It wasn't the devastating reviews and Internet gossip per se that most upset conductor Leonard Slatkin in the wake of his controversial departure from the Metropolitan Opera's "La Traviata" in April. It was the widely repeated assumption -- influenced, he says, by a major misreading of his online diary -- that he arrived in New York unprepared to conduct Verdi's masterpiece.
"I never said that," said Slatkin, music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO). "I was maybe even too prepared. I knew this opera inside out; I could have almost conducted from memory."
Slatkin, 65, who withdrew from "La Traviata" after one performance, became a lightning rod for criticism, and the brouhaha was a public relations embarrassment. He recently addressed the issue for the first time, dissecting the opening night debacle, defending his preparation and detailing the conflict with the gifted but temperamental Romanian superstar soprano Angela Gheorghiu.
Slatkin, who has worked extensively with the Minnesota Orchestra in the past, 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.
Slatkin's career has been a roller coaster recently. He suffered a heart attack in November but recovered to lead the DSO on a successful Florida tour in February and signed a two-year extension to his contract. The Met was a low point, but last week he added the music directorship of the Orchestre National de Lyon in France to his portfolio.
The Met fallout diverted attention from the transformative leadership he has brought in Detroit, and it might slow the rehabilitation of his national image, which slipped when his tenure at the National Symphony in Washington, D.C., ended lukewarmly.
It all started with Corigliano
The saga began when the Met canceled a revival of John Corigliano's "The Ghosts of Versailles," a contemporary work that Slatkin was scheduled to conduct. Slatkin was instead offered "La Traviata."
"At first, I said I would not do the switch," he wrote on his blog. Then came the words that would be widely quoted as evidence that he arrived unprepared.
"After all, this is an opera I had never conducted and the first real repertoire standard for me at the Met. 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."
New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini wrote in a strongly worded, influential review that he had "seldom heard such faulty coordination between a conductor and cast at the Met." He put the blame mostly on Slatkin for arriving at rehearsals "not fully knowing the score" and for his awkward handling of accompaniment patterns key to Verdi's style.
Slatkin said his reference to learning from the masters -- in this case Gheorghiu and baritone Thomas Hampson -- did not mean he needed them to learn the music but only that he wanted to absorb their experience and command of tradition. He said he entered rehearsals with his own ideas, from treating the prelude in a more restrained manner than usual to other decisions about mood, pacing and phrasing. While many ran counter to convention, he said they were met with open minds from the cast, artistic staff and orchestra.
Slatkin said Gheorghiu was spot-on at early rehearsals but trouble began when he made a suggestion about the staging of her character's death scene. After Violetta dies, Slatkin proposed that to animate the final bars, the last gesture should be left to Alfredo, who would look up to God as if to say, "Why me?"
"Angela was having none of that," he said. "The last gesture should be hers. It didn't seem like a big thing at the time, but I think it was."
Dealing with a diva
Gheorghiu, 44, is regarded as one of the world's leading sopranos, but she has also earned a reputation as a willful artist with a history of diva behavior resulting in firings, cancellations and other imbroglios. Speaking for the singer, her general manager Jack Mastroianni, senior vice president at IMG Artists, declined to respond to Slatkin's version of what happened.
"Angela Gheorghiu respects Leonard Slatkin," he said. "She enthusiastically welcomed a collaboration when she learned the maestro was to conduct John Corigliano's 'The Ghost of Versailles' as the Metropolitan Opera originally scheduled. What happened when the Met switched the opera to Verdi's 'La Traviata' is factually described by maestro Slatkin in his personal blog and reported in detail by Anthony Tommasini, New York Times chief music critic."
Gheorghiu later skipped a key rehearsal, claiming fatigue, and at the dress rehearsal, Slatkin said, "went off the charts" -- singing flat, missing entrances and distorting phrases beyond recognition. Slatkin faults Met management for not stepping in to broker a musical resolution.
Met press director Peter Clark said the company would not comment on questions that included why officials didn't act aggressively to resolve the problems and whether Gheorghiu threatened to walk out of the opera if Slatkin remained.
Slatkin said he resigned because of the barrage of negative coverage and his feeling that the situation would not improve.
Slatkin said he is not bitter about the experience and he is ready to move on.
"If you can't recover from negatives, you shouldn't be in this business," he said. "I've had enough negatives, but I've had a lot more positives."