Conductor Leonard Slatkin picks over a scab

One wonders why conductor Leonard Slatkin agreed to his recent interview with the Detroit Free Press.

In it, he provides the backstory – was it a slamming of soprano Angela Georghiu or just a defence? – on the performance he conducted of Verdi’s La Traviata, one which prompted criticism from a variety of critics including from the New York Times.

In case you’ve no time (or inclination), let me fill you in. There was a bit of a clash of personalities between Slatkin and his leading lady Georghiu. Things didn’t go well at the first performance. Slatkin abandoned the run of shows soon after that.

That was in April, however. The NYT review prompted a defence from Slatkin which interested parties on the internet picked up on, picked over and spat out. Now it seems we’re revisiting the episode once again. God only knows why.

Has Slatkin forgotten the golden rule of performing? That the best way to deal with a bad performance is to forget it? Every performer says the same. Quite a few bloggers are inclined to agree as well. Just forget it. Commit it to history. Never go back there again. After all, you won’t be judged on a blip, you’ll be judged on a string of them.

If you must revisit it in order to offer yet another defence of what happened then do it on your personal blog – that’s how they work. If you engage the services of a journalist (or indeed say yes to a journalist who might have an agenda of digging it up), you’re sure to make matters worse. The mud you thought you’d washed off a few weeks ago still sticks.

But there’s a simpler point to be made, one which resonates for the task of dragging in new audiences into the opera house and one which might help temper the egos of divas and conductors alike.

Audiences pay good money (over the odds, some might argue) to sit and watch a performance on stage. They’ll probably know already that opera is a challenge to put on given that there are so many more variables in the thing, but that challenge is nothing to the resistance those new members of the audience will have fought off to get into the auditorium in the first place.

One of the barriers for new audiences is no doubt the convention and the finery. Part of the perceived elitism of the opera is the notion of the opera diva and the ego of the conductor. These elements feed into a perception of live opera as an entertainment experience being far removed from the day to day experience of the mainstream audience member.

These are the elements which make opera seem impenetrable. Conductors are paid to do a certain job – an uneviable one in some respects – so too the singers and chorus members, directors, set designers and lighting boys and girls.

I question whether audiences are really that interested in hearing what led to a less than satisfactory performance of one classic opera, especially those who attended. And I question the value analysing the backstory has for the image of opera.

In the past, the mystique of the opera experience may have been enhanced by what might be regarded as backstage gossip between a conductor going in one direction and the diva. It may have fulfilled our romantic expectations inherent in opera house glamour.

Not any more.

They’re performers. So they should perform. And if they can’t perform together then there needs to be a change of personnel.

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