Chaliapin, Fedor Ivanovich

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Fedor Ivanovich Chaliapin

Decades after his death, Fedor Chaliapin (1873–1938) is still considered Russia's greatest opera singer. The dynamism of Chaliapin's acting perfectly complemented his voice, which, being a bass, was best suited for the role of the "villain." In this Chaliapin, who for the most part was self-taught, created such memorable characters on stage as Mephistopheles, Ivan the Terrible, Boris Godonov, and Holofernes.

Fedor Ivanovich Chaliapin (also spelled Fyodor and Feodor—Shalyapin, Shaliapin, and Chaliapine) was born in Kazan in eastern European Russia on February 13, 1873. He was the son of a clerk, and as a young man was apprenticed to first a cobbler then a lathe turner. He also worked as a copyist, though he had very little formal education. Simultaneous to this Chaliapin sang in the church choir and served as an extra in various local theatrical performances. In 1890 Chaliapin made his professional debut when he joined the chorus of the opera company in Ufa. He also sang bit parts such as Stolnik in Moniuszko's Halka. In 1891 he joined a Ukrainian opera company and went on tour throughout Russia. The years 1892 and 1893 found the ubiquitous young man in Tbilisi, Georgia, where he studied with the opera singer D. A. Usatov. It was Usatov who introduced Chaliapin to the music of Modest Mussorgsky. During these years Chaliapin began to emerge from the shadows of the chorus. During the 1893–1894 season he first assayed the role of Mephistopheles in Charles Gounod's Faust.

Joins the Mariinsky Theatre

Chaliapin's first major career move came in 1895 when he joined the opera company of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Despite the good reviews he received by the St. Petersburg critics, Chaliapin was unsatisfied with his treatment by the company's management and in 1896 decided to accept the invitation of Savva Mamontov to sing with the Moscow Private Opera. It was here that Chaliapin came into his own as an artist. His first performances for the Private Opera took place at the All-Russian Trade, Industry, and Arts Fair held in Nizhny-Novgorod. This was actually provisional, summer work as Chaliapin was still under contract to the Mariinsky. At the fair Chaliapin met and fell in love with his first wife, the Italian ballet dancer Iola Tornaghi, publicly declaring his love to her during a performance of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, in which he sang the role of Prince Gremin. When the summer season ended Chaliapin returned to St. Petersburg but was soon persuaded to relocate to Moscow by Mamontov and Tornaghi, who had signed a contract to dance in Mamontov's company. Chaliapin and Tornaghi were married on July 27, 1898.

Perhaps the first great influence on Chaliapin's career was composer Sergei Rachmaninov, whom he met during this period. In Chaliapin: A Critical Biography by Victor Borovsky, Chaliapin is quoted as saying that Rachmaninov: "was a great artist, a magnificent musician and a pupil of Tchaikovsky: it was he who urged me to study Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. He taught me some of the basic principles of harmony. He tried, generally speaking, to give me a musical education." Operas by Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and other Russians would eventually make up the heart of Chaliapin's repertoire.

Triumphs in Moscow and Abroad

From 1896 to 1898 Chaliapin cemented his artistic reputation with the Moscow Private Opera. He sang such great roles as Varlaam in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, Ivan the Terrible in Rimsky-Korsakov's The Maid of Pskov, and Holofernes in Valentin Serov's Judith. This latter was the role he was rehearsing for the Mariinsky when he decided to leave that company. In 1898 Chaliapin made a triumphant return to St. Petersburg with the Moscow Private Opera. It was during this tour that the critic Vladimir Stasov took notice of Chaliapin; over the years Stasov would prove to be one of Chaliapin's most ardent champions.

In 1914 an English admirer published this assessment in a newspaper (quoted by Borovsky): "[Chaliapin] differs from most of his colleagues in insisting that the actor's first duty is personation. He is not content to show himself in the limelight in easy contempt of the part which he pretends to be playing. He knows that the material of an actor's art is himself, his voice and his gesture, and he handles this material with a courage and variety which place him high above his fellows." In 1927, near the end of Chaliapin's career, the newspaper Wiener Zeitung (also quoted by Borovsky) declared: "It is almost impossible to separate Chaliapin the singer from Chaliapin the actor. Each works for the other. Where the singer ends, the actor begins and vice-versa. They are usually both on stage at the same time.…" These assessments show not only that Chaliapin took all aspects of his art seriously, but that he was staunchly in the modern camp of Konstantin Stanislavsky, cofounder of the Moscow Art Theatre and developer of the acting technique known as "the method." Stanislavsky praised Chaliapin for his ability to synthesize his talents into a character's persona. This was evident back in 1898 when Chaliapin took on the title role in the Rimsky-Korsakov version of Boris Godunov.

By 1899 Chaliapin was viewed practically as a national treasure, and he signed contracts to sing at both the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg and the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. He would soon become an international figure, as well known as the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso. In 1901 he made his debut at Teatro La Scala in Milan in the title role of Arrigo Boito's Mefistofole. Rachmaninov assisted him in preparing for the role. This was the first of many tours in Europe and the United States. In France Chaliapin was especially beloved and did much to promote Russian culture in that country in the early part of the twentieth century.

Friendship with Gorky

1901 was another fateful year for Chaliapin; not only did it mark his first tour abroad, but also the beginning of his friendship with the writer Maxim Gorky (originally Alexei Maximovich Peshkov). It was Gorky who "wrote" Chaliapin's autobiography (published in English as Chaliapin, an Autobiography as told to Maxim Gorky, translated by Nina Froud). The idea for the "autobiography" was actually Gorky's; he convinced Chaliapin to come to Capri (where he was staying) to relate his life story. While Gorky certainly introduced Chaliapin to radical political thought, the latter was never a revolutionary in the sense Gorky was. Nevertheless Chaliapin performed for workers and sang revolutionary songs. After the Russian Revolution of October 1918 Chaliapin had at best lukewarm support for the Soviet Union. Yet he admired Gorky and though he thought his friend "quixotic" never wavered in his support.

The first fifteen years of the twentieth century was the apex of Chaliapin's career. During these years he created many memorable roles including the title characters in Anton Rubinstein's The Demon, Rachmaninov's Aleko, Jules Massenet's Don Quixote (considered his last great role), and the aforementioned Mefistofele. Chaliapin's other roles during this period included King Philip II in Giuseppe Verdi's Don Carlos, Tonio in Ruggierio Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci, Salieri in Rimsky-Korsakov's Mozart and Salieri, and Dosifei in Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina. One composer whom Chaliapin did not sing was Richard Wagner. Although he made polite excuses for his decision throughout his career, these have been deemed weak and disingenuous by Chaliapin's biographers. Nevertheless, this period marked one triumph after another for Chaliapin, both at home and abroad. On January 6, 1911, Tsar Nicholas II conferred on Chaliapin—who was no supporter of the Romanov dynasty—the title of "Soloist to His Majesty," the highest honor for a singer in tsarist Russia. Following his successful La Scala performance Chaliapin made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in 1907 and at the Paris Opera in 1908. His return to the Metropolitan Opera in 1921 in the role of Boris Godunov was so successful that it sparked an eight-year run there. He made his debut at London's Covent Garden in 1926.

An Expatriate in France

Following the 1918 Bolshevik takeover, Chaliapin became the artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre and in 1919 became a member of its managing board. However, despite being named a People's Artist of the Soviet Union in 1918, Chaliapin grew more disenchanted with the way the country was being run, particularly the restrictions on artistic freedom that were creeping in. Following a 1921 tour that took him to the United Kingdom and the United States, in which his family was not allowed to join him, Chaliapin made up his mind to leave the Soviet Union. He left for good on June 29, 1922. Soviet authorities tried many times to entice him to return but to no avail. In 1927 he was stripped of his title of People's Artist of the Soviet Union. In the early 1930s Gorky, who too had gone abroad partly out of disillusionment but returned to the Soviet Union, tried to convince Chaliapin to return also. In 1936 Stalin himself, through an intermediary (Chaliapin's American manager, Sol Hurok) made a plea for Chaliapin's return. He eventually settled in Paris.

By this time Chaliapin had divorced Iola Tornaghi and married Maria Valentinovna Petzold, with whom he had several children. His effort to support two households was another incentive for remaining abroad and especially to return to the Metropolitan Opera. Yet Chaliapin's years in exile were not without personal anguish for a man so strongly identified with Russia.

Chaliapin was also an outstanding chamber singer and gave many concert performances both in Russia and abroad. Before his break with the Soviet Union he gave numerous concerts in Russia for workers; in Europe he sang in benefits to raise money for starving Russians during the Civil War. From the beginning of his career Chaliapin made recordings; in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries these were wax cylanders. His first recording abroad was in Milan in 1907 and again in 1912. He also recorded in New York, Paris, and London. In 1926 the live performance of Boito's Mefistofele, with Chaliapin in the title role, was recorded at Covent Garden. And in 1927 a recording was made of the concert performance of Mozart and Salieri at London's Royal Albert Hall. Chaliapin's final recordings were made in 1936 in Tokyo. Chaliapin also tried his hand at directing opera: Khovanshchina and Don Quixote. In addition to his singing and acting Chaliapin was a man whose creative outlets were exhibited in painting, drawing, and sculpture. Besides the "autobiography," Chaliapin wrote Pages from My Life and Man and Mask (the proper translation for the latter work is Mask and Soul). Chaliapin also appeared in the title role in the 1933 film Don Quixote, directed by G.W. Pabst.

Chaliapin died of leukemia in Paris on April 12, 1938. His old friend, advisor, and fellow expatriate Sergei Rachmaninov had visited Chaliapin two days before his death but could not bear to attend the funeral. The enormous cortège passed by the Paris Opera House before arriving at the Batignolles Cemetery, where Chaliapin was buried. His body remained there until 1984 when he was disinterred and reburied in Moscow's Novodevichy Cemetery.


Borovsky, Victor, Chaliapin: A Critical Biography, Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.

Great Soviet Encyclopedia, trans. of Third Ed., Vol. 29, Macmillan, 1982.


Borovsky, Victor, "Feodor Chaliapin," Nimbus Records, Prima Voce, (December 27, 2003).

"Feodor Chaliapin (1873–1938)," (December 27, 2003).

"Feodor Ivanovich Shaliapin (1873–1938)," (December 27, 2003).