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Feodor Chaliapin: Russian Opera Legend

Opera has long been popular as a form of entertainment in Russia. Catherine the Great was herself an accomplished opera librettist and promoted opera as part of the Russian culture during her reign (1762 to 1796). Recognized as one of the greatest Russian opera singers of the 20th century, Feodor Ivanovich Chaliapin is credited with introducing naturalistic acting into opera performances. He had an expressive bass voice and a charismatic personality which brought him to the attention of the opera-loving public, leading to a successful international career performing at major opera theaters.

Born into a rural family in Kazan in February 1873, Chaliapin was baptized in the city's Epiphany Church, which later named a chamber hall in his honor. His talent for music was evident from a young age and he was largely self-taught prior to beginning his career at the Imperial Opera in St Petersburg in 1894. He was later invited to sing at the Mamontov Private Opera in Moscow, where his first role was the folklore demon Mephistopheles in Faust, and his performance was a resounding success.

It was during his time with the Mamontov Private Opera that Chaliapin met legendary Russian composer, conductor and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff, and they became lifelong friends, reportedly encouraging and challenging one another to reach new heights in their respective talents. Between 1899 and 1914, Chaliapin appeared regularly at the renowned Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, and from 1901 he began to tour in the West, with his debut being at La Scala opera house in Milan, Italy. There Chaliapin took the role of the devil in a production of Italian composer Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele, conducted by Arturo Toscanini, who later remarked that Chaliapin was the greatest operatic talent he had ever worked with. Chaliapin started to feature Russian folk songs in his performances, and was responsible for the world-wide fame of The Song of the Volga Boatmen - a traditional Russian song dating back to the mid-1800s which was sung by the barge-haulers, or burlaks, working on the Volga River.

While always maintaining that he was not anti-Soviet, Chaliapin chose to remain outside Russia through the turmoil of political changes brought about by the Russian Revolution of 1917. He eventually settled in Paris, and continued to entertain audiences and promote Russian opera in various parts of the world. His last state performance was in 1937 at the Monte Carlo Opera. He died in Paris the following year at age 65 of leukemia, and his body was interred in his adopted city. In 1984, the remains of Feodor Chaliapin were transferred to Moscow and re-buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery.


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