About a decade ago, a Manhattan friend of mine read the then recently published memoirs of Joseph Volpe, the Metropolitan Opera’s former general manager, and decided to follow up with those of Volpe’s predecessor Sir Rudolf Bing. In a moment that could only have happened in New York, my friend encountered Volpe soon thereafter and told him of his foray into the annals of arts administration. A curious Volpe asked how he and Bing were different. Intending to reply that Bing was more “autocratic,” my friend fell victim to a Freudian slip and pronounced the earlier general manager more “aristocratic.” Volpe, who suffered decades of snobbery for his blue-collar background, furrowed his brow and quickly disengaged.

Harvey Sachs’s thousand-page tome on the famous Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957) tackles a subject who had elements of...

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