When young Boris Goldovsky began to study conducting with Fritz Reiner at the Curtis Institute, the great conductor asked him what he knew about opera.
"I brashly told him that I knew nothing about opera," Goldovsky recalls. "In fact, I didn't like it, I wasn't interested in it, I wanted to have nothing to do with it."
It was not that Goldovsky hated music-the son of a concert violinist, Lea Luboshutz, he had been immersed in music since infancy and planned to make it his career.
He was also an enthusiast of drama, having enjoying it in his native Moscow during "a golden age of Russian drama, dominated by Konstantin Stanislavsky's celebrated Art The-atre."
But he was unimpressed by the hybrid combination of these two modes of expression, finding it "a singularly ponderous and stilted art form."
When he went to see Chaliapin sing "Boris Godunov," an experience that many opera fans would consider the climax of a lifetime, he slept through most of the performance.
Some people are born to love opera with an uncritical passion, and perhaps they are fortunate. Goldovsky clearly had it thrust upon him by Reiner, who believed that "until you've conducted opera, you don't know what conducting really is." Because he was forced to work in a medium that he found boring-because he decided to make of opera something that he personally could enjoy, something in which he could take pride, Boris Goldovsky played a significant, perhaps a decisive role in the coming-of-age of opera in the United States.
At the end of this autobiography, which takes his life as far as the death, in 1951, of his last mentor, Serge Koussevitzky, Goldovsky publishes a series of lists: notable American premieres he has conducted, singers and directors he has trained. These lists spill over more than two pages, and they record the highlights of a life uncommonly rich in accomplishments, but they are not the most important thing about Boris Goldovsky.
If Goldovsky had not conducted the American premiere of Britten's "Peter Grimes" of Mozart's "Idomeneo," presumably someone else would have done it sooner or later, and once suspects that Leontyne' Price, Helen Boatwright, Ara Berberian and other singers would have had distinguished careers even without singing in his productions at Tanglewood. There is less glamor but more significance, perhaps, in the list of more than two dozen persons (Sarah Caldwell among them) who worked with Goldovsky and later became "teachers" of opera-coaches, directors, conductors. Goldovsky's most positive and enduring impact has been as a teacher, as one who has demonstrated what can be done.
If he is to take a bow for what has been done with opera in this country during the last generation, Goldovsky would have to share the applause with many others, but he was a major influence, a catalyst, in all the most important trends. These include the new focus on opera as a dramatic art and the integration of an adequate level of staging and acting into the musical interpretation; the proliferation of small regional opera companies which allow American singers to mature artistically without having to go to Europe, and the development of a mass audience for opera.
Goldovsky followed a long, twisting road to these accomplishments from a childhood in which he dreamed of being a virtuoso pianist. He was still a child when the Russian Revolution burst upon the scene, and after a few years in the workers' paradise, he escaped to the West with his mother and sister.
While developing his talents, he was a student or apprentice of some of the most notable and colorful musicians of the century, including Artur Schnabel, Ernest von Dohnanyi, Fritz Reiner and Artur Rodzinski as well as Serge Koussevitsky, and his anecdotes about these and other associates are always perceptive and frequently funny.
Goldovsky's memoirs are highly readable for their anecodtal content, for their preceptions on a variety of music and musicians, for an occasional touch of adventure and a sharp sense of humor. But the enduring value of the book is its modest, factual account of how opera in the United States bgan reaching toward its full potential.