Feodor Chaliapin, in full
Feodor Ivanovich Chaliapin, also spelled Fyodor Shalyapin
(born Feb. 1 [Feb. 13, New Style], 1873, near Kazan,
Russia—died April 12, 1938, Paris, France), Russian operatic
basso profundo whose vivid declamation, great resonance, and
dynamic acting made him the best-known singer-actor of his
Chaliapin was born to a
poor family. He worked as an apprentice to a shoemaker, a
sales clerk, a carpenter, and a lowly clerk in a district
court before joining, at age 17, a local operetta company.
Two years later he went to study in Tiflis (now Tbilisi,
Georgia), and in 1896 he became a member of the private
Mamontov opera company, where he mastered the Russian,
French, and Italian roles that made him famous. In 1895 he
debuted at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre as Mephistopheles
in Charles Gounod’s Faust. In 1901 he sang at La Scala under
Arturo Toscanini, alongside Enrico Caruso.
of the title role in Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov was
his most famous. His other major dramatic parts included
Philip II in Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlos, Ivan the Terrible
in Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Maid of Pskov, and the
title (and, for him, the signature) role in Arrigo Boito’s
Mefistofele. His great comic characterizations were Don
Basilio in Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia and
Leporello in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
Chaliapin appeared at the
major opera houses in Milan (1901, 1904), New York City
(1907), and London (1913). A man of lower-class origins,
Chaliapin was not unsympathetic to the Bolshevik Revolution.
He left Russia in 1922 as part of an extended tour of
western Europe. Although he would never return, he remained
a tax-paying citizen of Soviet Russia for several years. His
first open break with the regime occurred in 1927 when the
Soviet government, as part of its campaign to pressure him
into returning to Russia, stripped him of his title of “The
First People’s Artist of the Soviet Republic” and threatened
to deprive him of Soviet citizenship.
Chaliapin creating his self-portrait in 1912
Prodded by Stalin, Maksim Gorky, Chaliapin’s longtime friend, tried to persuade
him to return to Russia but broke with him after Chaliapin
published his memoirs, Man and Mask: Forty Years in the Life
of a Singer (trans. from French 1932, reissued 1973;
originally published in Russian, Maska i dusha, 1932), in
which he denounced the lack of freedom under the Bolsheviks.
After leaving the Soviet Union, Chaliapin performed
frequently with the Metropolitan and Chicago opera companies
in the United States and with Covent Garden in London. He
also toured every continent, frequently with his own opera
company. Although occasionally considered unorthodox, he was
admired as a versatile and expressive recitalist, remembered
for his repertoire of Russian songs. He made some 200
recordings from 1898 to 1936, starred in the movie Don
Quixote (1933), and published the autobiographical Pages
from My Life (1926). In 1984 his remains were disinterred
from Batignolles Cemetery in Paris and reburied in the
Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, alongside Russia’s most
revered cultural figures.