Once upon a time a very important man lost his socks at the Savoy Hotel in London. He looked high and low, even under the bed. Suddenly there was a knock at the door. It was a lovely blond British TV interviewer named Valerie Pitts. Georg Solti, who is much more accomplished at conducting an orchestra than at searching for socks, invited the lady in. She, of course, found the missing hose, and they’ve lived happily ever after.
That glosses over some details. For instance, Valerie’s then husband and Solti’s wife were not so entertained by the storybook romance. Both spouses sued for divorce, and in 1967 Valerie and Georg were married. Since then she has, by her own account, waited hand and foot on the Hungarian-born conductor of the Chicago Symphony, who was knighted in 1971. “It’s impossible to be married to a top artist and have a full career,” says Valerie, 41.
However, last month for the fourth year she found time to perform in the orchestra’s Petites Promenades concerts (for children 4 to 8). Under the blazing chandeliers of the Palmer House ballroom, Valerie held her audience transfixed. “Click your fingers, clap your hands, tap your feet,” she called out. And the audience of 500 slicked-up children obeyed. Soon they were gleefully filling the ballroom with the sound of cuckoos.
“Opera is really a story set to music,” Valerie told the young audience, and launched into a 35-minute version of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, performed by a cast of puppets, with music by 25 members of the symphony. The 65-year-old maestro beamed from the sidelines. When the libretto got to the scary part and the green-faced witch peered out, Claudia Solti, 5, crept away from her nanny and sister Gabrielle, 8, and crawled into papa’s lap.
At the opera’s climax, as the oven door slammed shut on the witch, the audience began to giggle. Then, as the old hag emerged in a cloud of smoke, reincarnated as gingerbread for the finale, the children burst into applause. “Now,” Valerie announced, “they are all concertgoers.”
Such performances are hardly a strain on her histrionic talents. The daughter of a Yorkshire magistrate, Valerie graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts(Glenda Jackson and Diana Rigg were classmates) and drifted into TV. That job eventually brought her to the Savoy and her interview with Solti, who was conducting Covent Garden’s Royal Opera at the time.
As Solti’s helpmate and mother of their two daughters, Valerie hovers in the background. During rehearsals or recording sessions, she often dashes forward to hand Sir Georg a glass of Perrier or a cup of hot tea and a fresh towel to mop his face.
Theirs is a vagabond life: autumn and spring in Chicago, winter in London, vacations at their Swiss ski chalet or Italian seaside villa. Helping keep their show on the road is a staff of 12 to 15. “We are a team,” says Valerie, “all working for Solti’s comfort. He is looked after, and he gets to his concerts with everything he wants.” Right down to his socks.