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, 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. [Names which are links on this page
refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.]
We had met several times over the years, often when he visited Chicago to
give a lecture for Lyric Opera. In September of 1985 I 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! [Laughs] 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.
BD: 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
BD: OK, should all operas be
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
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
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. [Vis-à-vis the
program shown at right, see my interviews with Sarah Caldwell, and
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
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. 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
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.
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).
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
Accents on Opera (1953)
Bringing Opera to Life (1968)
with A. Shoep, Bringing Soprano Arias
to Life (1973)
with T. Wolf: Manual of Operatic Touring
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. More photos and links were added in 2015.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
posted on this website, click here. To
read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print,
as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.
* * * *
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.
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
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.