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Prominent Russians: Feodor Chaliapin

February 13, 1873 – April 12, 1938

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"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.

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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.

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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.”

Chaliapin also sang “Khovanchina,” “Prince Igor,” Dargomyzhsky's “Rusalka,” “Sadko,” “Mozart and Salieri” (which he premiered), Rubinstein's “The Demon,” Serov's “Judith” and Gretchaninov's “Dobrinya Nikititsch.” His art is preserved on many recordings made between 1901 and 1935, which document his wide-ranging repertoire. Without his performances of “Boris Godunov,” the opera would probably not have had the enduring popularity that it has subsequently enjoyed.

Considered the greatest dramatic singer of his day, Chaliapin was one of the first singers to apply psychological techniques to operatic acting. The way the character stands, the way he moves, how he turns, what he would wear, the rhythm of his speech translated into music - all was based on that character's thoughts and emotions at the time, rather than on any kind of stand-and-sing operatic convention. Stanislavsky wrote:

“The opera singer has to contend not with one, but with three arts at once -- vocal, musical, and theatrical. In this reside both the difficulty and the advantages of his creative work. The problem lies in the varied processes of mastering the three arts, though, this done, the singer has a greater and more variable ability to act upon the audience than do we dramatic actors. These three arts the singer must fuse into one, and direct into a common aim. To me, Chaliapin is an outstanding example of how the three forms of art can be fused… Synthesis has rarely been achieved by anyone in the arts, particularly in the theatre. Chaliapin is the only example I can think of. My system is taken straight from Chaliapin.”

His insistence that every aspect of a performance - production and lighting details, not just the music or the words - should be dedicated to the dramatic and psychological essence of the work being performed was, in those days, nothing short of revolutionary. Chaliapin was a large man with great dramatic flair and he could portray any type of character. He was a master of makeup and he used this skill to help create his characters.

His voice was wide ranging, allowing him to sing baritone roles like Evgeny Onegin as well as bass roles like Oroveso. Arthur Rubinstein said it had a "unique quality; powerful and caressing, soft as a baritone's and flexible as a tenor's, it sounded as natural as a speaking voice."

Chaliapin's appearances on the opera stage introduced some decisive changes into the opera performance status quo. A perfectionist with regard to his makeup, costumes, dramatic and musical preparation, he was very attentive to the staging of the shows he was in. In developing his performance style, he studied actors and painters as well as singers. He was almost more actor than singer in his approach to the characters he portrayed, and he always used his body as much as his face or his voice. And at more than six feet tall, he had a lot of body to work with. His friendship and collaboration with the composer Sergey Rachmaninov was one of great importance for both of them - Rachmaninov coached Chaliapin in several roles, including Boris, and gave him the education he'd never had, in the history and styles of music. Chaliapin showed the composer something of the possibilities for the human voice, and as a result, Rachmaninov's songs are some of the most exquisite ever written. How close and fruitful the collaboration between these two great artists was! Despite the brief duration allotted to it by fate. Even in his youth, the budding singer possessed exceptional musical intuition and an indefinable attraction to the theater. This inner yearning for artistic development brought Chaliapin into contact with the most gifted people of his time. He counted artists, actors, musicians and composers among his teachers. His circle included the best exponents of late 19th-early 20th century Russian art and culture. The creative and human bond between two characters as different from each other as Chaliapin's and Rachmaninov's is all the more surprising in light of the exceptionally strong will and vivid, unique personality each of them possessed. A born actor and a fascinating human being, Chaliapin was the center of attention in any company. Rachmaninov, on the other hand, was reserved and taciturn outside his intimate circle, shying away from correspondents, and even from new acquaintances. But in Chaliapin's presence he became a listener, delighting in the former's flow of stories and humor. Chaliapin was known for his exuberance in life, as well as on the stage.

"The great Russian basso was a friend of the family and a frequent visitor in our home. Not that we children got to see too much of him. Chaliapin had a towering reputation as a storyteller. He was probably the greatest raconteur in all of Russia. The trouble was that most of his stories were of the sorts that are not supposed to be fit for the ears of children. And so, as soon as dinner was over, my brother and I were sent away to our rooms, and all we heard of Chaliapin’s stories were the gales of roaring laughter that emanated from the living room." - Boris Goldovsky, vocal coach, director.

Chaliapin was twice married. In 1914 the great Russian singer and his second wife Maria settled in St. Petersburg, just off the fashionable Kamenoostrovsky Prospekt. Chaliapin occupied the entire middle floor of a three-story building. He then combined the two existing flats into a new space of 580 sq. meters. The couple lived there with their five children from 1915 until late 1922, when they left Russia, never to return. After the revolution Chaliapin remained in Russia for a time, but eventually found the rigidity of the Communist regime as distasteful as the Romanov’s rule, and he subsequently emigrated. He was denounced as an "anti-revolutionary" and deprived of all his Russian property and titles. During the 1930s, the municipality added two floors to his former dwelling and the whole building was converted into collective apartments. A museum, created in 1975, now occupies the space where Chaliapin lived. Chaliapin was a friend of many of the Russian painters and musicians of his day and their sketches for stage design and portraits, as well as photos of Rimsky Korsakov, Rachmaninov, Bunin, Chekhov, Tolstoy and Charlie Chaplin (on the beach), provide a valuable insight into his art.

He was also an avid art collector. The rooms are decorated with works by famous Russian artists: Korovin, Vasnetsov, Roerich, Kustodiev, Kharitonov and Vrubel. The Kustodievs, in particular, are superb. One, in the boudoir, is of Maria. The second is an immense 2m x 1.5m portrait of Chaliapin in a full-length fur coat, a dazzling image of worldly success. The folkloric background depicts the milieu he had loved from his youth in Kazan: a Russian winter fair with troikas dashing here and there and the vaudeville theater where the artist first performed.

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In 1932, Chaliapin published a memoir, “Man and Mask: Forty Years in the Life of a Singer,” prepared in collaboration with Maxim Gorky. Chaliapin's last stage performance took place at the Monte Carlo Opera in 1937, as Boris.

He died of leukemia the following year, aged 65, in Paris, where he was interred. In 1984, his remains were transferred from Paris to Moscow with elaborate ceremony. They were re-buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery. Two of his daughters survive to this day: Marfa lives in Liverpool, Britain, and Marina is in Italy. Both visited Russia in 1984 for the re-interment of Chaliapin's remains. His son, Feodor Chaliapin Jr. (1907-1992), had a notable career in film as a character actor.

During the Russian phase of his career, Chaliapin was confronted with strong competition from two other great Russian basses, the black-voiced Lev Sibiriakov (1869-1942) and the more lyrical Vladimir Kastorsky (1871-1948). The fact that Chaliapin is by far the best remembered of this distinguished trio is testament to the magnetic power of his performances on stage.

Chaliapin made one sound film for director G.W. Pabst, the 1933 film version of Don Quixote. Rather than going out in one version with subtitles, the film was made in three different versions - French, English, and German, as was sometimes the custom then. Chaliapin starred in all three versions, all of which used the same script, sets and costumes, but had different supporting casts. The English and the French versions are the most often viewed, and were released in May 2006 on one DVD. Pabst's film was not a version of the Massenet opera, but a dramatic adaptation of Cervantes' novel, with music and songs by Jacques Ibert.

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