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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!


JD Hobbes said...

Good grief. You are right. He was huge!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Ha, ha. Yes, he certainly was! But what a juxtaposition; that lovely high head voice, so perfect for lieder, is just not something one instinctively attributes to so large a man. But it certainly served him well at the beginning, when he made such a striking appearance on the stage in heroic roles. And even later, when he was quite heavy, it still worked well for comic movie roles, such as Gasparone.

Anonymous said...

Dear Edmund, Happy New Year!

Thank You very much for your educational mission.
All the best!

Edmund St. Austell said...

And thank YOU very much for your kind and thoughtful comment. And please accept my best wishes for a happy and prosperous 2011!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great article; I imagined Slezac as a very serious big man , but the article perfectly shows his extraordinary versatility. Now he seems very different. He was a brilliant and charming artist. I was very impressed with his Lieder recital (added it to favorites), and it seemed different enough in comparison to Wagnerian roles. But I didn’t know that he could perform pop songs or to be a film comedian. Great man.

Another surprising thing about him is the contrast between his simple origin and his refined , romantic singing – a former miller/ gardener , who sings like an aristocrat.


Edmund St. Austell said...

That's a wonderful comment. Thank you very much. Yes, he could do it all. His family went on to become very much involved in popular entertainment here in America. His son, Walter, was a character actor in the movies, and had a very good career. His grandaughter is a TV actress, and I think she is still working. And I find your observation about his cultured singing and humble background very interesting. I suppose we could say the same thing about Sergei Lemeshev and Mark Reizen. Lemeshev's family (as you know much better than I) were very humble people, and Reizen's family were coal miners. Sometimes people from humble backgrounds work and study very hard because they know they have to adapt to a much more cultured standard in order to be successful. Hope you are having a nice extended Russian New Year's! [And, by the way, Ваш английский настолько хорошо! Вы уже далеко впереди меня! Это не честно :-)

Anonymous said...

‘Sometimes people from humble backgrounds work and study very hard because they know they have to adapt to a much more cultured standard in order to be successful.’
Yes, they are. Also it requires a huge talent.

[And, by the way, Ваш английский настолько хорошо! Вы уже далеко впереди меня! Это не честно :-)

:D Ваш русский достаточно хорош, к тому же вы недавно начали его учить. Вы - полиглот и даже на грузинском смогли написать понятную фразу с первого раза. Для меня это недосягаемо.


Nate said...

With regard to Leo Slezak's huge physique, surpassing Melchior's, I guess one would have to go back to the legendary bass, Lablache, to find a man with comparable stature and rotundity combined, if we can believe reports about the latter's size. My personal favorite recording of Slezak's is his first version of the tenor aria from Queen of Sheba, which Caruso also recorded so beautifully, as well as Nicolai Gedda. That one used to be on youtube but I think the second version has replaced it. Thanks, Edmund, for the biographical sketch and accompanying recordings of this wonderful and versatile artist.

Edmund St. Austell said...

And thank you, Nate for a great comment. I have a fair bit of Slezak, but I don't have the aria you mention. I wish I did. I think you just sparked the hunting instinct in me:-) I'll search around. And I totally agree--Slezak was wonderful indeed, and versatile is the word! Comedy, Lieder, opera, we can take our pick!

Gioacchino Fiurezi-Maragioglio said...

"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."

Sire, if you come ever to Italy, come to my house for me to bow and kiss your hand. Your insight is so very good for an American!

This aforementioned is quote it is so true, in those times the singer took his Wagner with his Mozart, his Mascagni with his Donizetti, his Verdi and Puccini with his Pacini.

But those days are gone... now it is all about the vocalism, nobody has understanding that characterization can spare and sustain the voice.

Edmund StAustell said...

You are very kind, and I thank you! You are also absolutely right! No composer has suffered more from this over-specialization than Wagner. It was never his intention to have enormous singers, with giant voices, blasting away throughout his operas. In fact, he wanted his tenors trained in Italy, because he, like others, recognized the superiority of Italian singing. It would have made a great difference to the fate of his operas.

Gerhard Santos said...

This is an intelligent and well written article, Great job. Thanks for sharing!!! Have a Beautiful evening! *GOD BLESS*