Feodor Chaliapin - Biography


"Chaliapin will never die; for with his fabulous talent, this marvelous artist can never be forgotten... To future generations Chaliapin will become a legend." - Sergey Rachmaninov

Feodor Chaliapin is perhaps the most influential opera singer of all times. He was an imposing figure of a man with a dark-timbered basso-cant ante voice. His rich vocal expression and excellent acting left a benchmark for later interpreters of “Boris Gudunov” and “Don Quichotte.” Both roles are considered his best. He was a superb actor whose stage presence thrilled his audience. He rose from a very humble if not miserable upbringing by sheer willpower and determination to the heights of operatic zenith. What is most remarkable is that he was mostly self-taught in both languages and music. Feodor Chaliapin, born the same year as Enrico Caruso (who also played a crucial part in changing the art form), was the first Russian singer to establish a great international career.

Feodor Chaliapin was born into a peasant family in the city of Kazan. His father, Ivan Yakovlevich, served as a clerk. In 1878 the Chaliapin family moved to the village of Ametyevo (also Ometyevo, or the Ometyev settlements, now a settlement within Kazan) and settled in a small house. Chaliapin was apprenticed to a cobbler at the age of 10. With only four years of formal schooling, Chaliapin fled a poverty-stricken and abusive home at age 17 and joined a traveling theater company. In terms of music, legend has it that he was self-taught. However, a brief engagement with a touring opera and a fortuitous meeting with his first voice teacher, Dimitry Usatov, a retired tenor, alerted the young singer, then aged 19, to the true extent of his musical potential. Usatov was, in fact, so impressed with the young man that he agreed to teach him classic vocal technique free of charge.

Chaliapin’s career began at the Tiflis (later Tbilisi) Opera. He made his debut as Ivan Susanin in Glinka's “A Life for the Tsar,” for which he received excellent reviews. In 1894 he joined the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. Two years later he was invited to sing at the Mamontov Private Opera in Moscow, where he stayed for three years until he was engaged by the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, where he appeared regularly from 1899 to 1914. By the age of 26, when he joined the Bolshoi, he was already the foremost opera singer in Russia. At 29 Chaliapin sang his first engagement abroad and his first opera in Italian, he shared the stage at La Scala with Enrico Caruso in Arrigo Boito's “Mefistofele,” redefining the title role for the composer, and becoming the foremost bass singer in Europe. Chaliapin made a sensational debut at La Scala that year under the baton of the 20th Century's most dynamic opera conductor, Arturo Toscanini. At the end of his career, Toscanini observed that the Russian bass was the greatest operatic talent with whom he had ever worked.

In 1907 Chaliapin made his Metropolitan Opera debut in that same role in New York City. His first appearance was disappointing due to the unprecedented frankness of his stage acting. But in the winter of 1907-08, at the age of 34, Chaliapin returned to New York and set the city alight. Earning a staggering $1,600 per performance (more than $33,000 in 2005 dollars), he created a furor in the operatic world and redefined the notion of dramatic performance by bringing a fiercely committed intelligence to his roles and immersing himself in them fully. A basso, before Chaliapin, was neither an artist nor a star.

"He is an elemental creature, roaring and champing like a bull, charging the poor sinners of this world with the fuss and energy of a 60 horse-power motor and leaving a trail of fire and brimstone behind him. This is the Satan resulting from the union of the Italian creator and the Russian interpreter.

"His frame, gigantic as it is, cannot contain his nature. He writhes with the emotions that convulse him. His face is drawn into expressions of the profoundest agony... All the dramatic action tending to establish this conception of Boito's Satan is accompanied by every helpful aid of light, scenery and mechanical ingenuity. Chaliapin takes the utmost pains with his make-up, which combines effectively the use of flesh lungs and bare skin. The skin is covered with shiny, metallic powder with sparkles in the calcium." - W.J. Henderson, The New York Sun

Chaliapin did not much care for the Americans' greedy pursuit of money and their general ignorance of art, though audiences embraced him. Many critics seemed unable to understand his work on stage, and there is some evidence that the Metropolitan Opera management provided him with translations of only the hostile reviews, presumably as a cost-saving measure. In his splendid biography of Chaliapin, Victor Borovsky quotes a reference from an American critic of the time who thought "the initiative was coming from the all-powerful director of the Metropolitan Opera, Heinrich Conried, who had no desire to retain in his company a bass who demanded sixteen hundred dollars a night, a high salary for a soprano or a tenor." Needless to say Chaliapin was all too glad to see the end of his American tour. He returned to the Met only in 1921 and sang there with immense success for eight seasons.

"Last night nobility of acting was paired with a beautiful nobility of voice and vocal style, and his Boris stood out of the dramatic picture like one of the old time heroes of a tragedy... He sang in Russian: and though it was possible even for those unfamiliar with the language to feel some of the intimacy which must exist between the original text and the music, the effect upon the Russians in the audience was akin to frenzy. All that we have heard of the greatness of his interpretation of the character of Boris was made plain. It was heart-breaking in its pathos, terrible in its vehemence and agony." - Henry E. Krehbiel, New York Daily Tribune, 1921.

In 1908, Chaliapin began his close association with Sergey Diaghilev, the brilliant entrepreneur, in Paris, where many famous productions of Russian operas were staged. He played several Russian roles at Covent Garden, London in 1913. Introduced to London and Paris by Diaghilev, Chaliapin began giving well-received solo recitals in which he sang traditional Russian folk songs as well as more serious fare. Among these songs were “Along Peterskaya,” which he recorded with a British-based Russian folk-instrument orchestra and “The Song of the Volga Boatmen,” which he made famous throughout the world. Chaliapin was now fully acclaimed as the great artist he was. He sang to the applause of audiences, critics and himself. Chaliapin wrote, rather delightedly, in a letter: "...From good luck, I am stringing here my performances like pearls, one next to the other. Which one is better, I cannot say." Chaliapin appeared in nearly all of the great opera houses of Europe, as well as those of England and the United States. In 1935-1936 he made a world tour, including performances in China and Japan. His most famous role was the lead in Moussorgsky's “Boris Godunov,” but he also won praise as Ivan the Terrible in Rimsky-Korsakov's “Maid of Pskov,” in the title role of Boito's “Mefistofele” and as Mephistopheles in Gounod's “Faust.” ...

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