The great Russian/Soviet tenor Sergei Lemeshev is well known in the West as "Lensky" from the main Soviet recording of Eugene Onegin (1955, with G. Vishnevskaya, E. Belov, conductor B. Khaikin). Meanwhile, for Russians, Lemeshev is much more than an operatic tenor; he is considered one of the greatest singers in Russian history, a truly national voice, like Feodor Chalyapin was for pre-revolutionary Russia.

Thirty years after Lemeshev’s death he is still loved and admired; his name gradually became a common symbol of vocal excellence—"to sing like Lemeshev" is what people say when they hear a beautiful, freely flowing voice.

On this site, a reader can (1) discover how Lemeshev, who was born to a very poor peasant family, made his impressive career at the Bolshoi, (2) learn what it was that made him the greatest star for millions of Soviet people, and (3) find out what it was like to be a famous tenor in the USSR. Also, one can read about his beliefs, his personal life and his huge army of fans.

The main part of the material comes from Lemeshev’s memoirs Put k iskusstvu (The Way to Art (1968), as well as from his articles. Initially, this site was to have been an attempt to translate several chapters from his book. However, I later chose to add many different facts and anecdotes, along with the personal reminiscences of many people who knew Lemeshev or worked with him: singers, conductors, and fans alike. I hope the result will be informative for everyone interested in the Soviet period of the Bolshoi theater.


I would like to thank Professor Edmund St. Austell, the author of the blog Great Opera Singers, for his invaluable help in translating Lemeshev’s biography to English. His profound knowledge of vocal technique and operatic styles was an inspiration to me .

I would also like to thank the many opera lovers whose interest in the history of the Bolshoi Theater encouraged me to work on this project.

Natalia Bukanova

вторник, 3 апреля 2012 г.

3. The Conservatory  

The commanders of the Cavalry School agreed to assign Sergei to study in Moscow after  a request for the transfer was received from the Tver  Music school. The request is an interesting document, which was published in Ye. Grosheva's 1987 compilation of articles on Lemeshev: 
"To The Military Commissar of The Tver Cavalry School 
The Provincial Department of Arts brings to your attention the fact that the cadet in the group you are in charge of, comrade Sergei Lemeshev, studying at  the 1st State Music School, is gifted with a fine (tenor) voice and with musicality. He is a decidedly valuable asset, and for that reason the Department of Arts asks you to render assistance to him; that is, to give him an opportunity to develop his natural gift so that he may, in the future,  pursue a career both on the concert stage and in opera.  
 K. Pavlov, Head of the Department of Arts 
V. Sokolova Head of the Musical Section of the Department.” 
( The original document is kept in the Central Archives of the Soviet Army.)  
In July of 1921 Lemeshev arrived in Moscow, and from the train station he went directly to the Conservatory. Its office was crowded with young people. “In my opinion, there were too many of them. I was staggered to learn that more than 500 people had applied for the 25 vacancies listed by the vocal faculty. The competition would take place a month later! I nearly became completely discouraged, but some apparently experienced comrade advised me to try my luck at the Philharmonic society, just in case ... . So I applied there too.” 

 Moscow Conservatory in the 1920's.

Upon leaving the Cavalry School, Lemeshev lost his army salary—50 rubles per month (which he most likely had been sending to his family) and also lost his lodging place and his meals. He had to live somewhere for a whole month before the examinations, and so he went back to Tver. Whether or not he had told his mother about his determination to enter the Conservatory is unknown. It is obvious, though, that his plans for becoming a singer had distressed his family, and for some reason he didn’t return to Knyazevo, where he could have spent that month more comfortably. The living conditions in Tver  were miserable: “Someone let me stay in the corner of the food shop, near the hairdresser’s, where I was pestered by rats. Before going to sleep I would accumulate an arsenal of stones and chopped firewood. As soon as the rats started their revelry, I would throw a stone or a piece of firewood at them and could then rest for half an hour.”

It was at about this time that he got his first job on the stage of a professional theater. K. Pavlov, head of the Department of Arts, advised  N. Mosolov, director of the Tver Dramatic Theater, to hire Lemeshev as an extra. The theater was rehearsing a popular play, “The great Communard,” for the next season. “Another extra and I played guards, who transported the main hero to the courtroom and stood at the door until the end of the trial ... . Mosolov and everyone else in the theater treated me very well, and I tried very hard to do my best at that very simple job.
Nevertheless, my first theatrical experience ended tragicomically ... . I had been transporting the Communard to the court for five days already and apparently felt as though I was a real expert at it. I grew careless! On the last day I got carried away by the conversation I had become involved in before going on stage; I shook out the last tobacco from my pocket, rolled up a cigarette and lit up (I did not know then that smoking was dangerous for singers; I quit it as soon as I entered the Conservatory.) At that moment I was called on stage. Perplexed, I held the cigarette in my hand and went on, not noticing that smoke was coming out of my sleeve. But the director did notice and yelled: 'Sentry, drop the cigarette!'  I became rooted to the spot and didn’t react to his order. He yelled the same order once more – I didn't move. Then, being beside himself with anger, the director bellowed: 'Out of the theater, you, rascal!' Only then was I able to move and I rushed headlong from the stage. I quickly changed my clothes and ran to my shop…there was no going back now. However, I did not have to grieve for too long ... .  I went to the Department of Arts  again, and they found me another job. This time I was appointed a “Traveling Instructor For Places of  Entertainment.”  The prospect of not only getting rations, but also of watching shows, films and concerts—for free—opened up for me. I used those opportunities very meticulously, and limited my new position to doing only those things. Who could I instruct, really, when I didn't know anything myself?!” 

 During the period of Military Communism, the job meant that Lemeshev had the right to check and verify that shows, concerts and films were ideologically appropriate, and to instruct theater managers and directors in case of oversights or mistakes. But, to judge by the preceding  excerpt, theaters had few if any problems with an instructor like Sergei. 
The same comrade Pavlov introduced him to the local conductor, K. Vlasov, and Sergei sang exercises and prepared the Prince’s Cavatina  from Dargomyzhsky's The Mermaid, under Vlasov’s direction. 
In September, Lemeshev went back to Moscow. He was immediately accepted by the Philharmonic society, but was still eager to try himself at the Conservatory examinations. Though he was very happy to have this opportunity, it is evident from the biographical article published in 1946 that he had been nervous about possible failure. He consulted his teachers at the music school, and they assured him that he was ready for the exams. Though the Soviets promised education for everyone, some groups had advantages. Preferential access to higher education was given to Red Army soldiers, children of factory workers, and the poorest peasants. Lemeshev fell within this general category, and his teachers were quite certain that he would be accepted.  However, too many people of the same social background had applied to the Conservatory. Before the competition, as he wrote in one of his articles, he had become so nervous, that he “couldn’t stop trembling.” 
“I looked at the examiners," he wrote, "and circles floated before my eyes. At the big table, covered with the green cloth, sat M.N. Ippolitov-Ivanov, A.N. Labinsky, V.A. Zarudnaya, M.A. Deysha-Sionitskaya, N.Z. Salina, and L.Yu. Zvyagina. Many of these  glorified masters of the Russian operatic stage had been known to me from the Kvashnins’ stories and photos, and I had become accustomed to thinking about them with awe. But to sing before them! To invigorate myself, I decided to strike an “independent” posture: I planted my weight on one foot and placed another one forward, as a real artist would. But the leg that was placed forward trembled from fear and the “independent” posture  didn’t  turn out well.” 
In addition to that, Sergei looked younger than his 19 years, which made some examiners suspicious. “Raisky scrutinized me from head to foot and asked mistrustfully, 'How old are you, strictly speaking?' I tried to figure out what to do:  should I  tell the truth, or add a couple of years?  Which would be better? As I didn’t have time to think it out properly, I told the truth. After several arpeggios and scales, I started to sing the Prince’s Cavatina ... . Upon getting to the line 'Proshli bezvozvratno dni yunosti svetloi  ('The days of my radiant youth have passed irretrievably'), I didn’t take the high B natural. Raisky stopped the pianist and asked: 'Have you sung the wrong note accidentally, or learned it like that'? I didn’t reply. He offered me the opportunity to sing it again. I sang. 'Learned like that,' said Raisky, and after a small pause asked me to sing it once more. That time I decided to take a random note—would it be the right one? Missed again. They told me, 'That’s enough.' 'Failed,' I thought. I was too ashamed to look at the examiners, but one of them, an elderly lady (it was L. Yu. Zvyagina, as I later learned) took me by the hand as I walked dejectedly past the table and whispered, 'Don’t be upset, you did very well!'  I didn’t believe, however, that in the Conservatory they would speak up and say 'that’s enough' when they meant 'very well done' and I plodded toward the door. 


That same day Nikander Khanayev took the examination. The results were published three days later. I remember it clearly, as though it were now. When I came to the board where the lists were posted, I was afraid to look at them!  I was almost certain that my name was not only absent, but obviously couldn’t be there – after all,  I didn’t sing the B natural!  So I stood before the board, not looking at it. Finally, I plucked up my courage and looked; I saw “Khanayev” and a bit lower down I caught a glimpse of something familiar. I examined it; it was my last name. I read out the letters—yes, mine; I read it by syllables—yes, mine again. Strange. At that moment  Professor Raisky passed by, a tall, stout man with well-groomed beard and laughing  eyes. He recognized me, approached  me and said loudly, for the whole lobby to hear, 'Well then, you were nervous, but we’ve accepted you! Whose class  do you wish to attend?'  His cheerfulness won me over immediately, and I replied shyly: 'Yours, but it seemed to me there were no vacancies  in your class.'  'It’s all right; for you one can be found.' He walked away and left me alone with my happiness .' 

 Nazary Raisky.

It became clear with the first lesson that some students had heard Sergei’s performance during the competition, and that his voice had made a good impression. In general, he was well received in the class, though Professor Raisky didn’t let him become too proud of himself. “Nazary Grigor’yevich [Raisky] asked me to sing the Prince’s Cavatina and immediately pointed out some mistakes in vocal production. He called my performance “amateurish.” It turned out that I breathed improperly and forgot about breath support, along with other necessary things. From all that, I understood only one thing: to sing like I had done before was no good. So, the first lesson brought me bitter disappointment. I had thought that to study singing was easy and pleasant, but it turned out to be so complicated—almost impossible to master. At least that is what I thought, having been swamped by the erudition of my Professor, who had forgotten for a moment that I was just a peasant, not knowing much about breath support, the diaphragm  or vocal production. I didn’t want to give in, though. Besides, my other musical subjects— piano, solfège, and music history—were not difficult for me. 
Someone wrote that when I entered the Conservatory, I could sing only by ear. That’s wrong. At the Kvashnins’ I learned to read sheet music and could easily play my vocal line on the piano. I studied  under Professor Chesnokov [note: Pavel Chesnokov was an outstanding choirmaster and a composer of religious music] and Alexander Alexandrov, who later founded the famous Red Army Chorus.  Alexandrov taught harmony and passed me in his subject without exams, knowing my hardworking attitude during the lessons. I also took the general subjects required for those who did not have a complete college education. 
Times were difficult. The Civil war was still going on, but at the Conservatory there were many young peasants and factory workers who not only studied for free, but also received a scholarship. From the first day we were given wheat flour instead of bread. Three times a day I mixed batter and baking soda and made pancakes on the kerosene stove at the communal kitchen, much to the admiration of my neighbors, four middle-aged women (all teachers at the conservatory) who had taught me that simple recipe. 
Those flat-cakes, lightly coated with sunflower oil, were for a long time my only dish for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The military overcoat, which I had from the Cavalry School, was my only overcoat. Nevertheless, despite all the difficulties, I was in good spirits, enthusiastic and healthy.” 
Wheat flour was a luxury in comparison to bread, made mostly of chaff, which people in the cities got as the major part of their rations during the Civil War. The communal apartment which Sergei mentioned had been a part of the Conservatory campus.  In those years the Conservatory had serious problems with heating during the winter. It was so cold in the classrooms that teachers, who in addition to rations received firewood or coal, invited their students home. Many students  worked or served in the Red Army, trying to improve their situation. At some point, Lemeshev came to feel that flat-cakes three times a day were not enough, and he had to join the army again. He was assigned to the convoy guard. It is not known exactly when he was assigned to the guard or what his duties were, but judging from his workaholic attitude during his lessons, he seems not to have had very demanding tasks as a soldier. 
“I considered singing to be the most important profession... I didn’t walk but ran to the Conservatory and simply pitied those who could not sing ... . But for a long time, almost two years, the most important thing in my life—singing—was also a stumbling block.  It was my greatest difficulty;  I simply couldn’t understand how to sing properly! Either I would miss the breath and strain the throat muscles, or my tongue would get in the way, and the more I thought about it, the more difficult it was to deal with. It seemed to me that no sooner did I find something than it turned out to be wrong again.
In those days, voice students used to gather in empty classrooms and demonstrate their achievements to each other and share their 'artistic' experience. I have to admit that at those competitions I looked rather dull, although I didn’t miss an opportunity to sing something: either the Prince’s Cavatina or Nadir’s Romance. In so doing, I tried as hard as I could to forget everything I was taught in class, and tried to remember how I had sung before…During those ‘exchanges' everyone would give advice on technique and criticize the students of other professors while praising their own teachers, trotting out the names of all their pupils who had gone on to become famous singers  - so, it’s easy to imagine what a mess all that created in my poor mind, which had already been assailed by doubts! It was no accident that in voice classes students often ran from one professor to another.
I didn’t understand my teacher, nor could I learn from practice his method of vocal production.  Meanwhile, Nazary Grigor’yevich Raisky [note: 1876-1956 .Studied at the Warsaw Conservatory in G. Nuvelli’s class], was a highly educated musician and an excellent singer. In his prime he performed lyric-dramatic parts with Zimin’s company. I heard him in chamber concerts. Nazary Grigor’yevich loved to sing Bach arias, accompanied by organ, in the Conservatory's Great Hall. He was a fine interpreter of songs by Metner, Taneyev, Rachmaninov, Schuman , Wolf.  Although he did not have a particularly beautiful vocal timbre, he was  nevertheless famous for his great artistic culture, a profound sense of style, and excellent phrasing in any language. ( He sang all the pieces in their original language.) A friend of Taneyev’s, Raisky had a reputation as a great expert in vocal literature and he also had an uncommon ability to choose interesting but not overly performed repertoire for his students. Eventually, it had an effect on me too. By watching Raisky teaching other students, and by listening to his remarks on phrasing and declamation, or to his explanations of the meaning of one or another piece,  my musicianship began to improve.  Without realizing it, I accumulated knowledge and began to acquire a sense of taste. I suddenly grew from being a 'second-rate' student to a 'vocalist with  perspective.' 
During my first year of education I sang mainly exercises and vocalizes. Only at the end of that year did Raisky give me a song  by Rimsky-Korsakov, 'O yesli b ty mogla' ('If you just could') and Bayan’s Song from Ruslan and Lyudmila. For my end-of-year examination I sang Rymsky-Korsakov’s song 'Gornimi tikho letela dusha nebesami' ('The soul flew quietly through the heavenly heights') and Tamino’s aria (from The Magic Flute). I also sang Tamino's aria for my second year entrance exam. During my second year I sang both of Rimsky-Korsakov’s songs for the student concert held in the Conservatory's Small Hall. It was my first success in Moscow. I was well received by the audience and I believed then that I would become a singer.” 

 Sergei Lemeshev - the student of Moscow Conservatory.

As everyone who knew Lemeshev was aware, he was often, in his book, too strict with himself. This is also true of the way he described his singing during the Conservatory period.  Other people’s comments on the student Lemeshev also exist, and the most interesting of them is by Mikhail Teryan, a prominent violinist, conductor, and pianist who studied in the same group as Sergei.  “ The Conservatory classes and corridors were filled with an unruly crowd of  young girls in headscarves and young men wearing Red Army overcoats. I remember Sergei Lemeshev in such an overcoat; a young man with pale brown hair and blue eyes, modest as could be. But perhaps he first drew my attention because he was quiet and bashful, all of which made him stand out from his noisy fellow students. His appearance also attracted attention . And what a pleasant surprise it was when I saw this young man in one of the student concerts in the Small Hall, and heard his singing! The voice of young Lemeshev – he was less than 20 then – was so fine and tender, his performance so warm and soulful, that I have never forgotten him, and it was with great pleasure that I took part in the concerts in which he sang. 
Soon we met in the music theory classes, particularly in Alexandrov's class on harmony and solfége. There, not only Lemeshev’s musical talent revealed itself to me, but also his personal qualities. Despite his bashfulness, Sergei proved to be very nice company; sociable and possessing an inquiring mind. He even attended our class to listen to the quartet rehearsals. It turned out that he especially loved the sound of the viola. Its timbre reminded him of a human voice ... . We would meet  at “patronage” concerts at workers’ clubs and for Red Army units. [note: These were concerts for factory workers, soldiers and peasants that the Conservatory teachers and students gave as a part of the Bolshevik Enlightenment Program.] Usually the most talented students took part in those concerts, and I remember that I heard Sergei Lemeshev several times. He was particularly moving in Russian folk songs, perhaps because in those years not  many people [in the cities] sang them; or , rather, he sang them like no other. His voice was so expressive, with such piercing sadness when he sang sad songs, and such dashing boldness in merry ones, that it was unforgettable. I remember, though, that Lemeshev also sang Lensky’s aria, along with 'Song of The Indian Guest' and various romances, always captivating even the most inexperienced audience with his ingeniousness, devotion and a certain radiant spirituality in his performance.” 
Aside from the Conservatory, Lemeshev as a singer was greatly influenced by famous artists of the Bolshoi. From 1921 on, he frequently visited both theaters and concert halls. He was perhaps most impressed by Fyodor Chaliapin’s last concerts in 1921, just before the famous bass left Russia. Sergei’s account of those four concerts deserves a separate chapter. 
Despite the Civil War, the Bolshoi’s repertoire in the 1920’s was vast and complex: Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila; Rimsky-Korsakov's Snow Maiden, Tale of Tsar Saltan and The Tsar’s Bride; Borodin’s Prince Igor;  Dargomyzhsky's Mermaid; Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin and Queen of Spades; Wagner's Lohengrin and Verdi's Aida.  Smaller productions, such as Manon, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, La Traviata, Rigoletto, Boheme, Rubinstein's Daemon, and Napravnik's Dubrovsky all went into the so called "New Theater." Later, in 1924, the Bolshoi affiliate  moved to the building formerly occupied by Zimin’s company, which had been renamed "The Experimental Theater," or simply "The Affiliate." 
“The Conservatory students could go to the Bolshoi for free. We were given “complimentary” tickets once or twice a week. It is strange, but not all the voice students were eager to go to the opera.  There were enthusiasts, though, who tried not to miss a single opportunity to get to the theater. We formed a group of three: the dramatic tenor N. Khanayev; the basso-profundo S. Krasovsky and me, the lyric tenor. (Later, we  all were fortunate enough to sing at the Bolshoi.) Soon we became known to ushers in the upper gallery. Naturally, they were all well informed about theater life, had favorites among the artists. They were the most enthusiastic about Leonid Sobinov – and of course he was an idol of mine too. Khanayev was fascinated  by the brlliant artistry of the dramatic tenor Boris Yevlakhov, while the object of Krasovsky’s admiration was the outstanding bass Vasily Petrov. Soon I learned to go to the Bolshoi on my own, and I enjoyed the incomparable art of its singers. 
As for imitating them, I experienced that in all its futility. During those years I focused all my attention upon the man who was for me the ideal artist -  Leonid Vital’yevich Sobinov. As soon as the Bolshoi opened its season—the first season for me—I rushed to see Eugene Onegin. In the upper gallery, squeezed by the crowd of his fans, I intently studied his Lensky and tried not to miss a single gesture. I tried to remember his every intonation and note. I was astounded by his rare and what I would call natural simplicity; the artistry of his manners; his even, transparent and clear voice of vibrant, soulful timbre.  I of course started to imitate him and did it reasonably well.   

 Leonid Sobinov as Lensky.

After every night at the opera, I usually showed my friends how Sobinov had sung. I tried to copy his timbre, voice colors, pronunciation, and even his vocal production, all as precisely as I could. Apparently that helped me, at least to some extent, to find the correct method of breath control, among other things. I breathed better than usual when I imitated Sobinov. My friends were delighted with my “abilities,” but my enthusiasm reached a dangerous level in the third year. I had not been so naïve as to demonstrate my Sobinov-like singing to Raisky, but outside Raisky’s class, that was the only way I sang. So, I decided to perform Lensky’s arioso and Werther’s romance in the student concert. 
Leonid Vital’yevich had an original, distinctive manner of sound production:  sometimes he didn’t attack a note all at once, but gradually unfolded a note on the breath, as it were. That gave a special charm to his singing. To his, not mine! However, I didn’t think about it when I stood on the stage and looked at the audience, which I was about to amaze with my Sobinov-like timbre. The success was huge. Inspired by that, I ran down the stairs  to the hall, to hear praise from my friends. Luckily, the first person I met was Victor Ivanovich   Sadovnikov, an excellent and respected musician, conductor and singer, who was in charge of the ensemble class. He took me aside to a corner, and I was prepared to listen to glowing praise: 'You are very pleased with yourself and the success you’ve had - it’s written all over your face. But I must warn you that the value of your success is nothing. What you have done is a phony caricature of Sobinov. You took from him only his imperfections and exaggerated them. Meanwhile, you have good qualities of your own, which you must develop in order to be yourself in every situation. Remember, only in this way can you achieve success.'
Victor Ivanovich explained to me, in a friendly way and at some length, that one should never copy anybody. 'One should learn from great artists,' he said, but to learn doesn’t mean to imitate.' I fell from heaven to the ground and didn’t even want to appear in the hall anymore. I walked slowly home, thinking about what had happened. I am still grateful to Sadovnikov for the bitter truth, and for his frank and stern criticism, which saved me from delusions. I didn’t imitate Sobinov after that, though I never ceased to admire his art ... . The most important thing in a performer's art is the moment of inspiration, that moment of genuine feeling which must bring life into the character and move the audience with emotion – that’s why  imitation is impossible. Every single moment of life is unique, as it is in art when it reflects real life. A true artist, performing the same aria on stage for the hundredth time, always expresses feelings that appear on that day, at that particular moment, and not yesterday or a week ago. Culture, intellect, knowledge and experience can help you move faster and more easily into a given set of circumstances from which the feeling is born, but the genuine feeling itself cannot be recreated without living through the character’s sufferings and joys.. Of course, I learned all this much later. 
The conversation with Sadovnikov started a new period in my professional development.  I began to place more trust in Raisky’s  lessons, and I developed a new enthusiasm: musical expressiveness. Nazary Grigor’yevich was a great master of this and gave unsparingly of his time for us: he strictly controlled our phrasing, and patiently helped us to develop softness, the spinning out of crescendos,  as well as other nuances. He loved to give us difficult repertoire, within which our skills and artistic sense could grow; he spent a lot of time refining our taste for ensemble performance. In class we always sang duets, trios, and quartets. However, he often overrated our abilities. 
Wishing to further develop our artistry, Raisky paid considerably less attention to voice training and to vocal technique. As a result, we all began to feel like “artists” and dreamed about the stage, not realizing that in a technical sense we were still raw. At that time the words of Sadovnikov made me look at myself from an outsider’s viewpoint and understand that my musicianship was developing independent of my technical abilities. My voice grew neither in range nor in power. Raisky just thought that these were the limits of my abilities and that there were not many parts for me in opera, mostly just supporting ones. In Rigoletto he promised me only Borsa, while I had been dreaming about the role of the Duke; in “Dubrovsky” only Grisha, though I had recently admired Sobinov in the leading role. “Well,  I said to myself,  in that case, I had better go back to my village; I had not aspired to study in Moscow for that.” 
Sergei’s need for money only made the situation worse, because during those years in the Conservatory he could not help his family. Like many other students, he tried to earn money in concerts , but “patronage” concerts were not for profit. His army wages were not enough even for himself.  Several times a group of students tried to organize commercial concerts in the provinces, but their attempts were unsuccessful. 
In his second year, Lemeshev auditioned for Zimin’s private company. Founded by the great manager and theater lover Sergei Zimin ( Raisky’s father-in-law), it was the only private opera and ballet theater which could compete with the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky. Zimin’s theater was closed after the Revolution and opened again in 1922. In 1924 it was closed forever; its building became the Bolshoi Affiliate and the former owner worked there as a staff member for the rest of his life.  In 1923, however, Lemeshev had been hired and successfully sang Hadji (Lakme) and Sinodal (Daemon) in Zimin’s summer theater. After that, he was persuaded to sing young Faust. Judging from his book, he only developed a high C two years later. Perhaps he had been permitted to use his extraordinary falsetto in Faust’s Cavatina. Also, Zimin’s theater was famous as a place where young singers could study and test themselves on the stage. (Before the Revolution it had opera and ballet schools which brought up new artists for the company.) But Lemeshev’s debut as Faust was a failure. On that day another tenor, who sang the elderly Faust, became sick. “An agitated director suddenly ran into my dressing room, ‘Put on the beard! The beard! Quick!!’  It turned out that I had to sing both parts. I did not have the nerve to refuse. It seemed to me that the older Faust should be sung very loud. After the first few scenes, I had forced the sound and was exhausted. 'We have to say goodbye to you,'  the manager said sternly.”
  The easiest way to earn money was singing in pubs and restaurants. (A large number of them had begun to appear in Moscow with the beginning of the New Economic Policy), but that meant  losing both the voice and the reputation. Returning to his village on summer vacation, Sergei had to listen to the reproaches of his mother and her friends. Their attitude towards artists had not changed. “What bad move that son of yours  made, Akulina! Became an artist! Don’t you know that those people have no morals! They don’t believe in God, don’t respect their parents. He’ll forget about you; don’t expect any help from him when you’re old!” My mother was quiet and modest, always ready to respond to someone’s request;  she believed everything they told her ... . She was never carefree or calm ... .  She thought that the poor don’t have a right to sing; that it was a privilege of  rich and happy people. That’s why she was so upset, so utterly destroyed by my studying in the Conservatory.” 
  Both the vocal problems and the money problems had to be solved as soon as possible. “Feelings of protest grew into an awareness of the need to find a solution: I remembered Khanayev. He studied in L. Zvyagina’s class and was very pleased with his teacher’s work on his vocal technique and his sound production. All her students were technically very advanced ... . That was what I lacked. In Raisky’s class I learned to understand music and was eager to transmit my feelings to the audience, but my voice didn’t do what I wanted it to do. I decided to attend Zvyagina’s class.  It turned out not to be an easy thing to do. I felt deep respect for Raisky; besides, he was so kind and friendly to me. Words just stuck in my throat. Finally, one day I met Raisky in the corridor, and not giving myself time to rethink what I was saying, I blurted out my decision to leave his class. 'Well,'  he said dryly, 'I’m not going to hold anyone by force.' 

 Lidia Zvyagina.


After summer vacation, I began to study in Zvyagina’s class. [note:  Lidia Zvyagina (1861-1943)  was a famous contralto, a leading singer of the Bolshoi from 1889-1909; she had graduated St. Petersburg Conservatory. Among her teachers were Camillo Everardi and Polina Viardo]. With vocalizes and exercises, she quickly cured me of muscular tension; my voice began to develop in range and in power. She didn’t let me sing difficult pieces, and avoided the high register beyond G natural. She also smoothed out the notes of the passaggio. For the Winter Session exams, I sang “The Backstage Song” from Arensky's Raphael, and Glinka’s song 'To Molly.' But for the Fourth Term Spring entrance examination, I fairly easily sang Vladimir Igorevich's cavatina from Prince Igor and was praised by the examiners. What was interesting, however, was that as soon as I achieved more technical freedom I felt as if I had nothing more to do in Zvyagina’s class. There was no real creative discipline there, but what in my opinion was even more important, was that there was no attention to expressiveness or to the choice of repertoire. Infected by artistic aspirations in Raisky’s class, I was bored. After the examination in which I sang the cavatina, Raisky himself approached me and praised me very much. Then I became bold enough to ask him to take me back. 'I’ll take you back with pleasure,' he replied." 

In 1924 Lemeshev met I.N. Sokolov, a pianist and conductor at the Conservatory who, along with his family, was able to give the young singer significant support. “Ivan Nikolayevich Sokolov – a fine musician, a pupil of Taneyev’s, was my piano teacher and he also lead the senior opera class, which I was not ready for at that time. Once, during my piano lesson, he said, “ I heard that you were a good singer. I was confused. He then asked me to sing something, a request I willingly complied with. While Ivan Nikolayevich did not say anything specifically encouraging, he did invite me to his home that Wednesday.  That was the day musicians gathered at the Sokolovs'. On my first Wednesday I met Heinrich Gustavovich Neighaus , who was in top form that evening and played a lot. I sang a lot too ... . I might possibly have created the impression of a person who should be helped. 
Anna Petrovna Kiselevskaya, Sokovov's wife, showed great interest in me. She was an excellent singer and studied, along with Nezhdanova, in Umberto Masetti’s class.  She also sang at the Bolshoi ... . Later, she performed in Ukraine. At the time I met the Sokolovs, she had already left the stage and was dedicating herself to her family. She often sang at home, though, winning over the audience with her skills and enthusiasm. She gave me a lot of practical advice, while Ivan Nikolayevich helped me work on my repertoire . ... 
My first concerts belong approximately to that period. There were few of them. Students usually took part in the Conservatory evening, or “patronage” concerts, but those who were more courageous dared to organize concerts on their own. It was not too difficult, however, if you could manage to get a hall. I started to think about it in the Winter of 1924, not so much from courageousness as from necessity. I had been to my village during summer vacations. My mother still lived in the small, old log cabin which my father had built. The cabin was so low to the ground that even as a 9-year-old child I could easily toss fishing rods onto the roof and take them down again when I went fishing. The cabin was rapidly getting decrepit, even though there was a lot of timber around, in addition to my mother’s share of free logs that she received after the nationalization of the forest. If I could somehow manage to get 150 rubles, a new log cabin could be built! Then it came to me: “What if I give a concert?' I had already prepared  the repertoire; to Russian folksongs and operatic arias I added songs by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, and Cui. A friend of mine helped me get a hall at the Moscow Theatrical Institute almost for free…, and friends also helped sell tickets. I chose a partner for the concert, A.M. Timoshayeva. Upon arriving at the concert hall that evening, I found another pretty girl backstage, a ballerina – it was young  E. Il’yushenko, who had already danced at the Bolshoi.” [note: For some reason, from the 1920’s until the first half of the 1930’s,  solo concerts were forbidden. Every performer had to find partners. It may have had something to do with “collective spirit” and the war against the star system].
 “My enterprise turned out to be so successful that my spirits went up considerably. With the 175 rubles that I got from the concert, we built  a new three-window cabin on the lot that we had received after the Revolution.  My mother and my younger brother lived there until 1932.
I was happy and proud that I had been able to establish the dignity of the artist in the minds of the local peasants.  And there you have it. Not only did I myself not perish, but also managed to earn  big money. This fact greatly enhanced my prestige among the villagers. 
My next concert also took place in 1924, in the hall on Gherzen street. This time I was not guided by material interests but by the call of my soul.  I wanted to sing! I.N. Sokolov offered his help in preparing the concert ... . I remember that I had particular success with a short piece by Cui, which turned out so well that the audience called for encores. Delighted, Ivan Nikolayevich said, 'Now you see, Sergei, what it is like to do a real job!' 

In his book, Lemeshev expressed special gratitude to the Sokolov family, which now embraced him as a member. At one point, they invited him to live with them, and later their daughter Natalia, who was also a talented singer, became Sergei’s first wife.  
Like other students, Lemeshev combined his conservatory studies with attempts to start working in the theater . From the end of 1924 on, he studied in the opera class and learned his first part; Vodaemont, from Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. He learned the role under the guidance of Professor Sokolov, who also worked as a conductor at Stanislavsky’s Opera Studio, where Sergei was accepted  early in 1925. 

 Sergei Lemeshev as Vodaemont. 1924.

“In addition to the role of Vodaemont, which I sang well enough in the Spring, I started to work at the Studio on Lensky and Lykov [the latter from The Tsar’s Bride.] That led to increased vocal stress and became very difficult for me. I clearly realized the shortcomings of my vocal technique and became upset again.  About that time I met Nadezhda Grigor’yevna Kardyan [a voice teacher at Stanislavsky’s  Studio.]  A graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, a superb singer and profound musician, she did not perform in the theater because of unbearable stage fright; rather, she devoted herself to teaching. She was in her 30’s at that time.  When I came to Kardyan , she said that she had been watching me for a long time and thought that I was moving in a slightly wrong direction. It was necessary to work on vocal production and a sustained melodic line, or 'cantilena.' Studying with Kardyan, I started to make so much progress that three months later she offered me the chance to sing Faust’s cavatina, "Salut, demeure..." I gasped, but she insisted.  In fact, I sang the cavatina without effort and easily took the high C. I was so happy I ran home rather than walking. I was too eager to enjoy singing high C’s.  I enjoyed it until I sang myself hoarse and had to remain silent for two weeks. That did not bother me much, though, because I had managed to develop a high C. I advanced a lot, learning more and more difficult pieces, including excerpts from such parts as Gerald, from Lakme, and the Duke of Mantua, [from Rigoletto ... .]   
Looking back and recalling the days of my youth now, I realize with special poignancy how much others gave me. They did it absolutely disinterestedly, simply following their human impulse to share their cordiality and warmth. Though some of them, such as Nazary Grigor’yevich Raisky, Ivan Nikolayevich, Anna Petrovna Sokolov, and Nadezhda Grigor’yevna Kardyan, are now gone, they will always live in my memory”.

 Photo signed by Nazary Raisky:" To young Vodaemont Sergei Lemeshev from old Vodaemont and a teacher."

Lemeshev’s decision to go to Stanislavsky’s Studio was influenced by endless discussions at the Sokolov’s. Also, he often met with singers of the Studio, including Nikolai Pechkovsky—a famous dramatic tenor and one of Stanislavsky's favorite pupils. Pechkovsky’s words, 'If you have a voice, you should apply only to our theater and nowhere else!" finally inspired Sergei. Besides, it was the only theater where young singers could continue to study. “Many fellow students secretly slipped away from their teachers and ran to auditions and competitions, hoping to begin work on the stage ... .I started to dream about theater too, knowing that vocally I wouldn’t get anything more from the Conservatory.  I understood, though, that I was not ready for professional work in the theater yet. The only part I had learned was Vodaemont, which I never sang again. And so, Pechkovsky’s enthusiasm lead me to audition for Stanislavsky’s Studio.” 
He auditioned for A.V.Bogdanovich and E.I. Zbruyeva, two famous Bolshoi singers who also worked as teachers at the Studio, as well as for Stanislavsky’s relatives Zinaida Sokolova and V.S. Alexeyev, who were assistant directors there. While working at the Studio, Sergei remained a Conservatory student until Stanislavsky came back from the USA. Lessons from the great director were so important, and took so much time and energy, that Lemeshev left the Conservatory and did not even take the graduation exams.

S. Lemeshev “Put k iskusstvu” 1968

E. Grosheva “S. Ya . Lemeshev” 1987.

V. Vasil’yev. “S. Lemeshev. Vospominan’ya, fotografyi< dokumenty.” 1999.

Copyright © 2012 by Natalia A.  Bukanova.  No part of this blog may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the author.

5 комментариев:

  1. Анонимный13 мая 2012 г., 11:25

    Dear Natalia,

    thank you so much for this marvellous piece of information you gathered here about Sergei Lemeshev, an absolute inspiration to me.

    Look forward to reading more things on your Blog. Best wishes.

  2. Этот комментарий был удален автором.

  3. Thanks for such an informative article and the extensive explanation, it's been very useful. Thank you, More Power and *GOD BLESS*