Feodor Chaliapin was the most famous Russian opera singer,bass in the first half of the 20th century. Because of his powerful and flexible voice, together with his mesmerizing stage presence and his superb acting ability, he is considered one of the greatest performers in the history of opera, and he is credited with establishing the tradition of naturalistic acting in opera.
Fedor Chaliapin was born on February 1 (OS) 1873 in Kazan, in the wing of merchant Lisitzin's house on the Rybnoryadskoaya Street, now Pushkin Street, 10 (in the Soviet time it was Kuibyshev street, 14). This wing doesnâ€™t exist now, but the house with the yard where the wing was situated is still there. On the next day, Candlemas Day, Fedor was baptized in Bogoyavlenkaya church in former Large Prolomnaya street (nowadays Bauman street). His God parents were the neighbours: the shoemaker Nikolay Tonkov and 12-year-old girl Ludmilochka Kharitonova. The dwelling was expensive for Ivan Yakovlevich, served as a clerk in the Zemskaya Uprava (Land Council), and in 1878 the Chaliapin family moved to the village Ahmetyevo (also Ometyevo, or the Ometyev settlements, now the district of Kazan near Tikhomirnov street) behind the place named Sukonnaya Sloboda, and settled in a small house.
Largely self-taught, he began his career at Tbilisi and the Imperial Opera, St. Petersburg in 1894; he was then invited to sing at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, where he appeared regularly from 1899 to 1914. From 1914, Chaliapin appeared regularly at the Zimin Private Opera in Moscow.
From 1901, Chaliapin begin appearing the West, making his debut at La Scala that year in a production of Boito's Mefistofele under the baton of Arturo Toscanini, who at the end of career observed that the Russian bass was the greatest operatic talent with whom he had ever worked. The singer's Metropolitan Opera debut in the 1907 season was said to have been unspectacular, but he returned in 1921 and sang there with immense success for eight seasons. In 1913, Chaliapin was introduced to London and Paris by Diaghilev, at which point he began giving well-received solo recitals in which he also performed traditional Russian folk songs. Among these songs are Along Peterskaya, which he recorded with a British-based Russian folk instruments orchestra, and the song he made famous throughout the world: The Song of the Volga Boatmen.
After the Russian Revolution, Chaliapin was at first treated as a distinguished artist of the Soviet Union, but disagreement with the Soviet government caused him to remain outside Russia after 1921, although he maintained that he was not anti-Soviet. Chaliapin fled to Finland and later lived in France.
Chaliapin's most famous role was the title role of Boris Godunov (excerpts of which he recorded 1929-31), but is remembered for Ivan the Terrible in Rimsky-Korsakov's Maid of Pskov, Mephistopheles in Gounod's Faust, Massenet's Don Quichotte, and Bertram in Meyerbeer's Robert le diable. Thanks to his famous performances, Russian operas like Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina, Glinka's Ivan Susanin, Borodin's Prince Igor and Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride became well known in the West. He made one sound film for director G.W. Pabst, the 1933 film version of Don Quixote. Rather than going out in one version with subtitles, the film was made in three different versions - French, English, and German, as was sometimes the custom then. Chaliapin starred in all three versions, all of which used the same script, sets and costumes, but they had different supporting casts. The English and the French versions are the most often seen, and are being released in May 2006 on one DVD. Pabst's film was not a version of the Massenet opera, but a dramatic adaptation of Cervantes' novel, with music and songs by Jacques Ibert.
In 1932, Chaliapin published a memoir, Man and Mask: Forty Years in the Life of a Singer, prepared in collaboration with Maxim Gorky.
Chaliapin died in 1938 of leukaemia aged 65 in Paris. In 1984, his remains were transferred from Paris to Moscow for interment in the Novodevichy Cemetery.
His son, Feodor Chaliapin Jr. (1907-1992), had a notable career in film as a character actor.