#14 Feodor Chaliapin
In this episode we look at the epic – and we mean epic – story of Russian bass singer Feodor Chaliapin. The singer’s relationship with Fred spanned decades, continents, wars and revolutions. It is a tale about music but it is also a tale about the extraordinary power of friendship. And spats. It’s a story about spats. And potatoes. And backstage punch-ups. This episode really does have it all.
Chaliapin was a big beast of a man with one of the deepest and most expressive voices you can imagine. He was born in the same year as Fred, 1873, but on the other side of the world, in Kazan in Russia, and into poverty. He took to singing as a youngster and, shortly after his 20thbirthday, was performing at the Imperial Opera in St Petersburg. Fred first heard him in 1900 when he was in the city scouting for talent. He immediately made moves to record this “enormous young bass” singer, but Chaliapin would not respond to his overtures. Again and again Fred tried but, despite becoming friends, it wasn’t until 1910 that they signed a contract (with steep terms dictated by the Russian).
The recordings were tricky. The thin-skinned Chaliapin would only record at certain times of the day and was partial to raucous vodka-fuelled parties, which one imagines Fred only mildly resisted. A strong bond was formed. Chaliapin sung in front of the British royal family in London but not before the burly bass got involved in a backstage fist fight. He was on the cusp of global fame and untold riches when the First World War broke out. Back in Russia with his family, Chaliapin was thrust back into poverty. He was paid in potatoes and lived in rags. It took a daring and covert mission by Fred to get him out of Russia (with the help of author H.G. Wells) and smuggle him back to England. Here, Chaliapin indulged in his love for fine tailoring and shoes and, of course, singing. Sell-out crowds treated this great, bruised singer as something of a hero. He and Fred went to America (eventful, inevitably) and stayed close until Chaliapin’s death in Paris in 1938. This story has to be heard to be believed. We are joined in this episode once again by Michael Volpe.
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