For the 30 years that opened the twentieth century, Leo Slezak was one of the outstanding dramatic tenors, and is best known today for his Wagnerian roles, but he was also capable of the shading and subtleties required for French opera, and was greatly admired in such roles as Gerald in Delibes' Lakmé and des Grieux in Massenet's Manon.
Having studied with Adolf Robinson, his operatic debut was as Lohengrin in Brno, in 1896. Two years later, he made his Berlin debut in the same role, and in 1900, performed it again at Covent Garden, when the Breslau company, which he joined the year before, toured abroad. In 1901, his rise to fame began when he came to the attention of Gustav Mahler, who invited him to join the Vienna State Opera. He made his debut was as Arnold in Guillame Tell, beginning a 32-year association with that house. In 1907, however, when Mahler left, Slezak also left to pursue an international career. In Paris, he studied the French operatic repertoire with Jean de Reszke and song with Reynaldo Hahn. Moving on to the United States, his Met debut was as Otello in 1909. Though he returned to the Vienna State Opera in 1913, he continued to make international appearances until his farewell performance as Canio in 1933.
His sense of humor was legendary. When the swan boat was pulled onstage without him during a production of Lohengrin, he turned to a stagehand and asked "What time does the next swan leave?" In another incident, reported in his memoirs without giving names or places, he described a trick he played on another singer. When a stranger showed up at a rehearsal of Gluck's Armide, and exchanged a few words with Slezak, Slezak told a curious fellow cast member that the gentleman was no less than Gluck himself, who had come to tell him that he had never heard Renaud (Slezak's role) sung so beautifully. The gullible singer fell for it, and was furious when he found out that Gluck had been dead for about 150 years. (Matters got a bit trickier when during a performance of Pagliacci, a gentleman came backstage to congratulate Slezak. The other singer asked who he was, and was told, "I'm the composer, Leoncavallo," which was greeted with loud indignation and cries of, "You can't fool me twice, Leoncavallo probably died years ago." Of course, this time the visitor was the composer.)
While he was not considered one of the great operatic actors, after his retirement he appeared in cameo roles in various films. His wife was an actor, and his son, Walter Slezak, pursued acting as a career (at first against Slezak's wishes), while his daughter, Margarete, also pursued an operatic career. His granddaughter, Erika (Walter's daughter), is a celebrated soap opera star. Walter wrote What Time's the Next Swan?, an affectionate and humorous combination of autobiography and biography of his parents' lives, and Slezak himself wrote several volumes of memoirs.
Among Slezak's recordings, Pearl has released a collection that displays him in a wide range of operatic material, and Preiser offers one with a selection of Lieder as well as arias.