The History of The Tenor Narrated

The History of Leo Slezak

Leo Slezak

Born: August 18, 1873
Died: June 1, 1946
Czech Republic Tenor

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.