Leo Slezak

18 August 1873 Šumperk/Mährisch-Schönberg – 1 June 1946 Rottach-Egern

Picture of Leo Slezak as Otello
Otello, Paris Châtelet 1910 with Frances Alda

Picture of Leo Slezak as Radames

Picture of Leo Slezak in Breslau

Picture of Leo Slezak

Picture of Leo Slezak

Picture of Leo Slezak

Picture of Slezak's label
Leo Slezak sings Tannhäuser: Dir töne Lob (click on label picture above)
In RA format

Leo Slezak sings Il trovatore: Lodern zum Himmel (1)

Leo Slezak sings Il trovatore: Lodern zum Himmel (2), 7" G & T

Leo Slezak singsLa dame blanche: Komm, o holde Dame
In RA format

Leo Slezak sings Lohengrin: Nun sei bedankt
Not a quarter-tone flat (see below).

Leo Slezak singsGuillaume Tell: O Mathilde, du Engel meiner Triebe
In RA format
A school dropout, Slezak worked as a gardener and an engine fitter before having his voice trained by Adolf Robinson in Brno/Brünn, where he also made his debut in 1896 as Lohengrin. In 1898, he was hired by the Berlin Hofoper, but left after one year because he felt underemployed. Via Wrocław/Breslau (with a first trip to Covent Garden in 1900), in 1901 he came to the Vienna Hofoper, where Gustav Mahler was director; Slezak was to stay for the rest of his career, until 1933. He was the star of the Vienna Hofoper (later Staatsoper), and at the same time had a splendid international career through guest appearances in Paris (where he sang both at the Opéra and the Théâtre Châtelet, and where he also restudied with Jean de Reszke in 1907), Munich, Berlin, Frankfurt, Dresden, Zürich, Basel, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Budapest, Brno, Lviv/Lemberg, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Boston, at La Scala (1905, Tannhäuser), and particularly at the Met, where he had huge success in four seasons from 1909 to 1913.

His repertory was varied: Tamino, Belmonte, Rodolfo, even Georges Brown and Ferrando (!), Éléazar, Otello, Tannhäuser, Stolzing, Alfred (Fledermaus), Radames, Manrico, Gounod's Faust, Jean de Leyde, Arnold, Massenet's des Grieux, German, Canio, Riccardo...

That the audiences loved him was probably not only because of his singing: he must have been very impressive on stage, an unusually tall and massive man (his preserved costumes are almost frighteningly large), and above all, he was irresistibly funny, both on and off stage, although he didn't sing many comic parts. One of the best-known among the countless Slezak anecdotes has almost made it to an Austrian proverb: when he farewelled Elsa too long to catch the swan that was to deliver him back to the Holy Grail, he asked loudly on stage "When is the next swan due?" His heldentenor competitor Erik Schmedes was alarmingly helpless against Slezak's wit and hence his (or its) permanent victim; one of Schmedes' little daughters once told Slezak "Uncle Leo, you are only a tenor, but my dad is an artist", and Slezak answered back "If your dad had a high C, he'd rather want to be a tenor, too."

Also apart from his sense of humor, he was quite a character. Helge Rosvaenge reported that in his late Staatsoper years, Slezak (who lived across the street from the Staatsoper) would arrive at the theater two minutes before his Bohème performance (yes, he still sang Rodolfo until 1931!), step on stage in his private street clothes, sit down in an armchair and sing his part. And Slezak himself told the story that when young, he auditioned with Cosima Wagner in Bayreuth – and when she asked what he would sing, he proposed "the aria from Pagliacci", which was of course met with glacial disapproval, and Slezak was never engaged to Bayreuth.

Slezak wrote a couple of books (in German), all supremely funny, and in my humble opinion, his importance as an ingenious jester outdoes his importance as a singer. (Admittedly, I'm not crazy about Slezak the singer. Of course some of his many recordings are very good, but all in all, his tone is too often narrow, unfree or outright forced, and his really incredible Czech accent when singing German – an accent so heavy that it seems to be right from a stand-up comedy skit – doesn't help either to take him seriously in serious repertory.) Unforgettable, for instance, the arguments of a few popular operas that he gives in one of his books, not least because of his masterly German language skills that you would never imagine when hearing his accent; best of all: Lohengrin ("Lohengrin enters the stage and sings the Swan Song a quarter-tone flat"). Quite appropriately, Slezak made a second excellent career after retiring as a singer: as a film comedian, and I'm adding a rather elusive recording from one of his films, where he, to impress a guest sitting in the adjacent room, imitates the radio that they actually had to bring to the pawn shop... in three languages, or three international radio stations, which all broadcast famous Leo Slezak. Closing announcement: "Don't forget to water your antennas and to ground your gas taps." That excerpt also contains what is quite certainly Slezak's sole recording in his native Czech.

Leo Slezak sings, speaks and squeaks Radio parody
containing Martha: Mag der Himmel euch vergeben
Andulko, mé dítě (very very popular Czech folk song)
I love you, love you, love you (mock "American" pop song, likely self-composed)
I wish to thank Daniele Godor for the picture (Otello).
I wish to thank Thomas Silverbörg for the recording (Lohengrin) and the pictures (Aida, two private)

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