. We got jugs of water and Diana happened to be behind the door. The door opens and Diana got soaked! She was cool about it. She got my back another time.
This is a golf story.
I was by myself and got hooked up with another guy so I asked him what he did for a living and he said he was in the FBI and he couldn’t tell me more than that. He asked about me. I told him I work for the Met as a dance director. He thought that was interesting and I took my sweater off and put it in the back of the golf cart.
After that, I took off and forgot about my sweater! He grabbed it and remembered I worked at the Met. He came one day to return my sweater and gave it to Diana. What does she do? She waits until we get on stage. We were on stage right with all the stagehands and she says, “Joe the FBI was just here looking for you.” I thought,”What is the FBI doing looking for me?!” I go back downstairs to Diana and ask what’s up with the FBI?
“He brought your sweater back.”