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Chaliapin was born into a poor family: his father was a clerk, and when Feodor was five, the family moved to a small village. His musical education was founded upon singing in a local church choir; his formal education lasted for only four years. As his father sank into alcoholism, he left home when he was seventeen and joined a theatre company that toured in Southern Russia. His stage début took place at the city of Ufa in 1890 when he sang Stolnik in Moniuszko’s Halka. In 1892 he met a retired tenor, Dmitri Usatov who, greatly impressed by his natural talent, gave him singing lessons without charge.

The following year saw Chaliapin’s début with the Tiflis (now Tbilisi) Opera. His rôle was Méphistophélès in Gounod’s Faust, and he went on to sing thirteen more with the company over a five-month period. Chaliapin’s first appearance as a singer in St Petersburg was with the Panayev Society, and in 1895 he caused a sensation at the Mariinsky Theatre with his portrayal of Bertram in Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable. Between 1896 and 1898 he sang with the Mamontov Private Opera company in Moscow, making his début as Ivan Susanin in Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tzar, and singing the title rôle in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov for the first time. Here he met Rachmaninov, then an assistant conductor with the company, who became a close friend. He joined the court opera in Moscow in 1899.

At La Scala, Milan, Chaliapin’s début came in 1901. He sang the title rôle in Boito’s Mefistofele opposite Caruso, with Toscanini conducting. (At the end of his life, Toscanini commented that the Russian bass was the greatest operatic talent with whom he had ever worked.) Chaliapin returned to La Scala in 1904, 1908, 1912, 1929–1930 and 1933. He appeared at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, for the first time in 1907 as Boito’s Mefistofele, and during the Met’s 1907–1908 season also sang Don Basilio/Il barbiere di Siviglia, Leporello/Don Giovanni, and Méphistophélès. Chaliapin’s highly realistic acting did not appeal to American critics, who were unable to cope, for instance, with his half-naked appearance as Mefistofele nor his greasy, lecherous Don Basilio. The public however warmed to his mesmerising performances.

Chaliapin appeared almost every year between 1905 and 1937 at the Monte Carlo Opera House, creating there in 1910 one of his most famous interpretations, the title rôle in Massenet’s Don Quichotte; while his realisation of Boris Godunov in Paris (1908), Milan (1909) and London (1913) helped to establish Mussorgsky’s opera in the repertoire.

With the outbreak of World War I he returned to Russia, appearing regularly with the Zimin Private Opera in Moscow. Following the 1917 Revolution, in 1918 Chaliapin was placed in charge of the Mariinsky Theatre and made a ‘People’s Artist’. However in 1921 he left Russia, initially for Finland, and never returned.

Enormous success was now Chaliapin’s as Boris Godunov at the Metropolitan Opera at the end of that year; and between 1921 and 1928 he gave seventy-eight performances there in rôles such as both Boito’s and Gounod’s Mephistopheles, Don Quichotte and King Philip/Don Carlo.

Although he settled in Paris in 1927, during the 1920s Chaliapin pursued a peripatetic career, appearing in Chicago (1922–1924), Vienna (1927), Berlin (1928) and London (at Covent Garden from 1926 to 1929 and in 1931 at the Lyceum Theatre, where he sang in the first performances in England of Dargomyzhsky’s Rusalka). During 1926 he toured Australia and in 1935 and 1936 Japan and China. Chaliapin’s stage farewell was at Monte Carlo in 1937, as Boris; he died in Paris the following year and in 1986 was reburied in Moscow.

Chaliapin made one sound film, for the director GW Pabst: The Adventures of Don Quixote (1933). This exists in three different versions (French, English and German), with Chaliapin starring in all three versions.

It was Rachmaninov who advised Chaliapin to learn by heart all the rôles in any opera in which he was appearing; in turn he showed Rachmaninov how he built each of his interpretations around a culminating point. Regardless of where that point was or at which dynamic within the work, the performer had to know how to approach it with absolute calculation and precision; otherwise the whole structure of the piece could crumble. Rachmaninov claimed that Chaliapin sang as Tolstoy wrote, which may be seen for instance in his interpretation of Boito’s Mefistofele: it is both demonic and terrifying, even on record. His whole approach to opera as drama was revolutionary. Where he stood out was in his application of psychology to operatic acting, and it was against this that the American critics initially revolted.

Chaliapin possessed a superb vocal technique. The voice was even throughout its range, allowing him to tackle certain baritone rôles as well as the more expected bass parts. It was sharply focused, free of vibrato and could be fined down to the merest thread of sound when required. This high-lying voice with its unusual timbre recorded well, and Chaliapin made a large number of records for the HMV label from the dawn of the acoustic recording era until well into that of electrical recording. Particularly notable are the live recordings made by HMV of his Boris Godunov and Faust at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1928, of which the critic John Steane has written: ‘Admirable beyond words…His performance was simply the acme of operatic art. Drama and music, song and sense were a unity; nothing finer could be imagined.’

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).

View by Role: Classical Artist | Reader
Role: Classical Artist 
Album Title
Catalogue No  Work Category 
A TO Z OF SINGERS Naxos Educational
BORODIN: Prince Igor (Ivanov, Smolenskaya, Melik-Pashayev) (1951) Naxos Historical
CHALIAPIN, Feodor: A Vocal Portrait (1907-1936) Naxos Historical
Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera
GLINKA: Ivan Susanin (A Life for the Tsar) (Mikhailov, Spiller, Melik-Pashayev) (1947, 1950) Naxos Historical
GREAT SINGERS (1904-1952) Naxos Historical
MUSSORGSKY: Khovanshchina (Freidkov, Nechayev, Khaykin) (1946) Naxos Historical

Role: Reader 
Album Title  Catalogue No  Work Category 
Great Historical Shakespeare Recordings Naxos AudioBooks
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