Sunday, January 2, 2011
Leo Slezak: The Giant With An Angel's Voice
Leo Slezak was born in Schönberg (now Šumperk), Moravia, in 1873. Today, given all the geographical jumble of the intervening years, he is considered by many to be simply German. His father was a miller, who fell upon hard times. The family moved to Brünn (Brno) where, after finishing school, Leo became a gardener, and then a locksmith. He began to sing as an amateur in the choir of the local theater in Brünn, and, as so often happens, began to attract attention from people able to help him, in this case baritone Adolf Robinson. In 1896 Slezak made his stage debut in Brünn as Lohengrin. This led to a guest appearance in Berlin, further study, and a rapidly expanding repertoire, which quickly came to include roles such as Jean in Le Prophète, Manrico, Canio, Lohengrin, Florestan, Stolzing, Turriddu, Radames, Des Grieux, Tamino, Froh and Siegfried. In Slezak's time, the (often annoying) specializations of role and singer type did not exist. Essentially, a man was a tenor, baritone or bass, who sang opera, among other things. This was certainly Slezak's case, and he sang Mozart next to Wagner without giving it a thought.
Success followed upon success: in 1900, he debuted at Covent Garden, then on to the Vienna State Opera (then known as the Vienna Court Opera House),where he would spend many years. He went on to sing at the Met, and to tour America, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. It was the Vienna State Opera, however, that he adopted as his artistic home, and he basically sang there for the rest of his operatic career.
During WWI, he lost almost all his wealth, and so began to branch out into lighter entertainment. He was popular in operetta and films (he made 43!) and concerts. From 1932 on, he was essentially an entertainer, and quite a popular one. He was a gifted comic and character actor, and he always found excuses (common in films of the 1930's) to sing light-hearted tunes. (This was a model later adhered to by Lauritz Melchior and Helen Traubel.)
He was in addition (and very notably) an accomplished lieder singer, and this is, for many, his greatest musical accomplishment. His mezza voce and mixed voice were extraordinarily beautiful, and he could—like Gigli—sing in a voice that was very close to falsetto, and was ravishingly beautiful. In my own opinion, this is Slezak at his best. I do not believe his recording of Schumann's "Der Nussbaum," to take but one tiny example, has ever been equaled. [I refer the interested reader to a recent Youtube post of mine, "A Special Presentation: Leo Slezak Lieder Recital]
In 1943 he settled at Rottach-Egern, where died in 1946.
Slezak, as mentioned, could and did sing almost anything, with the possible exception of the most demanding Wagnerian roles. Here he is early in his career, singing Rodolfo's famous aria "Che Gelida Manina."
This is extraordinary singing. The voice is very smooth, and very consistent, all the way up to the high C, which seems to be no problem for him at all, something that cannot be said of many German tenors. In addition to a lyric and highly placed voice, he was extraordinary in his physical appearance. He was very tall—I do not know exactly how tall, but I have never, even once, seen a photograph or a movie clip where he did not tower over every other person in the scene. Also, in later life, he became quite heavy, with the result that he was a giant figure, one of the largest people ever to sing opera (and that is saying something!) Many called him the "gentle giant," or the "genial giant." He certainly was an impressive figure.
Here is a good chance to see many pictures of Slezak in a single posting; one which also provides a good example of his lighter voice, which he used to great advantage in popular songs:
As one goes through the photographs, in ascending order of age, it is possible to see how he directed his career as he grew older. His son Walter Slezak, known to my generation from his TV work, acted in much the same way, in similar character roles. A giant man can be a good Lohengrin or Otello, but he doesn't make a good leading man in the movies!
Because movies were such a big part of his later life, I provide a clip here that shows his comic acting ability very well. No need to watch much of it, because it is of course in German, but if you watch it until the point where he stands up to greet the two ladies who have come for an interview, you can see how huge he was, and also get a very good idea of his comic acting ability which was very notable, and at which he was very successful, in a Jackie Gleason kind of way:
Quite a comic!
To end on a more serious note, of which Slezak is more than worthy, here is one of my favorite recordings of his, from the presentation I recently posted. This is Schumann's "Der Nussbaum." I believe you will see what I mean when I say that I do not believe it has ever been surpassed. He sings of the sighing of the wind through the leaves of the trees, and how, to the young maiden who hears it, it whispers of love and her coming wedding. It is indescribably beautiful, and a perfect place to end our presentation of this truly remarkable and versatile artist. [For technical reasons, you need to click the link on this one]
What else can I say!
at 11:00 AM