3. The Conservatory
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Leonid Sobinov as Lensky.
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.'
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."
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 ... .]
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.”