February 13, 1873 – April 12, 1938
Feodor Chaliapin was born into a peasant family in the city of Kazan. In 1878 the Chaliapin family moved to the village of Ametyevo (now a settlement within Kazan) and settled in a small house. With only four years of formal schooling, Chaliapin fled a poverty-stricken and abusive home at age 17 and joined a traveling theater company. In terms of music, legend has it that he was self-taught. However, a brief engagement with a touring opera and a fortuitous meeting with his first voice teacher, Dimitry Usatov, a retired tenor, alerted the young singer, then aged 19, to the true extent of his musical potential. Usatov was, in fact, so impressed with the young man that he agreed to teach him classic vocal technique free of charge.
Chaliapin’s career began at the Tiflis (later Tbilisi) Opera. He made his debut as Ivan Susanin in Glinka's “A Life for the Tsar,”
for which he received excellent reviews. In 1894 he joined the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg and later was engaged by the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, where he appeared regularly from 1899 to 1914. At 29 Chaliapin sang his first engagement abroad and his first opera in Italian, he shared the stage at La Scala with Enrico Caruso in Arrigo Boito's “Mefistofele,” redefining the title role for the composer, and becoming the foremost bass singer in Europe. Chaliapin made a sensational debut at La Scala that year under the baton of the 20th Century's most dynamic opera conductor, Arturo Toscanini. At the end of his career, Toscanini observed that the Russian bass was the greatest operatic talent with whom he had ever worked.
In 1907 Chaliapin made his Metropolitan Opera debut in that same role in New York City. His first appearance was disappointing due to the unprecedented frankness of his stage acting. But in the winter of 1907-08, at the age of 34, Chaliapin returned to New York and set the city alight. He created a furor in the operatic world and redefined the notion of dramatic performance by bringing a fiercely committed intelligence to his roles and immersing himself in them fully.
"His frame, gigantic as it is, cannot contain his nature. He writhes with the emotions that convulse him. His face is drawn into expressions of the profoundest agony... All the dramatic action tending to establish this conception of Boito's Satan is accompanied by every helpful aid of light, scenery and mechanical ingenuity. Chaliapin takes the utmost pains with his make-up, which combines effectively the use of flesh lungs and bare skin. The skin is covered with shiny, metallic powder with sparkles in the calcium." - W.J. Henderson, The New York Sun
In 1908, Chaliapin began his close association with Sergey Diaghilev, the brilliant entrepreneur, in Paris, where many famous productions of Russian operas were staged. He played several Russian roles at Covent Garden, London in 1913. Chaliapin appeared in nearly all of the great opera houses of Europe, as well as those of England and the United States. In 1935-1936 he made a world tour, including performances in China and Japan.
Chaliapin also sang “Khovanchina,” “Prince Igor,” Dargomyzhsky's “Rusalka,” “Sadko,” “Mozart and Salieri” (which he premiered), Rubinstein's “The Demon,” Serov's “Judith” and Gretchaninov's “Dobrinya Nikititsch.” His art is preserved on many recordings made between 1901 and 1935, which document his wide-ranging repertoire.
Chaliapin's appearances on the opera stage introduced some decisive changes into the opera performance status quo. A perfectionist with regard to his makeup, costumes, dramatic and musical preparation, he was very attentive to the staging of the shows he was in. In developing his performance style, he studied actors and painters as well as singers. He was almost more actor than singer in his approach to the characters he portrayed.
Chaliapin was twice married. In 1914 the great Russian singer and his second wife Maria settled in St. Petersburg. The couple lived there with their five children from 1915 until late 1922, when they left Russia, never to return. After the revolution Chaliapin remained in Russia for a time, but eventually found the rigidity of the Communist regime as distasteful as the Romanov’s
rule, and he subsequently emigrated. He was denounced as an "anti-revolutionary" and deprived of all his Russian property and titles.
He was also an avid art collector. The rooms are decorated with works by famous Russian artists: Korovin, Vasnetsov, Roerich, Kustodiev, Kharitonov and Vrubel.
In 1932, Chaliapin published a memoir, “Man and Mask: Forty Years in the Life of a Singer,” prepared in collaboration with Maxim Gorky. Chaliapin's last stage performance took place at the Monte Carlo Opera in 1937, as Boris
He died of leukemia the following year, aged 65, in Paris, where he was interred. In 1984, his remains were transferred from Paris to Moscow with elaborate ceremony. They were re-buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery.