Michael Slattery

Written by: Colin Anderson

Michael makes his London debut as Candide in Leonard Bernstein’s stage-work, one that means much to the singer…

Ask American tenor Michael Slattery about his musical influences and his response is instant: “There really is no one greater than Leonard Bernstein. He represented that kind of genius that’s so rare, something to regard with awe. He left a real void, and it’s so refreshing to see his music becoming more accepted. In his lifetime he struggled with gaining acceptance for it and he felt inadequate about it.” We agree that he shouldn’t have done. It’s appropriate that Michael now makes his London debut in Bernstein’s much-revised Candide. He takes the title role in a “concert performance with all of the music, some dialogue, and the action narrated by Sir Thomas Allen who sings Pangloss.”

Bernstein’s musical, although the composer later thought it an opera, means much to Michael. “From an early age. I remember taking out his own recording from the library (made in 1989 with the LSO) and ending up writing several papers about it for my English class. There’s something in the music that is inherently American, something that feels right, an automatic connection to it. And he borrows all those European idioms, all the dance modes, like the gavotte.”

At one point in his formative years, Michael “wanted to be an architect, but that quickly passed the more time I spent singing in choirs; I played cello and piano, too. I was pretty much in everything in public school.” He describes his voice as a “light, lyric tenor. Nico Castel, one of my teachers at Juilliard, calls me a tenore lirico leggiero con grazia ma con forza.” Michael’s repertoire includes Bach’s Evangelist and Monteverdi’s Orfeo, the latter “a role I’ve been dying to do for a very long time.” Michael also appears in a real Baroque discovery, Alessandro Scarlatti’s Cecilian Vespers (Avie AV 0048) and has just recorded a Handel opera for Harmonia Mundi; he also has some Irish folksongs looking for a CD home. He is interested in contemporary music too, but not as yet the works of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini: “It’s the athleticism of it that trumps the expression of it; that turns me off, although I can see myself changing my mind, but its not instinctual to me.”

I ask about Bernstein’s writing for the voice in Candide. “It’s very well written. The original Candide, Robert Rounseville, was also the original Tom Rakewell (in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, another of Michael’s roles). Candide is lower, down to a low B flat, which is pretty low for a tenor, and goes-up to a high C. The tessitura is excellent. Candide’s mediations are very powerful in their simplicity.” Michael’s Bernstein-credentials are impeccable and, in Candide, he will be reunited with Kim Criswell (as the Old Lady). “Kim and I worked together in Paris, a concert dedicated to Leonard Bernstein, with Lauren Bacall. I took part in the Roman premiere of Candide in the summer of 2003 and I understudied the role last May for the New York Philharmonic.” Barbara Cook, the original Cunegonde (way back in 1956) has praised Michael’s assumption of Candide. “She feels it’s a very good role for me; and she had a lot to say about how to approach the music from an actorly standpoint and how to approach the text. Understanding what you’re saying and why you’re saying it: that’s where your musical choices should be coming from; they come automatically when you understand what you’re expressing.”

From Broadway to Bernstein’s own recording of Candide is to hear two different works. For Michael “it’s legitimate to see the forthcoming concert performances as a great oratorio, but when it’s fully staged it turns into a musical comedy. There are many ways to interpret it. The original Broadway recording has vitality and youth; it just sounds young, the tempos are fast and there’s great energy.” Candide ends with Make Our Garden Grow, which “departs the most from the original meaning that Voltaire had in those words; there was still an element of cynicism in his statement. In Bernstein’s hands it turns into this anthem of hope.”

  • Candide – 11 & 12 February, Royal Festival Hall
  • South Bank Centre
  • Cecilian Vespers Review
  • The above article was published in “What’s On in London” on 9 February 2005 and is reproduced here with permission

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