How We Met: Sir Georg and Lady Solti

Sue Fox
Sunday 30 May 1993 00:02 BST

Sir Georg Solti, one of the world's greatest conductors, was born in Hungary in 1912 and taught by Bartok, Kodaly and Dohnanyi. This summer he conducts Verdi's Falstaff, with the Vienna Philharmonic, in Salzburg, 100 years after it was premiered at La Scala. Lady Solti, who was born in Leeds, worked for the BBC under her maiden name, Valerie Pitts. She travels widely with her husband and makes music documentaries for BBC Radio. They have two daughters, Gabrielle, 23, and Claudia, 20. Sir Georg is known to his family and close friends by his Hungarian diminutive 'Gyuri'.

VALERIE SOLTI: Gyuri has always believed in Fate. Our meeting is a perfect example, although it sounds like a comedy of errors. In 1964 I was the arts journalist for a BBC magazine programme, Town and Around. The day before the fateful meeting an American film clip was suddenly unavailable so I had nothing for my slot. In desperation, I rang Sheila Porter at Covent Garden. Of all my contacts, Sheila was the most likely to come up with an idea. 'There's always Solti,' she said. My first reaction was to ask if he spoke English. I knew nothing about him and wasn't keen on opera.

News Facilities managed to find a film crew, on the strict understanding that they had to leave on time as they were booked to cover a football match. I arrived at the Savoy expecting to find Sheila with the Maestro, but there was no sign of them. I rang Covent Garden, to be told in a very plummy voice that 'Dr Solti' was waiting for me in his room. In those days, conductors were often addressed with the honorary 'Dr'.

I set off - past the Gondoliers and HMS Pinafore Suites and into the red lacquer pagoda lift. Solti's suite was down a thickly carpeted corridor. I knocked on the door. No reply. I knocked again. A voice shouted 'What do you want?' and the door opened. I was greeted by this figure swathed in towels looking like a prize-fighter. 'Good morning. I'm from the BBC. I've come to interview you.'

He apologised for being late. Steam was coming from the bathroom. 'What's your name?' he asked. 'Valerie Pitts,' I replied. 'Are you any relation to Wilhelm Pitz?' He was referring to the famous choirmaster whose name sounds just like my father's, William Pitts. 'Actually, I'm his daughter.' He gave me a charming smile, then pointed with a long finger. 'Do you think you could help me find my socks?' I looked around the room. No socks. I looked under the bed. At that moment, Bill Beresford, who worked with Sheila, arrived to find me crawling out from under the bed with the Maestro's socks.

Eventually, the interview was done. He asked if we would join him for a drink, and then invited us for lunch. Bill couldn't stay, but, completely out of character, I accepted. We sat for two hours by a window in the Grill Room. I told him I knew almost nothing about opera but I'd once seen a frightful production of Elektra in Frankfurt. His impish eyes twinkled. 'Thank you my dear. I was the conductor.' As I drove home, I knew I'd met an extraordinary human being.

A few days later, after constant telephone calls and red roses, he informed me that the rest of my life had to be spent with him. It seemed preposterous at the time. But that's what happened. I was happily married - one of the new generation of career girls. I loved my life, which was suddenly turned upside down. I was totally intoxicated by Gyuri. My parents were horrified and distressed. Friends thought I'd lost my reason. We were hounded by the press. Journalists rang me pretending to be my husband. Once we were in a lift and a man got hold of Gyuri and said: 'What are your plans, Maestro?' Throughout it all my husband was wonderful and we've remained friends.

To try to sort out my life, I went to Djerba with a girlfriend. As soon as I got to the hotel, there was a phone call. It was Gyuri. He asked me to go with him to Israel. I couldn't continue with the hypocrisy of a dual life. The only thing was to face up to the situation so I made plans to go to Israel. It was the first time I had turned against my parents' wishes.

Joseph, the driver for the Israel Philharmonic, met me at the airport. I remember the wonderful smell of orange blossoms in the air as we drove to the Mann Auditorium. I arrived almost at the end of the concert and waited at the side of the stage. There was a full moon. Gyuri took me back to his suite at the Dan Tel Aviv which was covered in flowers. I gave him the non-kosher salami I had smuggled in my luggage and we've been together ever since.

It's been the most extraordinary, exciting, privileged life anyone could have had. A life full of laughter. Gyuri's a wonderful teacher. He's taught me everything, not just about music - about life. He's shared everything - including football.

If Claudia or Gabrielle were ever completely intoxicated by an extraordinary, much older man - of course I would worry. But I'd be sympathetic. You can't have fantastic heights in life without experiencing the downside, too. And I feel quite differently about Elektra now.

GEORG SOLTI: The story is that I had forgotten about the BBC interview, but I hadn't forgotten at all. The day before, Sheila Porter, from the Royal Opera House, asked me if I would do it. She said it was very important for us to have the publicity for the Ring Cycle. We arranged for the film crew to come to the Savoy, but I must have made a mistake about the time. I thought they were due an hour later. I was surprised when there was a knock on my bedroom door. I had just come out of the shower and was wearing a bath-robe. The BBC journalist said everyone was waiting for me downstairs. I told her I'd get ready as quickly as possible and asked if she could look around the room for my socks. At that same moment she found my socks and my heart.

The interview, which was quite short, went well. I liked what I heard and what I saw in this enchanting creature and asked her to have lunch with me. It was totally out of character for me. I'm not in the habit of asking journalists for lunch, but I was completely captivated. There are so many funny people in this business and from the moment we met, we have always shared a lot of laughter. The lunch lasted two hours and was a very stormy beginning to our relationship.

Although I was no longer living with my wife, I had been married for 16 years. If I hadn't moved into the Savoy, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to invite Valerie for lunch. It was an absolutely fatal encounter for us both. She was 24 and happily married. I was 52. Valerie didn't want anything to do with this strange Hungarian gentleman, but it's not in my nature to give up and I wanted

Valerie. I sent a lot of flowers and phoned her from wherever I was in the world. When I went with the LSO on an American tour I called her every day. In 1964, you couldn't just pick up a telephone and dial direct. When Valerie went off to Djerba with a BBC friend for a holiday, she thought she was safe, but I found out where she was staying and called her from Vienna.

I have experienced two great battles in my life. From 1939 to 1946, struggling to become a musician, were the worst years of my life. Then there was the battle to win Valerie. There was no way I was going to lose that.

In January 1965, I had to go to Israel for six weeks to conduct the Israel Philharmonic. I begged her to come with me. Finally, I persuaded her to visit and asked her to pack a non-kosher salami into her suitcase. Valerie arrived - with the salami - and we've lived together ever since. Both of us had to sort out our divorces. Mine was much more complicated than Valerie's, but it was another two years before we were married, on 11 November 1967.

One of the places I longed to share with Valerie was my house in Italy. I had told her how beautiful it was but when I took her there in April, it was raining and very cold. In time, she grew to love it as much as I do. and we've spent some of our happiest family summers there. From Italy, we travelled to Switzerland where I wanted to show her my home in Vevey. Once again the weather let us down. Later on, we bought a home in Villars.

All the places which were so important to both of us never lived up to expectations when we wanted to share them with each other. Valerie is from Leeds and often told me how beautiful Yorkshire can be. When Valerie took me to visit her parents it was bitterly cold. All I can say is the fact that I don't like it there is entirely my fault and nothing at all to do with Yorkshire.

Valerie's parents were totally against our relationship. We had started out an a great adventure which horrified them both. They had brought up their daughter with a strong sense of values and nothing like this had ever happened in their family before. They didn't want her to become involved with an exotic married man, who not only was 25 years older, he was foreign, he was a different religion and he wasn't even divorced. When I met her, Valerie thought she was happily married but I turned her world upside down. Eventually her parents accepted me and we became very good friends. Fortunately for me, her father loved music and that made it easier for me to get to know him.

Our way of working is very different. I'm a methodical musician. For me, there is no other way. In musical terms, Valerie's method is improvisation, which I hate. One of my wife's greatest achievements is to have created a real home for us. The life of a conductor is an impossible one, but she has travelled everywhere with me without sacrificing the family. My family is the most important thing in my life and if Claudia and Gabrielle ever thought that they came second to music I would give it all up without a moment's hesitation.-

(Photograph omitted)

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