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Fyodor Chaliapin: The Man Whose 'Melodious Thunder' Wooed The World

Legendary Russian opera singer Fyodor Chaliapin, February 13, 1873-April 11, 1938
Legendary Russian opera singer Fyodor Chaliapin, February 13, 1873-April 11, 1938
February 13 marks the 140th anniversary of the birth of Fyodor Chaliapin, a Russian opera singer whose legacy and influence still endure to this day.

For a number of decades in the early 20th century, his powerful bass voice -- described by the diva Geraldine Farrar as "melodious thunder" -- could be heard resounding around the walls of the world's best opera houses and he enjoyed a reputation that was on a par with the likes of Enrico Caruso and Maria Callas.

Born into humble circumstances in Kazan in 1873, the largely self-taught Chaliapin carved out a name for himself in regional theaters in Tbilisi and St. Petersburg before being engaged by the Mamontov Private Opera in Moscow in 1896.

The Mamontov was where he met Sergei Rachmaninoff, who was to become a close friend and something of a mentor, although Chaliapin's approach to singing is also thought to have influenced the composer's own vocal compositions.

It was during this period that Chaliapin first learned Modest Mussorgsky's "Boris Godonuv," which would later become one of his signature roles.

His performances in that opera garnered him a lot of attention and he was soon snapped up by Moscow's Bolshoi Theater in 1899, where he appeared regularly until the outbreak of World War I.

By that time, he was effectively an opera superstar who had wowed Italian audiences when he debuted at La Scala in Arrigo Boito's "Mefistofole" under the baton of legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini in 1901.

After that landmark performance he was much in demand and appeared on stages in New York, London, and Paris.

Transformative Figure

One of the reasons Chaliapin became such a popular opera singer was his acting ability, which had often been of secondary importance in the genre until then. His mesmerizing, natural performances raised the bar in this respect and effectively changed how future vocalists approached their roles.

Besides performing in operas he also began giving solo recitals that included well-received Russian folk songs. To this day he is still remembered for his soaring version of "The Song of the Volga Boatmen," which he helped popularize all over the world.

Although Chaliapin was made a "People's Artist" after the Russian Revolution in 1917, the precarious nature of life in the early days of the Soviet Union prompted him to stay away from his homeland after 1921.

He eventually settled in France, from where he continued to pursue a successful international opera and concert career until his death.

Highlights of this period of his life include a hugely successful eight-season stint at New York's Metropolitan Opera, starting in 1921, as well as an acclaimed concert tour of Australia in 1926.

In addition to performing, Chaliapin also made a series of recordings throughout the 1920s and '30s that helped secure a lasting legacy.

Although it probably does not do him justice, at least some vestiges of Chaliapin's thespian talents were also preserved for posterity in the film "Don Quixote" by Georg Wilhelm Pabst, which he made in 1933.

WATCH: Fyodor Chaliapin in "Don Quixote"

Chaliapin died of leukemia at the age of 65 in 1938 in Paris, where was interred for several decades before his remains were formally returned to Moscow in 1984. He is now buried in the prestigious Novodevichy Cemetery.

Some of Chaliapin's acting ability seems to have rubbed off on his son Feodor Chaliapin Jr., who enjoyed a successful film career, most notably in the award-winning "Moonstruck" and "The Name of the Rose." Another son, Boris Chaliapin, became a respected portraitist, who is perhaps best known for the cover art he did for "Time" magazine.

-- Coilin O'Connor

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