He himself traveled to Monte Carlo before each premiere to always order the shoes of the characters he would play from the same shoemaker. Whether they were the boots of Tsar Boris Godunov or the slippers with silver buckles of Don Basilio, the central character of The Barber of Seville. The producers were used to it, it was one of the many oddities of that unpredictable and colossal personality of Fyodor Ivánovich Chalyapin.
Shoes were not just any detail in Chaliapin’s life, as a boy he had dreamed of being a shoemaker. He helped his grandfather in a sewing workshop for old shoes. Growing up, he would remember that fixing shoes was his “Ingres violin”. He maintained that vocation as a cobbler throughout his life. When he went on tour, to calm his nerves, he brought all the belongings of a shoemaker, and he entertained himself making slippers for his castmates.
He was born in Tatarstan on February 13, 1873. His childhood had not been happy, deprivation and the need to work from a very young age left an indelible mark on him.
Chance helped twist his destiny forever. A wealthy woman in whose house little Fyodor helped with the housework, seeing that the boy listened with fascination to her playing the piano and, on the sly, trying scales on the keyboard, gave him a number in the raffle for a piano organized by the company owned by her husband. Fedia – as they called him in her house – was the winner.
He was desperate to go learn with a teacher, but his father, absorbed by other concerns, put a mattress on top of the instrument, transforming it into a bed and gaining a little more space in that narrow house. Soon they had to sell the piano. But Chaliapin already knew that music had become his life’s obsession.
Chaliapin tells in his Memoirs that his passion for the theater was born when he saw the clowns perform in his town square, causing laughter among the boys of his age. He saw them as supernatural beings capable of magnetizing crowds. In that same square, on an improvised stage, every weekend that 13-year-old boy would climb with imperial majesty to sing with an incipient bass voice some popular opera sections of the time. A court musician heard him by chance, and incorporated him into the company that year after year offered its shows to the Tsar of all the Russias. Since then he knew the closeness of royalty.
He was already an admired singer when, after a show, Duke Serge Micailovich brought Chaliapin after a performance a Murano glass, on a silver tray, filled with champagne. The Tsar toasted him from a distance. After drinking the cup, he said: “I beg Your Highness to inform the emperor that, as a memory of this event, I will keep the cup.” The duke left with an empty tray.
Some time later, at a party, the tsarina said to Chaliapin, with a smile: “You have ruined for me a dozen precious Murano glasses that made me proud.” The singer responded promptly: “It is easy to put the dozen back together. Give me Your Highness the other eleven”.
the damaged ego
When the communist revolution triumphed, this close relationship with the tsar did not favor him very much. He was accused of effeminating the hearts of the revolutionaries. He left the country to begin his adventures in the main theaters of the world, where he met the most resounding of successes. But there is an episode where his ego was severely damaged. It was when he met another great of the opera scene, Arturo Toscanini.
The most famous singer in Russia was at the peak of his glory when he had to work with the Italian maestro. La Scala in Milan had hired him to sing Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.
He showed up to the first rehearsal as if he were God descending on Earth. Toscanini listened to him for ten minutes and then told him coldly: “You don’t sing Boris. Sing something that you have imagined is Boris”. The imposing bass turned livid. I would not have tolerated such an affront even coming from the tsar of all the Russias.
The divo contained his murderous desires in front of that short, insignificant man, who faced him immutable. Chaliapin retired from La Scala. He wanted to leave Italy, promote a diplomatic incident, demand an apology. Toscanini remained undaunted: “If Boris Godunov wants to sing at La Scala, he has to relearn it.”