06/09/2010 12:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Madness at the Met: Slatkin vs. Gheorgiu, Round Two

For all of the traditional reasons, the fall-out from Leonard Slatkin's unhappy experience conducting Giuseppi Verdi's "La Traviata" at The Metropolitan Opera just keeps raining down. It is astonishing that this ghastly dust-up, which began in late March of this year, continues to "have legs" in early June.

The broad outline of the plot is reasonably clear. The Met had engaged Leonard Slatkin, Music Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and former Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony and National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, D.C. and a host of other Grand and Exalted Positions Musical (and son of esteemed conductor Felix Slatkin to boot) to conduct performances of John Corigliano's "The Ghosts of Versailles" in the spring of this year. The Met canceled the run of "Ghosts" and offered Slatkin Giuseppi Verdi's "La Traviata" instead. And that's when the trouble started and the clarity abruptly came to an end.

As far as I know, the Met has not publicly stated why it elected to replace "The Ghosts of Versailles" with "La Traviata," but I suspect that production costs, the anticipated non-enthusiasm of the ticket-buying public and the availability of a Big Time Diva for the time-tested box office hit "La Traviata" had something to do with it. A cast that includes Angela Gheorgiu pretty much guarantees a sold out house in New York City, and The Met is rather focused on the financial bottom line these days -- not without reason given the size of its deficit.

Leonard Slatkin is assuredly not a dope. The man has over 100 recordings under his belt, and he has proven time-and-again that he knows his business. He had conducted at The Metropolitan Opera before to acclaim. But Slatkin is an essentially a man without guile, and he sometimes speaks and writes before thinking things through.

The problems seem to have begun when Slatkin and Angela Gheorgiu had what used to be called "artistic differences." Gheorgiu, a veteran of many "Traviata" performances, is an old-school Diva with a capital "D", is accustomed to doing things her way regardless of the contrary views of the director, conductor, or the composer for that matter. She gets away with this sort of behavior for two reasons: Houses rely on her to sell tickets and on occasion she can deliver the sort of performance that sends audiences into ecstatic fits. House management is often willing to tolerate intolerable behavior in light of this.

Slatkin, writing on his blog, stated with respect to "La Traviata" that "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."

Doubtless Slatkin took this to mean "I was a seeker for Artistic Truth" whereas it was widely interpreted as "I am a clueless boob." In the first instance, there are many (myself included) who would deem Camille Saint-Saens's "Samson et Delila" to be a "repertoire standard" -- and Slatkin had conducted it at The Met before. Although the concept of the "tradition of the role" (the practice whereby a role was staged in substantially the same way in Buenos Aires as in Milan) pretty much disappeared shortly after the end of World War One, seeking to uncover nuance and "the unwritten performance traditions" makes perfect sense. Slatkin's feeble stab at modesty backfired badly, as various and sundry took it as an admission that he arrived in New York ill-prepared.

Slatkin and Angela Gheorgiu had certain disagreements during the rehearsals; apparently she blew off a "key rehearsal" and made something of a botch of the dress rehearsal. Efforts to smooth things over seem to have calmed the waters -- until opening night on March 29th. Friends of mine who heard the performance broadcast live on satellite radio were shocked by how frayed the first act sounded, and they were speechless at the way things fell apart in the second act. Slatkin has placed the blame for this fiasco squarely on the shoulders of Angela Gheorgiu, whose antics rattled the esteemed conductor to an uncommon degree. After this one performance, Slatkin essentially threw in the towel, scoring a victory for Team Diva. In short order he was replaced by a routinier, who when instructed by Ms. Gheorgiu to jump merely inquired "How high?," Verdi be damned.

In an article published this past weekend in the Detroit Free Press, Slatkin places the lion's share of the blame on Gheorgiu and The Met. Slatkin quotes Met General Manager Peter Gelb as telling him "I don't know what I'm going to do," and continuing "Whatever you're doing, just keep it that way. I know she's difficult but you're doing fine." In retrospect, Slatkin feels that the issue should have been settled right then and there, once and for all. Instead, whatever it is that was or was not said between the dress rehearsal and the first performance appears to have been based far more on "wishing makes it so" rather than reality.

I suspect that Leonard Slatkin did not give Peter Gelb the ultimatum "It is her or me" because he knew full well that it would be him walking the plank. Conductors don't sell tickets; divas do.

For her part, Ms. Gheorgiu has been playing this brilliantly. She acts like a school yard bully and then has her paid spokesman utter oily and diplomatic phrases on the order of "Angela Gheorgiu respects Leonard Slatkin." The world, it seems, still loves Eddie Haskell.

Two lessons may be deduced from this embarrassing and unseemly episode: First, The Met seems to have embraced the old Hollywood Star System and is now milking it for all its worth; no surprise, really, since The Met sees its greatest growth opportunities in it's The Met At The Movies venture. Second, we have learned that Leonard Slatkin has a rather thin skin, and he has neglected to follow the age-old wisdom that certain controversies should be left to die on their own. The drama should always remain on the stage, not in the newspapers.