“In the summer of 1936, I visted the Salzburg Festival for the first time and managed to attend, unofficially, a few rehearsals and performances. Bruno Walter and several other famous musicians were taking part, but the main attraction was [Arturo] Toscanini, who was conducting Fidelio, Falstaff, Die Meistersinger, and some orchestral concerts. The experience was exhilarating—a new world of high quality opened up for me—and the following summer I made up my mind to go back. At my insistent request, the director of the Budapest Opera gave me a letter of recommendation, so that I might get into some rehearsals. I arrived in Salzburg one evening in July 1937, and the next morning I went to the Festspielhaus to present my letter to Baron [Heinrich von] Puthon, a retired Austrian general who was the festival’s general manager. After a long wait, I was introduced to the baron, who read the letter and asked me, ‘Can you play The Magic Flute?’”
Solti replied, “yes,” and was invited to attend the afternoon stage rehearsal. When he arrived in the pit, he sat at the piano, noticed that the singers were onstage and ready, and started playing, giving cues with one hand.
“Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a little man enter from the right side of the stage. My heart stopped. It was Toscanini. . . . Without stopping me, he began to conduct—very small, simple, but clear indications of tempo and dynamics. I followed him as if my life depended on it. After an hour or so, he called a break, turned to me, and said softly, ‘Bene.’ I do not think any complment I have ever received has given me as much joy as that one from Toscanini.”
At Toscanini’s insistence, Solti became one of his assistants and also played glockenspiel for the Magic Flute performances. At the end of the summer, Solti was engaged as a répétiteur for the following season, to assist Toscanini and coach four operas. However, Toscanini would never return to Austria.
“News of my having worked with Toscanini—and of my having been reengaged by him—was picked up by the Budapest press, and I began to be noticed as a musician. I pestered the Budapest Opera’s administrators to let me conduct something, and I imagine they realized that if they didn’t give me a chance, I would probably try to go elsewhere. Finally, a performance was arranged for me: The Marriage of Figaro, on March 11, 1938. So far as I know, it was the first time that an unconverted Jew conducted a complete opera in that house since Hungary had become an independent country.
“. . . walking into the orchestra pit to conduct an opera for the first time in my life was a frightening experience, especially as I had not been allowed a single rehearsal. But after the overture, I felt absolutely comfortable and at home. . . . At the beginning of the third act [one of the singers] made all sorts of mistakes, singing incoherently, and seemed to have completely lost his confidence. . . . When I went backstage after the performance had ended, I learned what had happened. Just as he had been about to go on stage, [he] had been handed a copy of an extra edition of an evening newspaper and had learned that German troops were crossing the border into Austria and marching toward Vienna; the historical event that is now referred to as the Anschluss . . . As it turned out, my conducting debut at the Budapest Opera was also my last performance of an opera there. I was only twenty-five years old, but I felt that all my hope had been dashed. That evening left a permanent scar on my heart.”
Text excerpted from Memoirs by Sir Georg Solti.