Leo Slezak (August 18, 1873 – June 1, 1946) was a world-famous tenor. He was associated in particular with German opera as well as the role of Verdi's Otello.
Born in Šumperk (Mährisch-Schönberg), Slezak worked as a gardener, an engineer's fitter and served in the army before taking singing lessons with the first-class baritone Adolf Robinson. He made his debut in 1896 in Brno (Brünn) and proceeded to sing leading roles in Bohemia and Germany, appearing at Breslau and, in 1898-99, at Berlin. From 1901 onwards he was a permanent member of the Vienna State Opera's ensemble, becoming a popular star with the public.
Slezak's international career commenced in London at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where he sang Siegfried and Lohengrin in 1900. (He would return to Covent Garden in 1909 after undertaking further vocal studies in Paris with a great tenor of a previous era, Jean de Reszke.)
Slezak secured a three-year contract with the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1909. Met audiences acclaimed him in performances of works by Wagner and Verdi. Together with Giovanni Zenatello, he became the most famous Otello of his generation, famously performing the role at the Met with Arturo Toscanini conducting.
He was a convivial person, and many anecdotes reveal his sense of humour. The best-known example is as follows: during a performance of Wagner's Lohengrin, a stage hand sent the swan out too early, before the tenor could hop aboard. Seeing his feathered transportation disappear into the wings, Slezak ad-libbed to the audience: "Wann fährt der nächste Schwan?" ("When does the next swan leave?").
Slezak had a versatile repertory which embraced 66 roles. They included notably Rossini's Guillaume Tell, Manrico, Radames, Walter, Tannhäuser, Hermann and, as we have seen, Otello and Lohengrin. He sang 44 roles in Vienna alone, where he chalked up 936 appearances in 1901-12 and 1917-27. A tall man, he possessed a large and attractive lyric-dramatic voice which enabled him to undertake all but the very heaviest Wagnerian parts. He had a distinctive tonal quality, too, which became markedly darker after his studies with de Reszke in 1908. Slezak was a master of mezza-voce singing and could also deliver haunting head notes. Unfortunately, with time, his top register developed a strained and unsteady quality when used at full volume, as can be heard on some of his recordings.
Leo Slezak died in Rottach-Egern in 1946, shortly after the loss of his beloved wife.
Slezak made hundreds of disc and cylinder recordings from the early 1900s and the 1930s. They include arias and songs by a wide selection of composers, ranging from Mozart to Wagner. Many of his recordings have been released on CD compilations and are worth hearing.
Slezak's autobiography, published in 1938 in English as Song of Motley: Being the Reminiscences of a Hungry Tenor, contains pen-portraits of many of the musicians and artists with whom he worked, including Gustav Mahler, Arturo Toscanini and Cosima Wagner. It also describes his tours of America, Russia and the Balkans and recalls his doomed audition for Frau Wagner at Bayreuth, when he foolishly chose to sing music from the verismo Italian opera Pagliacci.
Later in life, he published several very humorous, semi-autobiographical books, notably:
- Meine sämtlichen Werke" ("All of my works"), his first (!) book
- Der Wortbruch" ("The broken promise")
- Der Rückfall" ("The relapse")
In 1932, Slezak began appearing in German cinema. As an actor/comedian, he played humorous characters, but mostly he sang. His movies included La Paloma (1934) and Gasparone (1937). Slezak's final film role was as a portly sultan in the 1943 UFA prestige production Münchhausen. His son, Walter Slezak, who started off in musical theater, became a successful character actor in Hollywood during the 1940s. His grand-daughter (Walter's daughter) is the actress Erika Slezak, noted for her role on the soap opera One Life to Live.
Weitere Aufnahmen von Leo Slezak