When Slezak’s father’s milling business collapsed, the family moved to Brünn (now Brno), where after leaving school Leo worked as a gardener and then a locksmith. He also sang as an amateur in the chorus of the Brünn Theatre and attracted the attention of Adolf Robinson, who had appeared frequently at the Metropolitan Opera, New York between 1884 and 1889. Under Robinson’s tutelage Slezak developed rapidly and in 1896 made his operatic stage debut in the title role of Lohengrin.
Success was immediate and further roles followed quickly. Following a guest appearance at the Berlin Court Opera in 1898, Slezak accepted a five-year contract; but on being given small roles only, in 1899 he began to sing with the Breslau (now Wrocław) Opera. With this company he appeared in 1900 at the Royal Opera House, London singing Lohengrin and the title roles in Tannhäuser and Siegfried (the only time he sang the latter role).
Following a guest appearance in 1901 as Arnold / Guillaume Tell at the Vienna Court Opera, Slezak joined this company (then headed by Mahler) and over the next five years sang a wide repertoire there. His roles included: in Wagner, Tannhäuser; in Mozart, Tamino / Die Zauberflöte and Belmonte / Die Entführung aus dem Serail; in French opera, the title role in Faust, Raoul / Les Huguenots, Gérald / Lakmé and des Grieux / Manon; in Italian opera, Radamès / Aida, Rodolfo / La Bohème and Canio / Pagliacci; and in German / Slav opera, Hermann / The Queen of Spades, Assad / Die Königen von Saba and Adolar / Euryanthe. He also made his debut at La Scala, Milan in 1902 as Tannhäuser.
Following the departure of Mahler from Vienna for New York, during 1907 Slezak studied with Jean de Reszke in Paris, as a result of which his voice became darker. He first appeared at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in 1909, where his roles, often with Toscanini conducting, included the title part in Otello, Walter von Stolzing / Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Manrico / Il trovatore and Stradella / Alessandro Stradella (Flotow), as well as several already mentioned. He gave his last performance at the Met as Otello in January 1913.
Having returned to Covent Garden to sing Otello and Radamès in 1909 and sung Otello in Paris in 1910, in 1912 Slezak was offered a new contract by the Vienna Opera. Although he had been intermittently active with this company during his Met years, he declined the offer on the grounds of insufficient payment. However, he rejoined the Vienna Opera in 1917, having lost much of his wealth during World War I, a reality which encouraged him to move into lighter entertainment. In addition he was a frequent recitalist and appeared in many concerts.
As time went on Slezak sang less frequently with the (by now) Vienna State Opera (he had moved from being a contracted singer to a guest in 1928) but even towards the end of his career there he tackled demanding roles such as Eleazar / La Juive, while other roles ranged from Riccardo / Un ballo in maschera to Alfred / Die Fledermaus. He decided to retire from the Vienna Opera in 1933 after a performance of Pagliacci, still in good voice.
For some time previously Slezak had been developing a career as a film actor, specializing in comic character parts in which he would often burst into light-hearted songs; in all he appeared in forty-three films. He also wrote four books of memoirs, the last completed by his daughter Margarete, herself a singer. His son Walter was a popular actor in the USA.
Between 1901 and 1937 Slezak made more than 450 78rpm recordings. A singer of great versatility as well as size, he is perhaps best remembered for his immortal enquiry ‘What time is the next swan?’ uttered in a stage whisper, when in a performance of Lohengrin the stage swan moved off in the final act before he was able to climb aboard.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).
Role: Classical Artist