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June 8, 2010

Epilogue to the story of Leonard Slatkin's unfortunate night at the Metropolitan Opera

Back in early April, the opera world went into gossipy overdrive over the opening night of "La Traviata" at the Metropolitan Opera conducted by Leonard Slatkin, who withdrew from remaining performances.

The reviews were scathing, and more than one critic noticed of an entry that appeared on (and was subsequently removed from) the conductor's blog, discussing how he had originally turned down "Traviata" (a consolation offer from the Met after the company scrapped plans for a Slaktin-led revival of Corigliano's "The Ghosts of Versailles). In his blog, the conductor wrote that "Traviata was

"... an opera I had never conducted and the first real repertoire standard for me at the Met ... 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."

The conclusion that a lot of folks made was that Slatkin was not fully prepared and thus caused the many problems heard on that opening night. I only heard (via satellite radio) the last act of that performance, which did not reveal anything horribly amiss. I didn't think the conducting was all that special, however; I like more breathing room in the Act 3 Prelude, for example, than Slatkin allowed.

When the tempest erupted afterward in print and, especially, online, the conductor stayed mum, but he just did some talking this week to Mark Stryker of the Detroit Free Press, laying out his side of the story. First, he

denies that he he didn't know the score: "I was maybe even too prepared. I knew this opera inside out; I could have almost conducted from memory."

Then, Slatkin points a finger at diva Angela Gheorghiu, who sang the role of Violetta:

Slatkin did not completely absolve himself from blame and admitted he made mistakes opening night. But what he called Gheorghiu's 'unprofessional behavior' -- blocking his view of other singers, taking outrageous liberties that went beyond liberal notions of expressive phrasing, entering early and ignoring cut-offs -- so unnerved him that he lost his cool in the second act.

"It rarely happens to me, but I got thrown," said Slatkin. "All of a sudden, I was saying, 'What the hell is going on?' and there were places where I knew I was wrong, but I didn't know what to do. I was pretty much up in the air.

Needless to say, this interview had opera folks debating the whole affair all over again in the usual places, notably the ever-provocative Parterre Box. I still don't know what to make of it all. I don't even know for sure if I should care that much. But it was one of the more interesting episodes from the wild world of opera this season, and I felt I should alert you to Slatkin's defense, in case you missed it.

If Gheorghiu decides to jump in with her version, this story may keep on giving right through the summer.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:45 AM | | Comments (4)


I have to admit that I was distraught that "Ghosts" was pulled in favor of yet another Traviata. I'm a young-ish opera fan, but I'm starting to worry about the number of times that warhorses will be played in my lifetime--due to either financial or artistic safety--while other grand opera rep is largely ignored. Yikes.

While I did not see or hear this performance, but read all the follow-up gossip on Parterre (avid follower of the blog, but an infrequent poster), I am not certain where the blame falls. I applaud Slatkin, though, if he attempted to challenge tradition in his study of the Traviata. Much of what is defended as operatic tradition is the equivalent of armchair-quarterbacking in a musicological vein. Slatkin is not a horrible conductor, and even following the Traviata episode, he did well in other productions.

End rant. :)

Feel free to rant away here anytime. Thanks for the great comments. TIM

With all the bagging-on that Slatkin gets, it was singular for you to at least point out that the story isn't one-sided (the way that Midgette et al. leapt to report it) and each story has nuances. Speaking just for myself, this whole episode - kind of rare pulp gossip given the otherwise stale routines in classical music - seems to me like a window into some kind of "establishment" and their strange dislike of Slatkin, with an eagerness to turn the story into an episode of failure. It's no leap of imagination to predict a completely different tone if it were, say, "It-Boy" Dudamel dropping out of a production because of difficulties with the onstage talent. For that story, the journalists might have glammed onto it some sort of "artistic purity" heroism.

I think you're on to something. Thanks for commenting. TIM

My personal opinion is that this whole episode clearly demonstrates the incompetence of Peter Gelb in running the Met. These problems were apparent at dress rehearsal (according to the DFP article). Rather than making a half-hearted representation to Slatkin that it would "all work out", Gelb should have called Gheorghiu and Slatkin into his office and made it clear that if they didn't work it out, they would BOTH have their contracts cancelled.

Gelb has allowed Gheorghiu to walk all over him for years now - his acceptance of her gradual cancellation of her participation in the new Carmen production this past season demonstrated it. Gelb should never have agree to her singing the role in a house of the size of the Met in the first place (but Gelb isn't experienced enough to know that), shouldn't have spent the money on a new production for her, and should have fired her when she refused to sing in the opening performances. Now she is dictating her conductors.

Close on the heels of this incident it has emerged that Gelb, while talking about the intimate nature of most of the scenes in Wagner's Ring, commissioned a new production that is based on a 43 ton steel set, is expected to cost between twelve and fifteen million dollars, and required reinforcement of the Met offstage areas (at a cost of several hundreds of thousands of dollars) so they wouldn't collapse under the weight of the set!

The Slatkin incident was just another symptom of an opera house operating under a manager lacking the skills to run it. Unfortunately, Slatkin has to endure the fallout of Gelb's incompetence. Hopefully Gelb will soon wake up to the fact that his conducting corps is vanishing out from under him between cancellations (Dudamal will not be coming to the Met as scheduled, Levine's health continues to deteriorate), people who won't/can't return (Muti, Thielemann, and now Slatkin), and talent being taken from under his nose because he didn't move fast enough (Conlon, now Yannick Nezet-Seguin who has just been announced Music Director designate of the Philadelphia Orchestra). Well - at least there is a silver lining: Steven White should find some more opportunities at the Met now!

Wow. That's one heck of of an analysis. Thanks a lot for offering it here. TIM

The comments by Tim and the astute readers of this blog are the most interesting, compelling and cogent that I have read about this surprising and mysterious incident. Regardless of what you think of Slatkin -- sometimes he seems to get a bad rap from certain knee-jerk critics -- it seems unlikely that he would have the hubris to conduct Traviata at the Met with only a cursory review of the score. Something else must have been afoot. Thank you all for your analyses.

It's a pleasure being of service. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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