5 Provincial theaters: Sverdlovsk, Harbin, Tbilisi.
Lemeshev's first season began in September, 1926. In those years, the Opera Theater of Sverdlovsk (the newly renamed city of Yekaterinburg) was one of the most important provincial companies and a cultural center of the Urals region. It owed its high status mainly to its Chief Manager Boris Samoilovich Arkanov, who kept the company on a firm financial basis, in spite of the complicated economic situation in the country.
The director Nikolai Bogolyubov, who worked in many opera theaters throughout the country, and had many examples by which to make comparisons, described the Sverdlovsk company, in his memoirs, as outstanding: “It’s hard not to marvel at the personality of the theater’s Chief Manager Arkanov. A former dentist or a pharmaceutical chemist, he mastered opera management in much the same way an outstanding organist commands his huge instrument. Not having subsidies, and working in the fast developing but cold and bleak Sverdlovsk, he created an excellent company… Although opera theaters didn’t get grants or subsidies from the state then, Arkanov nevertheless implemented his wonderful system of workers’ seasonal tickets … He gathered a strong company and created several productions of new operas which had not been performed in Sverdlovsk before. Even with all that, he made the company work with a budget of 60,000 rubles per month, with relatively low ticket prices (90 kopecks per ticket) and without any deficit. Before every season, all the workers’ seasonal tickets were sold…And he never disappointed their owners. Income from advance bookings went into the bank, and the manager carefully spent it during the season.
Sverdlovsk opera theater. Modern view.
The most important thing for Lemeshev was that the manager provided singers with regular salaries and decent living conditions. From that season on, Sergei began to send money every month to his family.
The company had many talented and experienced singers. From some of them Lemeshev learnt a lot. “On the theater stage I met Grigory Stepanovich Pirogov (the eldest of the famous singing family), who possessed a powerful bass voice, impeccable skills and major acting talent. That year he celebrated the 20th anniversary of his career. [Before Sverdlovsk he had sung with the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg and also with the Bolshoi.]
D. Agranovsky and V. Sabinin stood out among tenors. Agranovsky was a fine dramatic tenor, whereas Sabinin had great success in both lyric and dramatic parts like Lensky, José, Almaviva and Hoffmann. Young Ye. Slivinskaya , who later was transferred to the Bolshoi, had an excellent dramatic soprano voice of beautiful and rich timbre. Among the company’s artists, I can’t forget the baritone V. Ukhov and the very talented and original actress Fatima Mukhtarova. Conductors L. Steinberg (who also later moved to the Bolshoi) and I. Palitsyn prepared the orchestra very well. Chief director N. Bogolyubov, in spite of the fact that those were times of wild experiments, did not indulge in excessive innovations, and he gave the artists every opportunity to sing. In the theater’s repertoire there were such productions as Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina (Mussorgsky), Sadko (Rimsky-Korsakov), and Die Walkure (Wagner).
Photo taken in Sverdlovsk.
Very soon Sergei also got the role of Almaviva. Sometimes the speed at which he had to learn his roles became frantic. “They gave me 12 days to prepare the part, and I learned it just in time, although I had only 8 hours of lessons with the coach. At 9:00 in the morning I was already at the class and learned the part by myself in an hour and a half. After lunch I spent two more hours at the piano. I met with the conductor only 2 or 3 times before the performance; however, I learned the parts solidly and didn’t have to go back to any basic work on them…
Pirogov's recordings: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0e4L2ZV-T0
Lemeshev : “My perceptive capacities and memory developed quickly. After the first successful performances, the attentiveness with which they treated me in the theater inspired boldness in me (not to say self-assuredness). I quickly learned everything and often prepared two parts at the same time. I sang shows, as they say, straight away, sometimes making myself familiar with the role while on stage. In many respects, Sabinin was conducive to it, as he often fell ill and willingly offered me opportunities to replace him in lyric parts, which he didn’t like in general. So, the time had come for me to replace him in La Traviata.
Knowing that sooner or later I would sing Alfredo, I had started to learn it, but didn’t have time to learn it to the end. La Traviata had been performed only three times when Sabinin got sick, and in the morning they sent a courier to me with a request : to sing the performance that night. I thought it over …and agreed, though I only fully knew the first two acts! Luckily, I remembered all the mise-en scenes, because I had attended all the rehearsals. But the costume! I already had my own tail-coat for the first and the third acts – it was necessary for concerts. But in the second and fourth acts I needed less formal clothes, and my own “wardrobe” in those times wasn’t notable for its abundance and elegance. [After all the political troubles, Soviet provincial theaters couldn’t afford costumes for every production. Usually they had some period costumes, which artists had to share, and often they used their own clothes- note.] “Without hesitation I went to Sabinin’s to ask his permission to use his costumes. Sabinin blessed me and even thanked me for my help. Having solved that problem, I sat all day at home and studied the part using a piano reduction. Before the performance the director Bogolyubov showed me the mise-en-scenes. He was very glad when he found out that I remembered them, and quickly let me go. After the first act, which went well, the conductor M. Grubin came to my dressing room, praised me and, wishing to inspire me with his kind words, said “Keep singing like this.” I looked at him and replied seriously, “ I can sing like this only one more act, because I haven’t precisely learned the second half of the opera yet.” (That’s what boldness, or rather, the self-assuredness of youth is! Now, having 40 years of experience behind me, I wouldn’t dare go on the stage with such “knowledge” of the part for all the money in the world!) Upon hearing that, the conductor’s face fell. But I cheered him up generously by promising to learn the part all the way through during intervals. And so I did. In the first interval we rehearsed the third act, and in the second one, the fourth act. And I performed it without a single mistake. That can be explained only by huge nervous energy, when memory and attention are strained to the limit. I was very soon able to verify that that had been exactly the case: a week later, when I sang in La Traviata again, with my name on the bills. It seemed to me that I had rehearsed the part meticulously with both the conductor and the director. But in that particular performance I made a mistake, and besides that, in the last act I was embarrassed by my costume.. In that performance I still wore Sabinin’s costume, even though he was twice as big as I was. And when Violetta and I sang “Parigi, o cara , noi lasceremo” I suddenly felt that my trousers were slowly slipping down. Somehow I stepped behind the dying Violetta and hoisted them. (My maneuvers , obviously not planned by the director, could not possibly have gone unseen by the audience, but everything was quiet). In my mind I thanked my lucky star, and hoped that no one would remember that. However, the next day I met the pianist N.S.Kutepova. She started smiling at me from some distance, and, approaching me, said that she and her husband had heard me in La Traviata. “Where did you sit?,” I inquired cautiously. “In the fourth row, ”she replied, continuing to smile, “you sang very well, but (then I knew what she was going to say)....How nervous we were, when we noticed the coming catastrophe! My husband said, “God, what’s going to happen?” Luckily, you noticed and crawled behind the couch , not stopping your singing…But you corrected your costume clumsily, it looked ridiculous! And imagine, what sympathy the audience had for you, that no one even reacted, not to say laughed!”
Lemeshev as Alfredo. Sverdlovsk.
An amusing footnote in Sergei’s book reveals how he managed to sing Ziebel, a part usually performed by female singers. “N.N. Bogolyubov decided to try an experiment – he persuaded me to sing Ziebel, the part which in Sverdlovsk was performed by two young mezzo-sopranos. I didn’t realize that I was encroaching upon their artistic rights. Considering any work helpful, if only it didn’t cause damage to my voice, I agreed, and after one rehearsal I sang the part with some success. The costume was very good . On the stage I seemed quite elegant to myself, and I wanted to parade as the young Ziebel in front of the previous owners of the part. I was in love with one of them – now I can admit it. But, alas, the effect was unexpected – both mezzo-sopranos refused to speak to me… I finally guessed what was the reason for their boycott, and refused to sing the part of Ziebel. I immediately got the role of Faust instead. Again, I was fortunate. If it were not for the conflict with the mezzos, I would have sung Ziebel all season long, and who knows when I would be able to get to the main role. Definitely, my luck was with me.” [ Lemeshev’s second short-lived marriage was to Anna Zelinskaya, a mezzo-soprano, who sang Ziebel among other parts in Sverdlovsk and later in Harbin. - footnote.]
One of the earliest fan stories, told by Anatoly Orfenov, concerns the period when the Sverdlovsk company toured the provinces in the Spring of 1927. “Witnesses from Saratov,” he said, “where young Lemeshev came to perform, told me that such had been his desire to sing the part well, that he promised himself, “ If I do well tonight, I’ll walk on my hands from the theater to the hotel.” And he did it – walked on his hands to the applause of the crowd of fans.”
The next stop on Lemeshev’s way to the Bolshoi theater was Harbin – then a Russian city in the Chinese province of Manchuria. In fact, Sergei worked the next two seasons abroad, although he was a member of the Soviet theater company. The political situation in Harbin was unique and, as it turned out later, being there may have had bad consequences for a Soviet artist – that is why it is worth describing it in some detail.
The town on the Sungari river was founded by Russians in 1889, near one of the stations of the KVZhD – the Chinese Military Railway (or Eastern railway). It was an important outpost that helped supply the Russian army during the Russo-Japanese war. After the war, Harbin proceeded as a quiet provincial town, with the Russian church , government and police until 1917, when there was a failed attempt to overthrow the Bolshevik regime there. By that time the town had already become multinational, with Chinese, Russian, French, American, German and other companies having established their business there. After 1917, Harbin had to eparate from Soviet Russia, and a huge wave of emigrants fled the Bolshevik regime to Manchuria. However, in 1924, the Soviets established diplomatic relations with China and held the Eastern railway on parity rights, sharing huge profits with the Chinese government. Along with the Soviet railroad came workers, Soviet officials, journalists, theater companies, and school teachers. In 1927, when Lemeshev arrived there, Harbin was an extraordinary mix of Russia, the USSR, the West and the East. For many Russians, the city was a kind of time-machine: “There was a feeling in Harbin that we had gone back to pre-Revolutionary Russia. Harbin was a very Russian city… People were just fantastic”, recalled former Harbinians, “because they were Russians who thought they were still living in Russia.”
Masquerade ball at Harbin theater.
Lemeshev as Lensky. Harbin.
Of course this was easy to explain as having to do with the high artistic level of the productions. A.M. Pazovsky (who came in the second season), a conductor of exceptionally high culture and strict demands, was at the peak of his talent and tireless energy. Another conductor, the old Ya. Posen, was very experienced too. That made a professional orchestra, chorus and harmonious ensemble in general. Russian classics dominated the repertoire: Prince Igor, Ruslan and Lyudmila, Eugene Onegin, The Snow maiden, and Khovanshchina were all staged when Pazovsky arrived. Western operas were represented by Carmen, Il Barbiere di Sevilla, and La Traviata. Operetta constituted a significant part of the repertoire; I also familiarized myself with that genre, performing the role of Lucien, a lyric hero from the Priestess of Fire by Valentinov. There was a lot of singing in the part and not so much talking…
The Soviet colony in Harbin was quite rich; cinemas, restaurants, and shops were on a par with European or American ones. As Lemeshev recalled nostalgically, he had become a frequenter of music shops, where he “spent hours buying and listening to records of opera singers, mainly tenors, of course.” Though later in the USSR he could obtain records of Caruso, Gigli and Schipa, Soviet music shops did not come close to the diversity offered in Harbin.
Chinese street in Harbin.
As became clear in the 1990’s, when memoirs of some Harbinians were published, White Russians had not always been hostile to Soviet artists. The cabaret singer Lyudmila Lopato remembered that Lemeshev gave a concert at her father’s home. Her father was a White Russian owner of a tobacco factory, and naturally, Sergei had to be silent about that concert to the end of his life. From Harbin, artists could go to any Western country, if they wished, and that is what some of them did in the 1930’s. For Lemeshev, two seasons were enough to experience a severe bout of homesickness ( As he wrote, he had decided to return home after he watched a Russian film on peasant life. His main goal of becoming the Bolshoi’s leading singer was another reason.) People who knew him said that his village was the only place where he could relax and rest, (which only show that Soviet officials could permit him to work abroad because he would have come back to Russia anyway.) Those who loved Harbin and stayed there were unlucky. In 1935, the city was occupied by the Japanese and the Soviets sold the railway to China. At this point, the first wave of deportation of the Soviet Russians back to the USSR began. As witnesses described, they were promised good jobs, education and other privileges in the USSR. “ They were greeted ceremoniously, then directed to remote towns. Instead of the comfortable houses of Harbin, they were placed in communal apartments or cabins without any conveniences.”
On September 19, 1937, the Politburo approved order # 00593, “On Harbinians,” issued by Commissar Yezhov. After that, thousands of former Harbinians were jailed or shot. The official reason for this was possible “diversions” of White Russian political organizations to Russia from Harbin. The famous jazz orchestra leader Oleg Lundstrem,( who had spent his youth in Manchuria) explained the repressions as having been caused by the contrast between the wealth of the Soviet colony of Harbin and poverty in the USSR, “The Soviet citizens were the only ones not affected by the economic crisis in Manchuria. White Russian emigrants were poor, they had nothing to eat, while Soviet people could not believe that the crisis was going on, because they were so wealthy. Half the profits from KVZhD went to Russia; half of that half, according to the contract, must be spent in Manchuria. That was the reason for their wealth. The Soviet colony was the richest, that’s why it was a unique city that had no equals in the world. Where else could there be a state where the richest people would be the Soviet Russians? A paradox! There was Civil war in Russia, and hunger, but here they had more money than they knew how to spend, and they organized free resorts. The first people who returned to the USSR described it as living under Communism, or at least under Socialism. And it turned out that the Soviet people abroad were wallowing in gold, while in the USSR they starved. So, Harbinians were jailed, just to make them quiet ”
According to Yezhov’s order, “Arrests must be made according to a two-step process:. A) First, arrest all Harbinians working in NKVD, serving in the Red army …[here, “strategic” categories were listed] b) Second, arrest all Harbinians working in Soviet organizations: collective farms, etc.” (Initially, artists were not on the list, but that “et cetera” of Yezhov’s was responsible for the death of some in 1937.) The fate of many opera singers who took part in the 1927-29 seasons in Harbin is obscure, but it is known, that the tenors N. Orzhelsky and L. Vittels were shot. Lemeshev did not have problems, first because he had returned quickly; and second because by 1937 he was already a famous leading singer of the Bolshoi, which was protected against repressions better than any other theater. However, his Harbin seasons marked a suspicious “spot” on his biography. In many biographical articles published between the 1930’s and the 1960’s, the Harbin opera was not mentioned among the theaters where he had performed before the Bolshoi.
Russian church in Harbin.
As soon as Sergei returned from Harbin to Moscow, he went to the only official artist’s agency, called “The Intermediary Association of Workers of Art.” “The head of the department …met me very pleasantly, and said that he had heard about my achievements and immediately offered me an opportunity to go to Perm for the spring season. I didn’t want to waste time doing nothing and agreed. During one month and a half I sang several performances: “Faust,” “La Traviata,” and “The Barber of Seville.” I didn’t find anything particularly interesting there, and upon returning to Moscow in May, I went to the agency again.
In Tbilisi, Lemeshev started to perform on the radio. The Soviet cultural ideology demanded that artists to be “up to date.” Performing the politically correct songs of contemporary composers was considered necessary for an opera singer, as a way to become less “elitist” and closer to the “ordinary people.” In the 1920’s and 30’s, the Association of Proletarian Musicians recommended songs for the radio. As Sergei wrote, many of them were not of the highest quality. He was happier singing excerpts from Georgian operas (in the Georgian language.)
Sergei Lemeshev photographed near the Tbilisi theater poster, with his name (in Georgian and Russian) typed in big letters above the title of the opera ("Rigoletto').
Just as “insidious” is Levko from “May Night” by Rimsky-Korsakov. The highest notes are F-sharp, G and A; the vocal line is all melodious, so just keep singing, as it seems – but, no! To sing it really well, one must work a lot not only to cope with it technically, but to absorb its nature. That’s why Russian music is so difficult for foreign singers. It raises the problem of creating historically and socially believable characters, authentic in every detail, including every single intonation. It’s not incidental that Glinka’s characters demand some inner truth along with mature skills and stage experience. Even Chaliapin in his early years didn’t cope with Ruslan, and after that did not dare to repeat his attempt.”
Maksakova was supposed to perform in The Tsar’s Bride, among other productions. As there was no other Lykov, I decided to reveal my “secret.” Then I met Maksakova for the first time at the rehearsal and found out how hardworking she was… [In fact Lemeshev was a huge fan and admirer of Maria Maksakova, and dedicated five pages to her in his book]. footnote.]
V.N. Kudryavtseva - Lemesheva. "Ryadom s Lemeshevym"2002