Chaliapin, Feodor (Ivanovich)

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Chaliapin, Feodor (Ivanovich)

Chaliapin, Feodor (Ivanovich), celebrated Russian bass; b. near Kazan, Feb. 13, 1873; d. Paris, April 12, 1938. He was born into a poverty- ridden peasant family, and thus was compelled to work in menial jobs from an early age and had little opportunity for formal schooling. While still a youth, he began to travel with various opera and operetta companies as a chorister and eventually appeared in stage roles. In 1890 he made his formal operatic debut as the Stolnik in Halka with the Semyonov-Smarsky company in Ufa. During his travels, he was accompanied by the writer Maxim Gorky, who also sang in a chorus; together they made their way through the Russian provinces, often walking the railroad tracks when they could not afford the fare. Chaliapin’s wanderings took him to Tiflis, where his extraordinary vocal gifts deeply impressed the tenor and vocal pedagogue Dimitri Usatov (1847–1913), who taught him free of charge in 1892–93. After appearances in Tiflis in 1893–94, Chaliapin went to St. Petersburg and sang with Panayev’s company in 1894. He then was a member of the St. Petersburg Imperial Opera from 1894 to 1896. He subsequently went to Moscow, where he sang with Mamontov’s company (1896–99), producing a great impression with his portrayals of Boris Godunov, Ivan Susanin, Varlaam, Dosifey, Ivan the Terrible, Ho-lofernes in Serov’s Judith, the Viking Guest in Sadko, and the Miller in Dargomyzhsky’s Rusalka. On Dec. 7, 1898, he created the role of Salieri in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri with Mamontov’s company. During this time, Chaliapin also acquired fame as a concert singer. In 1899 he joined Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater, where he served as its principal bass until 1914. His first appearance outside his homeland was at Milan’s La Scala in 1901 when he sang Boito’s Mefistofele. He returned to La Scala in 1904, 1908, 1912, 1929–30, and 1933. From 1905 to 1937 he made frequent appearances in Monte Carlo, where he created the title role in Massenet’s Don Quichotte on Feb. 19, 1910. On July 25, 1905, he made his London debut at a private concert, and returned there to sing in the Russian seasons at Drury Lane in 1913 and 1914. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in N.Y. as Mefistofele on Nov. 20, 1907. However, his dramatic characterizations failed to evoke sympathetic response from N.Y. audiences and critics, so he went to Paris to sing in Diaghilev’s Russian seasons in 1908, 1910, and 1913. After the Russian Revolution, he became soloist and artistic director of the Petrograd Opera in 1918. He also was made a People’s Artist by the Soviet government, but he soon became estranged by the course of events in his homeland and in 1921 settled in Paris. On Dec. 9, 1921, he made a triumphant return to the Metropolitan Opera with his compelling portrayal of Boris Godunov, and thereafter sang there with notable acclaim until 1929. From 1922 to 1924 he also sang with the Chicago Opera. In 1926 and in 1928–29 he appeared at London’s Covent Garden, and in 1931 he returned to London to sing at the Lyceum Theatre. On March 3, 1935, he gave his farewell concert performance in N.Y; his operatic farewell followed in Monte Carlo in 1937 when he once again sang Boris Godunov. Chaliapin made many recordings and appeared in film versions of Tsar Ivan the Terrible (1915) and Don Quixote (1933). He wrote Stranitsiiz moyey zhizni:Avtobiografiya (Leningrad, 1926; Eng. tr., 1927, as Pages from My Life) and Maska i dusha: Moi sor ok let na teatrakh (Paris, 1932; Eng. tr., 1932, as Man and Mask). Chaliapin was one of the foremost singing actors ever to grace the operatic stage. He dominated every scene in which he appeared as much by his remarkable dramatic gifts as by his superlative vocal prowess. Even in his last years, when this prowess declined, he never failed to move audiences by the sheer intensity of his performances.


M. Yankovsky, C. (Leningrad, 1972); V. Borovsky, G; A Critical Biography (N.Y., 1988).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire