Conversation Piece:

Producer Boris Goldovsky

By Bruce Duffie



For anyone who grew up on the Met broadcasts in the 1950s, 60s or 70s, the performances were usually wonderful, but the intermission features were somehow extra special.  There was the weekly Opera Quiz hosted by Edward Downes [see my interview with him] and often a talk about the work being heard that day by Boris Goldovsky.  His distinctive voice and sly wit illuminated the opera, and the charming manner of presentation made it fun as well as enlightening.  It turns out that this nationwide exposure on the radio was only a sideline for him.  His primary focus was teaching young singers and producing works in Boston and on tour throughout the U.S.

We had met several times over the years, often when he visited Chicago to give a lecture for Lyric Opera.  I finally asked him if he'd mind if we recorded a conversation.  He happily agreed and we sat down to talk.  As usual, we were gabbing while I set up the tape machine, and we pick up the chat while we were speaking of Der Liebe der Danae by Richard Strauss, which had been given at the Santa Fe Opera . . . . .


Boris Goldovsky:  I like to know what people say. 

Bruce Duffie:  When you don’t get all the words, is this the fault of the composer or the producer or the conductor, or whom?

BG:  It’s hard to say.  Strauss was aware of the problem and he spoke about it openly.  If you’ve heard his Intermezzo, you would know that it’s the only one of the later works for which he wrote his own text.  When he wrote his own text, he wanted it to be understood!  Hofmansthal’s, never mind.  So he wrote a preface to the vocal score in which he said several extraordinary things.  First of all, he said the reason one can’t understand singers is that they sing full voice.  In this performance he wants them to all sing half-voice.  And the orchestra will be kept as soft as possible.  Then he said something very interesting: The Devil has put a curse on German composers, and the curse is called Counterpoint.  Counterpoint, Strauss said, destroys enunciation and diction.  In the orchestra, when things are played at the same time, even softly, it creates a sort of smoke-screen that no words can come through.  I think that is the problem.  Strauss was a “cursed” German composer who couldn’t help himself and wrote everything in counterpoint.  There are always three or four lines of music going on.

BD:  The reason I ask about this is that young composers today look at Richard Strauss, who is an acknowledged master, and his words don’t come through, so how can theirs?

BG:  The thing is this: When Strauss himself conducted, he managed to let the words come through.  He prided himself that when he conducted Elektra, every word was understood.  That means being a great conductor.  He knew what to do.  Karajan knows how to do it.  I saw him conduct Wagner at the Metropolitan, and every single word was audible.  So it has a great deal to do with the conductor.  It’s not just getting the orchestra to play softly.  It has to do with the kind of vibrato the strings produce and the kind of smoke that comes out of the pit.  I also noticed that when the singers were not singing and the orchestra had to make a crescendo, Karajan let it really roar up.  But when the singers sang, everyone could hear them.  In Bayreuth, one hears every word because the orchestra is under the stage.  They don’t even have to sing loud at all.

book coverBD:  Should more theaters be designed along those lines, then?

BG:  They don’t do it.  You forget that Wagner created his theater in 1876 and nobody has imitated it.  There is not a pit in the world that is constructed like Bayreuth.  The audiences want to see the orchestra, and the conductors want to be seen.  This is what happens.  Even if they don’t want to be seen, there is still too much orchestra between the first row of the audience and the footlights.  In this country there is another problem; people just don’t understand foreign languages, period.  So, they don’t care.  They listen not for words but for the beauty of the voice, or the beauty of the orchestra, or to the counterpoint, and that is a different kind of listening.  Because of that, singers often ask why they should try so hard to enunciate.  You know that I traveled with my company for over 35 years, and all the performances were in English.  I insisted that the words be understood.  But I created a special kind of test.  Coaches, pianists, and conductors understand the words because in the rehearsals they hear them over and over and over.  They even sing and speak the words so they know them by heart.  They are bad judges of diction because when you know words by heart, you hear them.  So what I did, a week or so before production opened, when things were going pretty smoothly, I would invite 12 or 15 people to our rehearsal, people who had never heard the particular text.  Then, I instructed them that whenever they didn’t understand the text – even a word – they were to clap their hands and stop the show.  So we started singing and after a few measures, there was the sound of clapping.  I told the singers not to explain anything, but to do it again and be sure it was understood.  Then the singers realized all of a sudden that they were not being understood.  They don’t like to be stopped, so they started singing differently.  You see the secret of diction and enunciation is the desire to be understood.  People who teach diction always say to emphasize the consonants.  They are important, but more important is the desire to be understood.  So why should singers in America work hard when the audience doesn’t care anyway?  In Europe, the singers know that the audience will probably be very familiar with the texts, so they don’t have to make any special effort – they’re understood anyway.

BD:  OK, should all operas be translated?

BG:  We have two kinds of operas.  We have an international style, and what I call the opera theater style.  We want to hear the great international singers, and we don’t want them to sing in English.  They don’t pronounce it well and their voices don’t sound as good in English.  And since we want to hear them, we want to hear them in the way that they produce the best kind of sound, usually in the original language which they have learned.  And since we have many American singers who sing with them, we teach the Americans to sing very good Italian, acceptable German, lousy French, and impossible Russian.  But we teach them so they can participate in the international style.  That makes perfectly good sense, but we have the other style, the opera theater style which uses only native singers.  Then you have the advantage of audiences which can understand the words, and you can accomplish better theater because the audience becomes acutely aware of bad acting.  When the audience doesn’t know what is being sung about, they haven’t the slightest idea whether they act well or badly.  It’s all the same, but an entirely different approach to opera.  The opera theater style can be done well, but you must have very good English versions.  Years ago there was no such thing.  The old English versions were not in English, but rather “libret-ese” of the worst kind with “thee” and “thou”.  People back then thought that they had to come very close to the original, word for word if possible, and created a language that didn’t exist and couldn’t be understood.  But in the last 40 years, we have developed a considerable number of people who have learned how to translate well.  It’s a very special kind of thing.  You don’t have to be word for word, you can be approximate, but you must use a language that sounds as if the music were created for that particular phrasing.  The contour and syntax of the language and the music have to coincide.  It’s very difficult.  I’ve done a few and have used some by others which are very good.  And the translations are constantly adjusted.  When people rent my translations, I write a letter and say, “Please make all the changes you wish and don’t annoy me.”  Our attitude toward language changes all the time, and what may be acceptable today may be different tomorrow.  So I change, and I permit everyone else to change as much as they wish.  The important thing is that because the translations fit the vocal line so well, they can be understood.

BD:  What about the new gimmick of supertitles?

BG:  (sighing) Yes, it is very sad.  I personally find it demeaning, but I am very bad judge of that because I am a linguist.  I have a brother-in-law who didn’t like opera, but the moment he saw opera with the supertitles he started loving it.  There are people for whom this is important, so obviously it has an advantage.  But it is a peculiar thing because it gives the impression that people don’t have to study the librettos or read things ahead of time or pay any attention.  They just sit there and relax and act like morons.  And many things are being sung that the supertitles don’t give the right impression.  Don’t forget that to use them, you have to have a certain kind of theater.  The proscenium at the Metropolitan is much too tall.

BD:  Is having the translation on the TV preparing the way for use in the theater?

BG:  Live performances are one thing.  Canned performances are altogether something else.  Recordings are recordings, TV is TV, and live shows are live shows.  I have nothing against them, and there are certain advantages.  In recordings the balances are better.  On TV, you let people who have never seen the stage see it, but now the Met doesn’t tour any more because the various cities can see the Met on TV, and that’s sad.  Opera is too expensive.  Musicians in the pit are paid as much as those in symphony orchestras, and that is indefensible.  A symphony orchestra represents close to 100% of what it’s all about, while in the opera, the orchestra represents, at best, about 25% of what it’s all about.  When I went on tour, I had special arrangements to use only 23 people, and even then in my budget, the orchestra was paid more than anyone else.  More than half of the entire cost was the orchestra, and that is wrong because the orchestra doesn’t produce that much value.  So, the touring orchestras are disappearing.  It would be better for them to work for a little less and remain working.  Mind you, it’s not because they are not worth it, but their contribution is not the same as in a symphony.  One has to understand that.

BD:  Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

BG:  Yes, I think so, because it is enormously popular with the young people.  Thousands of young people are learning to play and sing. 

BD:  But that’s the performing end.  Will the young people continue to become the audience?

BG:  Yes.  There is no question about it.  Opera is the most attractive thing in the world.  Good theater, good music, married together cannot be beat.  There are other kinds of music which are popular, and there’s probably room for all of them.  But I see the thousands of youngsters who want to sing opera
not anything else, but opera.  I travel a lot and I see all the regional companies.  It’s difficult, but it’s difficult in every profession.

BD:  Will the college and university be the salvation of opera?

BG:  It’s important to have international companies such as Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco, the Met, Seattle, Santa Fe, New York City Opera, but there aren’t too many, and there are a thousand colleges with opera departments that give productions.  One doesn’t hear so much about them, but I hear about them.

BD:  Is that kind of opera first-rate?

BG:  Some is.  I remember one collegiate production that was one of the best things I’d seen any time any place.  Just like that, without qualification.  What made it special was that they had a very gifted conductor, a very gifted stage director, and a lot of gifted students.  One only needs talent, and when the talent all comes together, you get something first-class.  Basically, you need time, talent, and money.  You don’t have to have glamour or superstars.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  You’ve been working with young singers now for almost 50 years.  How have the voices changed in that time – if at all?

BG:  There are more good ones, and what is so extraordinary now is that they are better-trained and much more apt to learn rapidly.  I can go out for 5 days to a university and work with 20 or 25 young singers who are very well prepared for me by other people.  I can now accomplish in three days what used to take three weeks even with very gifted people.

BD:  Is this partly due to you showing the world what can be done, and others do that before you arrive to give the master class?

BG:  That’s right.  It all started in Tanglewood in the 40’s and 50’s.  I’m not the only one.  Other people and my own students and their students just spread all over the country.

BD:  Let me ask about the international voices – have they changed in 50 years?

BG:  They’re about the same.  I don’t think it has ever been different.  My feeling is that there have always been in all periods of opera maybe 20 or 25 superstars
– people who could produce a very good effect in very large auditoriums with very large orchestras.  There are always very few people who could do that.  If we all had a little more sense and permitted our singers to be amplified, we would be able to change all this very much.  With the modern technology, one could get amplification that is absolutely perfect and nobody would even notice.  Then, all kinds of good voices that today cannot be heard in large auditoriums would be audible, and that will make a difference.  Many operas which cannot be produced would be available to be done.  Unfortunately, the prejudice against amplification – particularly in the media – is still enormous.  They feel there is something improper about amplification, but there’s nothing improper about having them sing in auditoriums that seat 4,000 people, which I think is improper!  But we live through various periods.  We have these crazy stage directors who want to make everything sensational and outrageous, and I think there’s quite a bit of feeling against them now.  I think it’s a phase that’s going to change.

BD:  Have they gotten too much power?

BG:  Oh yes, and too much idiocy.  They’ve already gone so far that people see that it’s idiotic.  I don’t have to tell you, and I don’t like to talk about it.  I can see that the pendulum is already starting back.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Let’s come back to repertoire.  Are there too few different operas being produced?

BG:  No, but there are too few 20th century operas being produced.  People dig every kind of obscurity out of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Some of them aren’t very good, but they’re being done because they’re novelties.  They’re mediocre, but they give you a lot of publicity and hype.  The problem is that modern music and modern composers have gone through a tragic period which started with Wozzeck and serial music.  There was, in my opinion, a tragic miscalculation there.  Late Beethoven was considered to be monstrously impossible, but 15 or 20 years later it changed and people understood the music.  The same thing happened to Brahms and Wagner.  The music was different, but the ear was able to adjust to it, and that took 15 years.  The small group of believers and fans became a very large group.  When I was a student in Budapest in the 20s, I thought it was happening again, that history was repeating itself.  All the new composers then would be understood in 15 years.  But something happened – or rather it didn’t happen!  This was probably because the human ear and the human reaction to sounds was not able to digest this kind of thing in the same way.  Some composers worked in quarter-tones and hoped that people would appreciate the subtleties, but they didn’t get to first base.  After Wozzeck and Lulu, there hasn’t been a single serial opera written which has become popular all over the world.  Those operas of Berg are profiting from a great deal of hype, and the stories are marvelous and people react to them very strongly.  But thousands of works have been written in that style and have been done once and then died.  So, we have lost a whole crop of possible operas.  Two generations are missing.  Britten, Menotti and Poulenc are not enough.  Symphony concerts can get by with surrounding an ugly piece with Haydn, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky.  Audiences are sometimes willing to suffer for twelve minutes, but not three hours in the opera house.  So, when you announce a modern opera, they don’t buy tickets.  It’s as simple as that.  A few places specialize in doing these pieces, but otherwise it’s not successful.

BD:  OK, so a young person comes and says he knows how to compose, but wants to learn how to compose operas.

BG:  Now they are beginning.  I think now that there is a movement.  Remember, the press is greatly to blame because they became more enamored with this twelve-tone stuff and attacked people who wrote in a more traditional style.  Take someone like Gian Carlo Menotti, who has done more for opera than any other person.  [See my interviews with Gian Carlo Menotti.]  He has taught Americans that you can hear opera in English and enjoy it not only on Broadway, but everywhere.  Amahl is probably the most-performed opera ever written by anybody anytime.  This man has been tortured and demeaned.  There hasn’t been a good review of Menotti ever by anybody, and he suffers for it.  He’s human.  You see, people read reviews and believe them.  Our tragedy is that we have learned in school that whatever is printed is so.

BD:  Are we not getting a public that hates the twelve-tone piece which is praised and loves the Menotti piece which is panned?

BG:  Maybe so.  I make it an absolute rule and I teach this to my students, not to read anything that is written about myself in the papers.  There is a very important psychological moment that I’ve learned in my association with other musicians.  You don’t suffer if you are told that you occasionally have bad reviews because you figure "so what?  No harm."  But if you read the actual words, those are remembered for many years.  It leaves a scar, and it affects them.  If someone else says that a review was poor, OK.  But to read the words makes the impact and is remembered.  I have the feeling that we have to live defensively.  We don’t eat poison food, so why we should ingest poison words?  I live a very special life.  I don’t listen to any commercials.  I watch TV, but the button can turn off the sound, and I’ve taught my eyes not to see them.  I guess when they are finished.  Why?  Because I think these things are poisonous and are brainwashing me.  I think they invade my mind, and I don’t want my mind invaded.  We don’t eat poison food, but we must be sensible enough to protect ourselves from other kinds of poison.  I admit that there are people who are so constructed that it doesn’t affect them, but I doubt that many people in our professions can just pretend that they don’t mind.  

BD:  Wouldn’t you like the media to work the public into a frenzy about the coming Goldovsky opera production?

BG:  No, no, and no!  Frenzies are bad.  Nice normalities are good.  I don’t have to be the greatest man in the world.  I know that I have gifts; I have strengths, I have weaknesses.  I am satisfied with this particular mixture, and that’s all that there is to it.  I live by Rule Six which is very simple:  Don’t take yourself so damn seriously.  When you learn Rule Six, you also realize that there are no other rules.  Be satisfied with the way you are – it’s a wonderful way to live.





Boris Goldovsky

Born: June 7, 1908 - Moscow, Russia
Died: February 16, 2001 - Brookline, Massachusetts, USA

The Russian-American pianist, conductor, opera producer, lecturer, and broadcaster, Boris Goldovsky, is the son of Léa and nephew of Pierre Luboshutz. He studied piano with his uncle and took courses at the Moscow Conservatory from 1918 to 1921. In 1921 he made his debut as a pianist with the Berlin Philharmonic, and continued his studies with Artur Schnabel and Leonid Kreutzer at the Berlin Academy of Music from 1921 to 1923. After attending Ernö Dohnányi's master-class at the Budapest Academy of Music (graduated, 1930), he received training in conducting from Fritz Reiner at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia (1932).

Boris Goldovsky served as head of the opera departments at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston from 1942 to 1954, the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood from 1946 to 1961, and the Curtis Institute of Music (from 1977). In 1946 he founded the New England Opera Theater in Boston, which became the Goldovsky Opera Institute in 1963. He also toured with his own opera company until 1984. He was a frequent commentator for the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts (from 1946) and also lectured extensively; he prepared English translations of various operas.

In 1954 he received a Peabody Award for Outstanding Contribution to Radio Music.


Writings

Accents on Opera (1953)
Bringing Opera to Life (1968)
with A. &hoep, Bringing Soprano Arias to Life (1973)
with T. Wolf: Manual of Operatic Touring (1975)
with C. Cate: My Road to Opera (1979)
Good Afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen!: Intermission Scripts from tbe Met Broadcasts (1984)
Adult Mozart: A Personal Perspective (4 volumes, 1991-1993)
 







© 1985 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on September 5, 1985.  Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1993.  This transcription was made in 1988 and published in The Opera Journal that June.  It was slightly re-edited and posted on this website in September, 2008. 

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.