Alexander Kipnis was born into a poor family living in a Jewish ghetto. His father, a fabric salesman, was educated but had no musical interests, although Kipnis recalled his mother and others in the ghetto singing songs with which he quickly became familiar as a child. After his father died when he was twelve, he ran off briefly to join a travelling opera troupe; but then sang as a boy soprano in the local synagogue and after his voice broke, he worked as a carpenter’s apprentice to support his mother. Kipnis began to study music formally only when he was nineteen, while also singing in synagogues. He learnt two instruments, double bass and trombone, with the aim of being drafted into the Russian army as an officer, but graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory in 1912 as a conductor.
His career strategy having worked, Kipnis served in the army as a bandmaster, while also developing his skill as a singer. Realising that he required professional tuition he travelled to Berlin where he studied at the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory with Ernst Grenzebach, whose pupils also included Lauritz Melchior and Max Lorenz. During 1913 and 1914 he sang small parts with an operetta company in Berlin; and although when war broke out in 1914 he was interned as an enemy alien, he was permitted to continue his musical studies. A German army colonel, whose brother ran the Hamburg Opera, happened to hear Kipnis sing and suggested that he audition for Hamburg. This he did successfully, while continuing to study in isolation under police guard, building up his repertoire of major bass roles.
At Hamburg Kipnis’s debut came in 1916 as the Hermit / Der Freischütz, after which he sang with the Wiesbaden Opera from 1917 to 1922, making his debut there as Schlemil / Les Contes d’Hoffmann. His many major bass roles included King Mark / Tristan und Isolde, Hagen / Götterdämmerung, the Landgrave / Tannhäuser, Gurnemanz and Titurel / Parsifal, the Commendatore / Don Giovanni, Rocco / Fidelio, Sarastro / Die Zauberflöte and Cardinal Brogni / La Juive. He first sang at Berlin’s Charlottenberg Opera (later the Städtische Oper) in 1919 and was principal bass there from 1922 to 1930.
Kipnis made his debut in America in Baltimore at the beginning of 1923 with the touring German Opera Company, quickly followed by his New York debut with this company as Pogner / Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. He was immediately contracted by the Chicago Civic Opera, making his first appearance, also in 1923, as Daland / Der fliegende Holländer. He went on to sing major bass roles in the French, Italian and German repertoires with this company for nine seasons until 1932, his roles including Arkel / Pelléas et Mélisande, Albert / Werther, the Prior / Le Jongleur de Notre Dame and Ennius / Cléopâtre (the last three by Massenet).
During his six seasons at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires between 1926 and 1936 Kipnis took part in the local premiere of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex in 1931. He was equally busy in Europe, touring extensively and singing at the Bayreuth Festival between 1927 and 1933 as Gurnemanz, Pogner, King Mark and the Landgrave. At the Royal Opera House, London he first appeared in 1927 as Marcel / Les Huguenots in 1927, returning regularly until 1935. He sang Sarastro at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1936 and repeated this role under Toscanini at the Salzburg Festival of 1937.
Meanwhile Kipnis was a member of the Berlin State Opera from 1932 to 1935, after which he sang with the Vienna State Opera from 1935 to 1938, the year of the Anschluss. He had married Mildred Lévy, the daughter of American concert pianist Heniot Lévy, in 1925 and become an American citizen in 1931; now Kipnis emigrated to America, where he made his belated debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in 1940 as Gurnemanz. He sang regularly at the Met until 1946, in repertoire that included the major Wagnerian bass roles as well as Arkel, Baron Ochs / Der Rosenkavalier and one of his finest interpretations, the title role in Boris Godunov. Kipnis gave his last concert in 1951, after which he taught at the College of Music, New York.
The possessor of a voice of great beauty, range, colour and flexibility, Kipnis was also extremely musical. As well as being a renowned Wagnerian bass, he also had a major reputation as an interpreter of Verdi, and was an unparalleled lieder singer.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).