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Slatkin on the skids

Leonard Slatkin, conductor.

In yesterday’s post, I followed the news as it broke of Leonard Slatkin’s latest, and unfortunately very visible fiasco. After returning to the Metropolitan Opera for the first time in years to conduct “La traviata,” and, by all accounts, crashing and burning spectacularly, he has withdrawn -- the official verb -- from all future performances of the run, “believing” -- in the words of a statement distributed by his manager -- “that his artistic contribution, which he feels he has thoroughly prepared, does not however coincide with the musical ideas of the ensemble.”

Slatkin (who was, of course, the long-time music director of the NSO) was never a natural for “Traviata”: the Met had signed him up for John Corigliano’s “The Ghosts of Versailles,” a revival it then replaced with “Traviata” due to cost considerations. (Vanity Fair, this week, has a long article on the Met's current financial situation.) “Traviata,” a staple of the Italian repertory, isn’t something one might associate with Slatkin’s penchant for new American work, and Slatkin isn’t a very experienced opera conductor. “Traviata” isn’t actually rocket science to conduct, but Slatkin, according to reports, seems to have had problems with basic communication with the singers. The reviews were overwhelmingly negative;, which broke the Slatkin story yesterday, has summarized them here, so I don’t need to. (Parterrebox is the brainchild, or love-child, of James Jorden, who now reviews for the New York Post.)

To some degree, Slatkin wasn’t helped by the new openness that the Internet affords artists. On his website, he maintains a monthly blog that’s already proven a bit of a loaded cannon, as I also mentioned yesterday: a joking post he published about attempts to shake up the traditional concert format was taken so seriously, and disseminated so widely, that he had to publish a clarification. In this month’s post, he wrote very frankly about “Traviata.”
(read more after the jump)  

“This is an opera I had never conducted and the first real repertoire standard for me at the Met,” he wrote. “But after a while, I concluded that since everyone else in the house knew it, I would learn a great deal from the masters. There was a lot of digging for me to do. I consumed books about the composer and the work’s history. Listening to a few recordings was helpful but confusing. What constituted tradition and why? This was a question I would ask often during rehearsals.”

This is frank and honest. It’s also a little alarming in its callowness, coming from someone who is about to lead a cornerstone of the repertory at one of the world’s leading houses. To judge from Slatkin’s description of the rehearsals, which he also posted about in considerable detail, he was no better able to bluff in the theater than he was on his blog. (Joyce DiDonato blogs quite frankly about her ups and downs and, recently, surgeries. But it's also important to understand how much information is appropriate to share, and what helps and what hurts with press and public. DiDonato's last post is a fine example of someone being frank and real while explaining, fairly explicitly, the boundaries she'd like her fans to observe -- asking them directly, in fact, to help her maintain them. Slatkin, alas, is simply oversharing, and making himself look much worse in the process.

It’s a sad moment for Slatkin, who was just embarking on rehabilitation with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra after what ultimately became a lackluster tenure at the NSO (where he was also criticized for showing up inadequately prepared, and learning things during the rehearsal period). It casts questions on his basic abilities as a conductor, and is certainly a PR nightmare, since the story is destined to be told and retold; it’s not often that a conductor leaves the Met for simply not being able to cut it.

There’s no excuse for a conductor or singer showing up unprepared. But Slatkin certainly isn’t the only example of it happening, to conductors or certainly to singers; the opera world is rife with anecdotes of singers having roles force-fed to them during rehearsals. A lot of people in this business take on too much, in too little time. This particular saga is a cautionary tale about the worst-case scenario of what can happen as a result.

As for Slatkin's replacements, here's the relevant excerpt from the press release: "Marco Armiliato will replace him at the April 3 evening performance, after conducting the matinee of Aida. Steven White, in his Met debut, will conduct the performance on April 10. Yves Abel will conduct on April 13, 17 matinee, 21, and 24. The April 7 performance is TBA."

Edited to add: In the Detroit Free Press, Mark Stryker gives some helpful perspective on Slatkin's tenure at the DSO.

By Anne Midgette  |  April 2, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  news , opera  
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Next: Fischer and Bach disappoint at NSO


Thanks for the update as well as the cogent observations on the opportunities and pitfalls provided by Internet-based media as well as the responsibilities of artists to prepare.

I am a little puzzled by your statement that "Traviata isn't actually rocket science to conduct." Perhaps to an experienced Verdi conductor.

No doubt there are many would argue that reviewing Traviata isn't rocket science either.

Posted by: newcriticalcritic | April 2, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

This whole saga is a travesty. Why would an experienced conductor make his or her initial foray into any piece at a place like the Met? Why did the Met not follow these issues more closely? I suppose it's hard to believe that a veteran conductor hadn't ever conducted "La Traviata" but didn't someone at the Met even bother to ask or check? If I had purchased tickets, I would be furious!

Posted by: BobTatFORE | April 2, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

Interesting that so many are eager to pile on with such alacrity - it smacks very much of schadenfreude. Why the rush to discredit a great and productive career? All those so gleeful over this stumble should also read the review in Apr. 3 NYTimes of LS conducting at Juilliard.

Posted by: henry136 | April 3, 2010 9:19 AM | Report abuse

I see Ms. Midgette's article as an unfortunate incidence of piling on. The title of this article, "Slatkin on the Skids," is especially mean-spirited and utterly unnecessary. I'm happy to se that Mr. Slatkin made a spectacular rebound at Juilliard, and his work at the Detroit Symphony is first-rate.

Posted by: mratomic | April 3, 2010 8:57 PM | Report abuse

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