Stokowski and singers

Leopold Stokowski was staging a concert version of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. Natalie Bodanya, one of the finest singers at Curtis at the time, refused to audition, noting how “impersonal and impossible Stokowski was. Stokowski had filled all the roles, with the exception of that the Princess.

“Is it possible” Stokowski asked Sylvan [Sylvan Lenin, a vocal coach at Curtis], “that there’s not one singer at Curtis who can do it?”

“There’s one,” Sylvan said, “but she won’t.”


“Doesn’t like you,” Sylvan said.

“What’s that got to do with it?” Stokowski asked. “It’s a fine chance for her, and she shouldn’t throw it away. I’d like to hear her.”

Sylvan told this to Natalie, adding, “Of course, you must do it. Let me say you’ll sing for him tomorrow.”

Natalie saw the sense of this and showed up the next morning “looking like a slob,” she told me when she recalled the incident,”wearing bobby sox and without any makeup.”

Stokowski rose gallantly as she entered. “How do you do, Miss Bodanya. How wahnderful of you to come,” he said in his most seductive accent. “What do you wish to sing?”

“Oh,how about “Musetta’s Waltz” from Puccini’s La Boheme?

Stokowski nodded. After she sang, he asked, “Could you sing some Mozart?”

“I’ve no Mozart ready. Besides, why should I sing Mozart for a chance to sing Mussorgsky?”

Sylvan glared and shook his head disapprovingly. Stokowski smiled, turned to Sylvan and said, “Yes, she is perfect for the Princess. Thank you both. See you at rehearsal.”

Things went well. Natalie got along with everyone and became not only a Stokowski fan but also an admirer of Sophia Breslau. At the third rehearsal, they were working on a section starting with the letter B. Suddenly, Stokowski turned around and said, “All right, now to letter M.” His right hand shot out, and the orchestra made the cruel jump to a man. Of course, Sophia had not, and she was still searching for her place when Stokowski stopped the playing and in a voice loaded with sarcasm said, “It would be helpful if some of you could take a course in sight-reading and solfeggio.” Breslau blanched. “On behalf of that wonderful woman,” Natalie told me, “after rehearsal I walked into her dressing room and said, ‘I know it’s none of my business, but I hope you’ll accept our apologies for what happened. Believe me, you have the sympathy and admiration of everyone in that hall. Stoki behaved adominably. ‘Thank you, my dear. Sometime, Stoki’s a very naughty boy, but he’s a genius,’ said Breslau with characteristic dignity.”

Natalie went on to tell me, “After that outburst, all the other rehearsal went marvelously. He called me ‘Lollipop’ and treated me like a real princess.”

Source: Chasins, Abram (1979) Leopold Stokowski. London: Robert Hale, p. 85-122-123.