Did a Famous Opera Singer Convince a Group of Reporters That a Long Dead Composer Had Just Complimented Him?
Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to opera and operettas and whether they are true or false.
OPERA URBAN LEGEND: The great opera singer Leo Slezak once convinced an audience of reporters that he had just received a compliment from Christoph Willibald Gluck.
Leo Slezak is one of the most popular tenors in the history of opera.
Born in what is now the Czech Republic, Slezak rose to prominence in the late 19th Century before settling into a regular spot in the Vienna State Opera’s ensemble, where he became a bit of a folk hero in Germany and Austria.
In 1909, he began a three-year run at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. It is his time there that we discussing today.
Slezak was a humorous fellow and he was well known to take any opportunity to crack a joke.
A very popular story tells of a time that Slezak was performing Armide.
Armide was a very popular opera first written by Jean-Baptiste Lully in 1686. It tells the tale of a sorceress (Armide) who fights a Christian knight named Renaud and uses her spells to ensnare him, but before she uses her dagger to kill him, she instead falls in love with him (what are the odds?). She uses her spells to make him love her, but two of his fellow knights show up and save him.
The legendary opera composer Christoph Willibald Gluck wrote his own version of Armide that was performed in 1777.
So as the story goes, Slezak was performing Armide at the Met when, during the curtain calls, he would bring an old, bearded man out from backstage and Slezak would genuflect in front of him.
After the show, as you might imagine, reporters wanted to know who he was. So at the post-show “press conference” (using the term loosely), Slezak would tell them, “That was Gluck, the composer of Armide. He told me that never in his life has he heard his opera sung as magnificently as I have sung it tonight.”
The statement made all the newspapers the next day, all, of course, missing the fact that Christoph Gluck died in 1787, over a hundred years before the performance.
It’s a great story, but the only problem is this - Slezak never performed Armide at the Met.
There’s another version of the story that’s a lot less grandiose (in which Slezak convinces a fellow tenor during rehearsal that an old man in the theater is Gluck, with the follow-up being that when a famous composer later DID come by to congratulate Slezak, the other tenor doubted the composer was legit) that might be accurate, but the Met one is totally bogus, even though it’s a wonderful story.
The legend is…
Thanks to Ethan Mordden’s Opera Anecdotes for the lowdown on this tale.
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org