Ukrainian–born American operatic bass Alexander Kipnis (1891–1978) enjoyed an illustrious career made infamous by his mastery of German basso roles. His rich voice and thoughtful interpretations left an indelible mark in the hearts of opera patrons around the world.
Alexander Kipnis was born February 13 (February 1 by the Julian calendar), 1891, in the village of Zhitomir in the southern Russian Ukraine. He shared a home in a Jewish ghetto with four siblings and his parents. His academic schooling was basic at best, and although no one in his family played or sang music professionally, David Ewen's Musicians Since 1900 notes one of his early memories, "Once in a while I can remember my mother [Machli] singing as she would be working around the house, and later on I was astonished to recognize what she sang was 'La donna è mobile' or Schubert's Serenade. Where she heard them I don't know." It was the folk music of the Russian peasants surrounding his everyday existence that became a motivating influence, as the same interview explains, "I would hear their songs at twilight when they would play and sing for themselves, and by the time I was four or five years old I had learned most of their songs." His father Isaiah Kipnis, a fabric salesman, was a learned man but with no musical background. He died when Kipnis was 12 years old. That same year a juvenile Kipnis ran off briefly with an opera troupe that visited his village. He then earned a little money as a boy soprano singing in local synagogues before his voice began to change, but he returned home to work as a carpenter's apprentice in an effort to help his mother support their family. He began the study of music at the age of 19 in the hopes that mastering two instruments might result in him being drafted into the Russian Army (an inevitability) at the rank of officer. He began by studying the double bass and the trombone.
While a student at the Warsaw Conservatory Kipnis turned his focus to learning the skills of conducting, and graduated as a conductor with honors in 1912 at the age of 21. Once graduated, his efforts to achieve a better military post through musical knowledge paid off, and he served for a time as a military bandmaster. He also sang in Conservatory choirs and took rudimentary voice lessons from an Italian teacher there. He began frequenting operas and became inspired by what he saw and heard, particularly by the Italian singer Mattia Battistini. Once he had served his time in the military, he concentrated on crafting his natural singing ability. He knew that to truly study voice he must go either to Austria or Germany. In an interesting account recorded in Musicians Since 1900, Kipnis describes standing "on the railroad station in Warsaw wondering which of these two capitals should become his destination. While he was trying to reach a decision an express train for Berlin rolled in and Kipnis allowed fate to decide for him." He ended up taking vocal lessons with Ernst Grenzebach at the Klindworth—Scharwenka Conservatory, and the heldentenors Lauritz Melchior and Max Lorenz in Berlin. In 1913 and 1914 Kipnis sang in small production operettas in Berlin, but in 1914 at the beginning of the First World War Kipnis was interned as an enemy alien because he was Russian, although they permitted him to continue his musical studies. He was heard singing one day by a German colonel whose brother was the Impresario for the Hamburg Opera. The colonel suggested that Kipnis audition for his brother, and once he had, Kipnis was allowed to continue his study of singing, but under strict police surveillance. When not performing, Kipnis was kept secluded and under police guard. He spent this time alone practicing and building his repertory of roles and parts such as Gurnemanz in Richard Wagner's Parsifal, Colline in La Bohème, Kezal in Bedrich Smetana's The Bartered Bride, Sparafucile and Monterone in Rigoletto, Ramfis in Giuseppe Verdi's Aida, Bartolo in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, and Ferrando in Verdi's Il Trovatore.
Kipnis's debut was in the role of the hermit in Carl Maria von Weber's Die Freischütz with the Hamburg Opera in Hamburg, Germany, in 1915. From 1916 through 1918 he sang as a member of the Wiesbaden Opera. Once the war was over, he toured with the Berlin State Opera, appearing in various roles and venues from 1919 through 1934 when he settled in the United States. He came to the United States for the first time in 1923 as a member of a visiting operatic ensemble the German Opera Company and made his debut in Baltimore on January 31 of that year. On April 7, 1925, Kipnis married Mildred Levy, the daughter of American concert pianist Heniot Levy. They had one son named Igor who, in his own career became an internationally acclaimed harpsichordist. Kipnis made his New York debut in the role of Pogner in Wagner's Die Meistersinger on February 12, 1923. Immediately after his debut the Chicago Civic Opera seized him and he sang with them for a total of nine seasons. While in their company he took principle basso roles in French, Italian and German repertories. In 1932 Kipnis left Chicago to return to sing as principle bass for the Berlin State Opera in Germany until 1935. He had success in London, the Bayreuth Festivals, Covent Garden, Glyndebourne, Salzburg and Buenos Aires. During Hitler's rise to power Kipnis left Germany and traveled to Italy to join the Vienna State Opera.
While in Vienna Kipnis sang the roles of Baron Ochs in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, Boris Godunov in the Modest Mussorgsky opera by the same name, Sarastro in Mozart's The Magic Flute, Leporello in Mozart's Don Giovanni, and Gurnemanz which had become his signature role. According to Musicians Since 1900, he was so popular in Vienna that he "he sold out the large concert hall [there] for two recitals, at each of which he was compelled to repeat every number of the program because of the vociferous audience reaction." During this time he also appeared at the Paris Opera. Kipnis became an American citizen in 1934 at the age of 43, and made the United States his permanent residence in 1938 in part as a renunciation of the activities of the Nazi regime when Austria was annexed that same year.
On January 5, 1940, Kipnis had his much anticipated and surprisingly belated debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York city in the role of Gurnemanz. He remained at the Met for the 1940–1946 seasons displaying his formidable talent in the Wagnerian repertory and playing roles such as Boris Godunov, Sarastro, King Mark in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, Baron Ochs, Hermann in Wagner's Tannhäuser, Hagen in Wagner's Die Götterdämmerung, Arkel in Claude Debussy's Pelléas and Mélisande, Fasolt in Wagner's Das Rheingold, Rocco in Ludwig van Beethoven's Fidelio, Hunding in Wagner's Die Walküre, Nilakantha in Leo Delibes's Lakmé, and Leporello. Kipnis retired from the opera in 1946. His exit performance at the Met was in the same role as that of his debut, the Gurnemanz he had perfected to such critical adoration.
Kipnis's voice has been described as unusually flexible for his range, and is praised for its high level of refinement and tonal variety. Robin May's A Companion to the Opera notes that critic Steane called him a "miracle among singers" and described his voice as "grandly sonorous." While there are some critics who claim that Kipnis's performances were not unusually inspiring, everyone agrees that his delivery was always technically breathtaking and textbook perfect. Despite his ethnic heritage as a Russian Jew, his training was almost exclusively German, and although he did experiment with the Russian repertory, his fame lay in his mastery of the German roles. The unusual flexibility of his vocal inflection and range that is so often mentioned also allowed him to execute Italian roles as well as German ones, despite the fact that the Italian roles are often more technically challenging. The International Dictionary of Opera explains, "Throughout his career he dabbled in Russian repertoire, but he was never considered a Russian singer in style, vocal quality, or instinct. He was, in fact, the finest German–style bass of his epoch. The smooth voice, spacious phrasing, and sheer vocal resource, however, were a marked departure from the accepted German bass school of his time, which emphasized cavernous black sound at the bottom and 'barking' the upper register with disregard for pitch. Instead of black sound Kipnis produced a deep rich velvety sound, never 'barked' the upper register, and was scrupulous in matters of pitch. This vocal culture enabled him to sing the big Italian roles with extraordinary smoothness." The beauty of his voice was matched always with tremendous stage presence, the combination of which catapulted him to international operatic fame.
In addition to his obvious talents as an operatic singer, Kipnis was also a celebrated and critically acclaimed interpreter and singer of lieder (German for "songs"—short, poetic songs referred to in English as "art songs"). Critics quoted in Musicians Since 1900 called Kipnis "not only one of the greatest contemporary operatic basses but also one of the foremost living masters of the Lied" as well as "the greatest male interpreter of Debussy's song literature." The entry on Kipnis in The Music Makers states that "His voice had remarkable flexibility and great range, enabling him to perform lieder as effectively as opera." His success as a lieder soloist was rare for his range, as the entry in American National Biography explains, "He was renowned for the ease, nobility, sonority, and security of his voice in all registers throughout a two—octave compass… a somewhat rare achievement for a deep—timbred bass singer." He recorded the Lieder of Hugo Wolf for a special issue by the Hugo Wolf Son Society, and he regarded it as some of his finest work.
Life After the Opera
Kipnis spent much of his time after retiring from the opera circuit recording his various roles and the songs of the masters. He is one of the most widely recorded singers of his time and his recordings were invaluable to operatic culture. He was surprisingly versatile as a recording artist, and recorded opera, lieder, and classical and contemporary vocal works. In 1937 Kipnis was sought out by the Brahms Song Society to sing on both volumes of their special recording of the Brahms repertory. He gave master classes in voice at the Julliard School of Music, the New York College of Music, and the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood. Kipnis died May 14, 1978, in a convalescent home in Westport, Connecticut. His renditions of classic bass roles and his gift for bringing the pleasures of lieder to an international audience have secured Alexander Kipnis an exalted place in operatic history and culture.
American National Biography, Volume 12, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Eighth Edition, Schirmer Books, 1992.
Biographical Dictionary of American Music, Parker Publishing Company, 1973.
A Companion to the Opera, Hippocrene Books, Inc., 1977.
Encyclopedia of the Opera, Hill and Wang, 1963.
The Metropolitan Opera Encyclopedia, Simon and Schuster, 1987.
Musicians Since 1900: Performers in Concert and Opera, H.W. Wilson Company, 1978.
The Music Makers, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1979.
The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Volume 2, Macmillan Press Limited, 1986.
The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, Oxford University Press, 1992.
"Serbian Language Class," Saint Sava Serbian Orthodox Church of Boston,http://www.allston.com/st_sava/school (January 2, 2004).
"Serbian Literature," Vojvodina,http://www.vojvodina.srbijainfo.yu/ingles/kultura/kultura1 (January 2, 2004).
Kipnis, Igor, distinguished American harpsichordist, fortepianist, pianist, and music critic, son of Alex- ander Kipnis; b. Berlin, Sept. 27, 1930. He was taken to the U.S. by his family in 1938, where he received training in piano from his maternal grandfather, Heniot Léevy. After attending the Westport (Conn.) School of Music, he studied with Randall Thompson and Thur-ston Dart at Harvard Univ. (B.A., 1952). He also studied harpsichord with Fernando Valenti. In 1955 he began writing music criticism and record reviews for various publications. He made his concert debut as a harpsichordist on WNYC radio in N.Y. in 1959. His formal concert debut followed at the N.Y.C. Historical Soc. in 1962, and thereafter he made frequent tours of the U.S. and Canada. In 1967 he made his first tour of Europe, and subsequently made regular tours there. He also appeared in South America, Israel, Australia, Russia, and the Far East. He taught at the Berkshire Music Center in Tangle wood (summers, 1964-67). Kipnis was assoc. prof, of fine arts (1971–75) and artist-in-residence (1975–77) at Fairfield (Conn.) Univ. He also played at the Festival Music Soc. in Indianapolis, where he served on the faculty of its Early Music Inst. (summers, 1974-84). In 1981 he made his debut as a fortepianist in Indianapolis. He was made a visiting tutor at the Royal Northern Coll. of Music in Manchester in 1982, and from 1993 to 1996 he was co-artistic director of the Conn. Early Music Festival. In 1992-93 he was host of the syndicated radio program “The Classical Organ.” In 1995 he formed a modern piano, 4-hands duo with Karen Kushner, and subsequently toured widely with her. He became president of the Friends of Music of Fairfield County, Conn., a chamber music soc, in 1995, a position he held until 1999. Kipnis ed. the anthology A First Harpsichord Book (Oxford, 1970; 2nd ed., 1985). In 1969 he was awarded the Deutsche Schallplatten Preis and in 1993 he received an honorary doctorate from 111. Wesleyan Univ. Kipnis’s vast repertoire ranges from early music to contemporary scores. Among composers who have written works for him are Ned Rorem, George Rochberg, Richard Rodney Bennett, Barbara Kolb, and John McCabe.
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire
Kipnis, Alexander, eminent Russian-born American bass, father of Igor Kipnis; b. Zhitomir, Feb. 13, 1891; d. Westport, Conn., May 14, 1978. He studied conducting at the Warsaw Cons, (graduated, 1912); later took voice lessons with Ernst Grenzebach at Berlin’s Klindworth-Scharwenka Cons. In 1913 he sang at Monti’s Operetten Theater and in 1914 at the Filmzauber operetta theater in Berlin. At the outbreak of World War I, he was interned as an enemy alien, but was soon released and made his operatic debut as the hermit in Der Freischütz at the Hamburg Opera in 1915; sang there until 1917, then was a member of the Wiesbaden Opera (1917–22). He made his U.S. debut as Pogner with the visiting German Opera Co. in Baltimore on Jan. 31, 1923; he then was a member of the Chicago Civic Opera (1923–32). He also sang regularly at the Berlin Städtische Oper (1922–30), the Berlin State Opera (1932–35), and the Vienna State Opera (1935–38). In 1927 he made his first appearance at London’s Covent Garden as Marcel in Les Huguenots, and sang there again from 1929 to 1935. He became a naturalized American citizen in 1931. During these years, he made guest appearances at the Bayreuth, Salzburg, and Glynde-bourne festivals, as well as at the Teatro Cólon in Buenos Aires. On Jan. 5, 1940, he made his belated Metropolitan Opera debut in N.Y. as Gurnemanz, and continued to sing there until 1946; he then devoted himself mainly to teaching. Through the years he appeared as a distinguished concert artist. In addition to his remarkable portrayal of Gurnemanz, he was greatly esteemed for such roles as Sarastro, Roco, King Marke, Hagen, and Boris Godunov.
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire
KIPNIS, ALEXANDER (1891–1978), bass-baritone. Born in Zhitomir, Kipnis began his career in Germany, and was a member of the Berlin State Opera until the Nazis came to power. He performed at Bayreuth and Salzburg, at Covent Garden and Glyndebourne in England, and at the Metropolitan Opera, New York. A singer of great range and flexibility, he excelled in lieder as well as in opera and oratorio. His son Igor (1930– ) was a well-known harpsichord player.