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I can’t bring myself to write “Feodor Chaliapin” as is done on the great singer’s Hollywood star. I know that’s the way his name is usually spelled in the West, but it still irks me. Chaliapin’s whole name is a mess in English. The “proper” simple transliteration is Fyodor Shalyapin. Hardly like what you’re used to seeing. I have to go with the spelling of his last name as “Chaliapin,” because, indeed, that’s what we’re accustomed to. “Shalyapin” seems clumsily hyper-correct even though it’s “merely” correct. Whatever. If you’re really into this topic you’ll find plenty more alternate spellings – “Fiodor,” “Fedor,” “Chaliapine,” and more. It’s an alphabet soup of major proportions. I’m sticking to “Fyodor Chaliapin”; it’s my blog and I can do what I want to, as Lesley Gore almost sang about 50 years ago.
Chaliapin (1873-1938) is one of those names that gives shape to the 20th century. Long before the superstar status of opera singers like Pavarotti, Chaliapin set the mold for the super star opera singer. He was wildly, fantastically popular. In fact, there are those who would say that he – rather like Franz Liszt – was a rock star well before anyone had heard of the blues, let alone rock. Chaliapin was one of those outsized characters, big and prominent in every way. His appetite for everything was enormous. He loved to laugh as much as he loved to eat, sing and make money. He was, as far as I can determine, loved by virtually everyone he came into contact with, except, perhaps, for a few disgruntled husbands. One of my favorite photos is of Chaliapin clowning around with Maxim Gorky. The writer apparently is pretending to poke the singer with a traditional Russian broom made of twigs while Chaliapin plays at being horrified.
I don’t seem to find a solid explanation for this photo. (If you haven’t gone to the link above by now, please do so. You won’t regret it.) Some suggest it was made in Crimea. It may well have been shot in 1905. Some are quite certain that Gorky and Chaliapin are playing around with political notions of the time as the “proletarian” writer Gorky is seeking to “whisk away” the bourgeois Chaliapin with a broom. I am more inclined to follow the suggestion of one commentator that this is even more of a theatrical joke than that. His reasoning, which makes sense, is that Chaliapin looks more like he is opening his mouth wide to make room for the broom to be inserted and to, perhaps, clean out his vocal pipes. Indeed it does not look like a “performance” of the political variant. I’m wondering if this, in fact, isn’t part of some greater amateur theatrical. Look at what appears to be the laughing servant standing between the two. To my eye he is holding a theatrical thunder board. I think it’s all part of a show. An audience member is peering out the window, getting a kick at the goings-on.
Chaliapin was quite truly a man of the people. He was born into a peasant family near the southern Russian city of Kazan. He began singing in amateur opera performances in Kazan in 1889-1890. After a journey that took him through Ufa, Tiflis (today, Tbilisi in Georgia) and Moscow, he began making a name for himself in St. Petersburg in 1894. Chaliapin was lured back to Moscow in 1896 where he performed in Savva Mamontov’s opera company until 1899, solidifying his status as a major star. Soon to come were the Bolshoi Theater (1899), La Scala (1901) and a tour through the United Stages and Argentina (1907-08). He debuted in film in 1915, memorably performing the title role in Tsar Ivan Vasilyevich the Terrible.
Although it would appear Chaliapin usually did his best to avoid politics, his peasant roots showed during the revolutionary year of 1905, for he often donated his performance fees to workers in need. It made him a champion of the proletariat which worked in his favor in the early Soviet years. He was the first performer to receive the honor of People’s Artist of the Soviet Union in 1918, and was named the artistic director of the Mariinsky Theater in Petrograd that same year. Still, beginning in 1922 the great singer – now a world-famous artist – spent more time abroad than in the Soviet Union. Eventually, in 1927, Soviet authorities took the unusual step of rescinding Chaliapin’s status as a People Artist. This punitive act seems to have been caused by the fact that Chaliapin, again, donated performance fees to needy Russian emigrant children. It caused a ruckus in Moscow, where he was accused of catering to enemies of the Soviet Union.
Chaliapin died of leukemia in Paris in 1938, mourned as one of the great musical performers of his and any other era. It was not, however, until the 1970s and 1980s that his name was taken out of the deep freeze in his own homeland. At the behest of his son, the well-known actor Feodor Chaliapin, Jr., the singer’s remains were moved from France to Leningrad in 1984. His status as a People’s Artist of the Soviet Union was reinstated only in 1991.
Chaliapin is famed for being one of the great bass singers of all time, although he also sang baritone parts and even tenor at times. He was a multitalented individual, showing remarkable abilities in sculpture, painting and drawing.
The Chaliapin star at approximately 6792 Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles was unveiled February 8, 1960. He is enshrined as a recording artist.