Fyodor Shalyapin in Kazan: the 20 kopeks that decided the fate

The great singer’s birthday was yesterday

Fyodor Shalyapin in Kazan: the 20 kopeks that decided the fate Photo: Maksim Platonov

Our great compatriot Fyodor Shalyapin was 146 years old on 13 February. A memorial service for the ''servant of God Fyodor'' was held in the morning in the Epiphany Cathedral where he was baptised, then flowers were laid to his monument, while Boris Godunov was traditionally performed at a festival named after him in the evening. In this opera, Shalyapin performed one of his best roles. Realnoe Vremya recalls some of the Kazan episodes in the singer's life.

He was written down as Shlyapkin

Fyodor Shalyapin was born weak, nobody then could presuppose he could grow into such Hercules. ''He's a goner,'' his relatives were whispering. And to impede the baby from dying not being baptised overnight, it was decided to baptise him as soon as possible. The Epiphany Cathedral, which was nearby, was chosen for the rite.

The February day turned out freezing cold, and it was chilly in the big cathedral, in addition, the baby was feeblish, this is why everyone was in a hurry. The last name was written down wrong in the church book in a rush – so Shalyapin was written down as ''infant Fyodor Shlyapkin''. But after the child was baptised, he turned the corner. But the mistake in the record remained.

Shalyapin wrote that he remembered himself from the age of 5. Long autumn evenings when he laid on top of the Russian oven in his parents' acquaintance's house – miller Tikhon Karpych – were etched on his childhood memory. This house is located in Ometyevo, which Shalyapin used to call Ometovo, specifying that this place was located ''outside Kazan, behind Sukonnaya Sloboda''.

He is lying and listening to chillers of women spinning wool into yarn, the room is illuminated only by a torch, funny shadows are running on the walls. His mother is among these women. Not to get bored while working, the spinners are entertaining each other with chillers, then start singing sad and mournful songs. This is how the singer-to-be obviously first acquainted with folk songs.

Record in the Kazan Epiphany Cathedral's parish register about F. Shalyapin's birth, 1873. Photo: archive.gov.tatarstan.ru

''Fat grandfather''

The first acquaintance with acting happened in Kazan. More precisely, it wasn't a theatre but a show. Shalyapin doesn't remember exactly when it was – at Christmas or Eastertime. A buffoon famous across Volga region arrived in Kazan – Yashka Mamonov, it's an old man already who had quite a rude sense of humour but could draw a spectator's attention with his jokes. Sometimes a rag doll was Yashka's requisites who was also called ''fat grandfather''.

The young boy could spend hours observing the game of the ''fat grandfather'', he seemed to him an unusual person ''whom all people, even the police and the very prosecutor were afraid of''. Later Mr Shalyapin remembered that ''artists seemed to me people with an inexhaustible amount of joy''. And he noted that it's highly likely it was Yashka Mamonov who sparked his interest in acting.

When the show ended, and it was during the Great Fast, these days with no chance to go to shows were sad for the young fan of the ''fat grandfather''. By the way, Shalyapin found out that before performing in the show, Mamonov was a shoemaker and then ''went up from the underground to the show''.

The building of primary college F. Shalyapin studied in. Photo: archive.gov.tatarstan.ru

''Bird-like song''

The first singing experience was also gained in childhood. A merry blacksmith with a good voice was a neighbour of the Shalyapins on Sennaya Street (today Moscow Street). He often started singing while in the yard. And Shalyapin's mother began to sing along to him sitting by the window and sewing. Fyodor liked this duet and tried to sing along adding his voice.

''Shoot, Fedya, shoot! Sing, and you will feel good. A song is like a bird, let it go, and it will fly,'' the blacksmith encouraged.

Once young Fedya entered the church and heard a choir of adults and boys – almost of the same age – sing in the choir place. The boys were singing notes with sheets of paper in their hands. ''I've heard a choir singing for the first time, and I liked it very much,'' Shalyapin recalled later. He wanted to be among these boys, sing like them.

When the family moved again and turned out in Sukonnaya Sloboda, chorister by the name of Scherbinin became their neighbour. Fyodor heard him warming up. And once, having plucked up the courage, he approached the neighbour and asked to become his pupil. The chorister wasn't surprised and examined the boy making sure he had good hearing and a voice.

The chorister took a sheet of paper, wrote down the scale on it and explained what sharp, flat notes and keys meant and said to learn this all. Fyodor learnt everything quickly and was handing out sheet music by notes to church choir singers several days later. He was soon offered a stipend – 1,5 rubles a month.

F. Shalyapin's concert poster in Kazan, 1918. Photo: archive.gov.tatarstan.ru

Ticket for 20 kopeks

Shalyapin saw a theatre play for the first time also in Kazan. A young boy by the name of Pankratyev was singing with him in the church choir. Once he asked the future singer if he wanted to go with him to the theatre, he had an extra ticket for 20 kopeks. ''I knew that a theatre was a big stone building with semi-circular windows,'' Shalyapin recalled.

It was a midday play called Russian Wedding. It should be noted that Shalyapin went to watch it without much enthusiasm. He knew everything about Russian weddings, another thing was if the wedding were, for example, French… Nevertheless, he was in place on time – in the gods, the theatre was full.

He looked down, and the hall seemed to him a huge well. The hall was illuminated by gas lamps, and the singer noted that their smell became one of the most pleasant smells in his life – it was the smell of the Theatre. Matchmaker Medvedev's company famous across Russia was performing on that day.

The curtain went up, the stage opened, so beautiful people in beautiful costumes were walking on it. Shalyapin was so amazed at this spectacle that didn't even understand what they were talking about, the heart was full of amazement. He was shocked by what was happening on the stage and considered it a miracle. ''I understood that theatre is much more interesting that Yashka Mamonov's show,'' he writes in his memories. On that day, after leaving the theatre, he went back and bought a ticket to an evening performance. It was Médée.

''Theatre drove me crazy, it made me almost insane,'' the singer admitted. That day in the Kazan theatre decided his life forever.

By Tatiana Mamayeva
Tatarstan