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

понедельник, 9 июля 2012 г.

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.

Arkanov always built his artistic position on discussions between conductors and directors; he gave his deciding vote to those who, in his opinion,  were right. The excellent conductor I. O. Palitsyn never started any arguments, and I always agreed with that educated and cultured musician”. 

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).

At the beginning of the season they decided to stage Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow maiden. I tackled the role of Tsar Berendei a month before my first season and worked on it with I. N. Sokolov in Moscow. However, it was Sabinin who rehearsed Berendei . I only watched and listened during the rehearsals. But one day I caught Bogolyubov’s eyes. “Do you know the part?” he asked. I didn’t even have time to nod to confirm it, when he shoved Berendei’s staff into my hands and told me to go onto the stage. My feet immediately stuck to the ground. Palitsyn, passing by, stopped and put his hand on my shoulder and said calmly, “Don’t worry, I’ll be watching you. Remember that I’ll be with you all the time, and if anything doesn’t go well, we’ll rehearse it tomorrow with piano.” After such a friendly cheering up, I was able to move, though I was not ready to rehearse with the orchestra,  and the premiere was to take place three days later.  The conductor did everything to help me feel confident. He gave introductions precisely, softened the sound of the orchestra, didn’t rush me, and in general he created such an atmosphere, that I remembered it forever. When I finished the cavatina, I heard applause from the orchestra. It was a sign that I passed the exam! In opera the main critics are orchestra musicians and chorus singers. If a singer is not “accepted” by them, that’s trouble! Arkanov watched the rehearsal from the box, and when we finished, I was told on behalf of him, that I would sing the premiere, though Sabinin’s name was on the bills. (He fell ill, and apparently was not too interested in the part). Already by the next day there were posters all over town announcing that “On October 10th  the part of Tsar Berendei will be performed by S. Lemeshev”. 

I soon came to appreciate Arkanov’s talent as a manager: before the opening of the season he had organized a big concert, in which he introduced the new singers to Sverdlovsk audience. In that concert I sang all my “signature” numbers, including Nadir’s romance. The audience received me well, and called for encores. So, my name was familiar. I sang my first performance successfully enough, and the role of Berendei stayed with me for the entire season. The newspaper “The Urals Worker” spared me several lines. On a warm autumn day I was sitting  in the park , reading and re-reading the first review, and learned it by heart unwittingly. I still remember that they praised me for a good performance of the cavatina, and especially for the final pianissimo. I was not on the 9th, but on the 10th cloud from happiness…” 

                     Tsar Berendei's cavatina from "The Snowmaiden", 1940.

A short remark on the beginning of Lemeshev’s career appears in Bogolyubov’s memoirs: “As I previously noted, one who stood out in the company was the very young tenor  Lemeshev. He was a modest and quiet artist—his voice reminded me of an Amati violin. I was not mistaken to have given him the role of the Indian Guest in Sadko, then Lensky and Faust. In his art, Lemeshev was a successor of the unforgettable Leonid Sobinov – there was something very similar in their artistic nature.” 

 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…

Two weeks later I sang a matinee (Ukhov as Figaro, G. Pirogov as Basilio, and Lebedeva as Rosina). It went well enough, despite a very short time for learning. The strong cast made me nervous too at first. I couldn’t imagine myself on the same stage with  G. Pirogov.  Perhaps from nervousness I let Grigory Stepanovich down during the show. In the third act when everyone is trying to suggest to Don Basilio that he is ill, Count Almaviva must approach him with the words, “Go take some medicine…Go quickly and have some rest” and then put a purse into his hands. But to my horror there was no purse in my pocket – I forgot it! For a moment I was petrified with shame and fear – what a good beginning! My mind started working feverishly, “What to do?” At the last second I managed to grab a piece of colored paper, that for some unknown reason had been put on the harpsichord. I folded the paper and gave it to Pirogov. He took it , examined it and said through his teeth, “What are you doing, rascal? Playing Almaviva and forgetting purses ?” I stood, trying to conceal my embarrassment, thinking what Pirogov would sing instead of “ A purse … To go to bed…” but the artist was quick to answer, “ A banknote…To go to bed…”   Apparently, it  was not the first such incident for him. [The incident impressed Lemeshev so much that in his further work he became obsessive about props, something collaborated by his colleagues. - note. ]
In general, Grigory Stepanovich treated me very well, and helped me with his advice, especially on vocal matters. He spoke to me at length after the market scene in Sadko. I still remember his words, “ Sergei, you sang well enough, but not the way you should have. You didn’t paint a real picture. You must see in your mind the “warm southern sea,” pearls and diamonds in caves of stone, and the “wondrous stone of Ruby,” on which the  magic bird sits, singing its sweet songs. If you felt all this and transmitted your admiration, your voice would have sounded different. The audience would have understood you and felt the enchantment of fairy-tale India.” 

 Grigory Pirogov.
However, despite the hastiness of his work, and some initial difficulties, Lemeshev made an impression as a serious artist, which is clear from the memoirs of the pianist and coach M.S. Kutepova, who worked with him on several parts. “There was a concert in September 1926…I was accompanying… I very  much liked the young singer  from the opera theater…As I remember, he sang the arias of Vladimir Igorevich, the Indian Guest, Glinka’s romances and the Neapolitan song “O Mari!”…We went home together, and as it turned out that we were neighbors…Sergei Yakovlevich asked me if I worked at home as a coach…We arranged to work three times a week, starting the next day. First we studied the role of Almaviva…then Alfredo, from “La Traviata,” and the Duke from “Rigoletto.” I loved working with Lemeshev—he struck as having an exceptional grasp on his characters (apparently something learned from Stanislavsky’s lessons), with his musicality, his concentration during lessons, with limitless attention.  Aside from our lessons, he worked a lot on his own, and always came with a good knowledge of the text and new ideas. Once Sergei Yakovlevich appeared looking joyful, though slightly worried and preoccupied, “I’ve just been at the theater, “he said, “and the management offered me an opportunity to sing Almaviva in tomorrow’s matinee…Sabinin’s ill. I don’t know, should I sing it or not?”  "Sing it, definitely!" – I exclaimed. 

I went to see the performance, and, of course, I was just as nervous as Lemeshev  was. And he was worried not only by the fact that there had been no work with the director at all, but by something else. He told me the day before, “I’ve never seen a real Count, I don’t know how he must behave, what manners he has. I’ll follow Stanislavsky’s advice: to make less of unwarranted gestures. Every movement must look natural.”

After the performance, when my husband and I came to congratulate him, he said, “You know, as soon as I put Almaviva’s costume on, I somehow intuitively felt how I must behave. The costume helped and oriented me.” 

The creative atmosphere that reigned at the theater provoked serious attitudes in all the performers. The productions were famous throughout the country, and it was not easy to gain the position of leading singer. After his successful début in The Barber of Seville, Lemeshev was assigned the role of Alfredo in La Traviata.. But again, it was spur of the moment, and he didn’t even have costumes for the second and the fourth acts…
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!”  

Here I give a straightforward account of my success and failures. Of course it was just a funny accident, but it shows that an artist can’t be careless even with the slightest detail… And even now it’s frightening for me to remember how I decided to perform, knowing one half of the part! Or learned Almaviva within two weeks! 

 Lemeshev as Alfredo. Sverdlovsk.

During one season in Sverdlovsk I sang 12 parts, mainly as leading tenor! After Berendei, Almaviva, Alfredo and the Indian Guest, Leopold in La Juive [or, as it was officially known in the USSR, The Cardinal’s Daughter - note] there were Vladimir Igorevich, the Simpleton, Andrei Khovansky, Ziebel, and Faust. My repertoire, when I arrived in Sverdlovsk, consisted only of Lensky, Berendei and excerpts from Faust. I learned nearly 10 parts within one half or two thirds of the season! In any case, they started to trust me in the theater… In those times it was necessary . I was eager to work and tried hard to be useful. With a system of seasonal contracts and many performers to choose from (there were fewer opera theaters then) young singers had to make a great effort to prove their right to work onstage. I knew that if I could not learn the part quickly, or could not perform under pressure, to save the show as it were, or if I failed to demonstrate the professionalism required to replace another singer on short notice, I would not be considered too necessary. That’s why I learned everything on my own, not waiting for any orders. Neither did I miss a single rehearsal.  I watched and I studied… Of course, one had to use all their energy to be ready to work any time. Those who could endure stress and work fast advanced quickly. 

But I repeat, that I was lucky – I was in a strong company, lead by experienced and talented conductors and directors…In my first season I sang Lensky too, but it did not bring me much joy. I was put into a finished production and couldn’t implement all the things  I had learned under Stanislavsky’s guidance. My Lensky of the Sverdlovsk period was just a sketch of the character that I did later.” 

Critics from local newspapers had different opinions on him as Lensky, “As expected, Lensky performed by Lemeshev was exceptionally good. In the first act his voice sounded a bit weak, but after that the artist gradually took possession of the role and created  the character of the inspired poet, wonderful in its power and truthfulness.”  “Lemeshev was very good, both scenically and musically,” wrote another critic about his performance in La Juive.  “Technically very difficult,  Leopold’s cavatina from the first act was sung exactly as the composer demanded. All the top notes sounded clear and precise. It seemed as though he was the only leading singer in the opera, who didn’t sin against the composer’s wishes, in the sense of rhythm and precision of embellishments.”  “Lemeshev was very impressive as Leopold.  Silvery tones of extraordinary beauty and clarity  are in the voice of this artist.” 

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.]

“Bogolyubov never ‘overloaded’ performers with tasks on stage which distracted from singing. On the contrary, he always searched for the most helpful mise-en-scenes. Conductors guarded me too, advising me not to strain my voice, to work more on cantilena and smooth , expressive singing. During his lessons, Palitsyn often warned, “Don’t try to give more sound than you have. If you don’t strain your voice, it will gradually achieve freedom and expressiveness.” I must say, frankly, that one season in Sverdlovsk  advanced me vocally more than all the previous years in Moscow… I had already understood the rules of musical contrast; they were revealed to me by Raisky and Sokolov. I heard a lot about them from orchestra musicians, and of course, became acquainted with this great art in the Bolshoi’s performances…In Sverdlovsk I had   an opportunity to incorporate all these observations and knowledge into my own performance. This was the great meaning of my first theatrical season for me – it helped me to broaden the scope of practical work. That, in turn, gave me rich material for further search, thoughts and experiments. A larger perspective opened before me.” 

The audience was optimistic about his future too – right from his first season, Lemeshev attracted groups of fans that later  turned into the huge “army,” spread throughout the country. 

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 Sverdlovsk season ended in May, 1927,” continued Lemeshev, “but three months before, on approximately March 1st , I received an invitation to perform during the following season with the Russian opera company in Harbin. The telegram from the management frankly  promised me “the position of  leading tenor”.  It was very flattering. At the same time, invitations to Harbin were received by S. Streltsov, baritones V. Ukhov and K. Knizhnikov, the mezzo-soprano A. Zelinskaya and some others. My contract with the Sverdlovsk theater was about to expire, and there was no negotiation about the new one. Cheered up by my colleagues, who had received similar invitations , I found it possible for me to accept it. Upon learning about that, Arkanov was greatly offended, but it was too late for me to change my decision.

After Sverdlovsk I spent a month of the summer season in Ufa [the capital of Bashkirya - footnote], and went to my village for the rest of the summer. There, as it had been in the days of my youth, I helped my mother in the garden, picked mushrooms, fished and sang songs with villagers in the evenings”.

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. 

 Russian part of Harbin. More photos  of Harbin can be found here:

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.”
Of course, the political and cultural situation in Harbin was too complex to describe openly in a book during the Soviet era. Even in the 1960’s, living abroad among White Russian emigrants was considered suspicious and inappropriate for a famous Soviet artist. In his book, Lemeshev tried to write in as laconic a way as possible. The only situation he mentioned occurred on his first day there: he was unlucky enough to talk to a White Russian taxi driver and to  reply “everything’s  fine” to his question  about life in the Soviet Union. The taxi driver was enraged and  showered abuse on Sergei. This story definitely seemed politically correct to censors,  while all the rest was mainly his remembrance of Harbin theatrical life.  
 Masquerade ball at Harbin theater.

“In September of 1927, a large group of artists left for Harbin. I was full of the most optimistic expectations, plans and dreams – so encouraging was my Sverdlovsk experience. It never occurred to me that  I might not do well, or that they might not like me in the new place. On the contrary, I was eager to work, to struggle for the new roles…From the first days of my professional work I loved theater and subjected my everyday life to it.  I strictly maintained a singer’s discipline, and could easily sacrifice any pleasure for work. Theater, the stage: this became the main thing in my life,  not only in theory, but in practice. Now I was sure that I did not make a mistake in choosing my profession. It gave me confidence and bright hopes for the future. And I was not disappointed.” 
“Our entire company gathered, rehearsals began, and a week later the season opened with Borodin’s Prince Igor. The next day was Eugene Onegin and I sang Lensky. The theater, which was not large (approximately 800 seats), was always full. Not only members of the Soviet colony, but also foreigners loved to attend it. White Russian newspapers often gave quite spiteful reviews of our shows, but even non-Russians didn’t pay any attention to them and received us warmly,  as did the Soviet KVZhD workers. 

 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…

 S. Lemeshev as Alfredo.  Harbin.

I still worked with great enthusiasm, though I mostly refined the parts which I had sung in Sverdlovsk. They were enough for two seasons in Harbin. There were only two new roles – Bayan from Ruslan and Lyudmila  and Billy, from Yurasovsky's Trilby, a melodramatic opera which attained great popularity in the 1920’s. 
During the next season I developed a strong interest in Hoffmann (from The Tales of Hoffman, by Offenbach ). But Pazovsky kept putting me off; he suggested that the part required a more dramatic sound.  Apparently he and I were not seeing eye-to-eye on the subject, because finally the conductor said, straightforwardly,  “You’ll sing it, but you’ll be punished. There’s no need to search far for an example; here’s Ivan Polikarpovich Varfolomeyev, our director and a former tenor. He lost his voice in precisely the role of Hoffmann. If you don’t believe me, ask him what the silly risk he ran cost him. You’ll be able to sing Hoffmann later, when you gain more experience and skills.” Of course, I didn’t ask Varfolomeyev about anything. Pazovsky persuaded me. But how dismal it was to tell myself that I wouldn’t sing Hoffmann. I was hoping for the future, though. But alas,  as it turned out,  I was never to meet with this character." [The Tales of Hoffman never went to the Bolshoi.] footnote. 
The attentive and kind approach of Pazovsky, coupled with Posen’s great experience, helped me to strengthen my vocal technique, and to achieve the freedom necessary for performing my artistic tasks …I started to feel like a real professional, who could hold the audience’s attention and impress my emotions upon them. This was noticed by critics, who favored me with quite a few kind words.” 

In Harbin, Lemeshev made his first recordings. Among other artists of the Soviet company he was invited to the RCA Victor studio and on May 18, 1928, recorded nine arias and songs. 

S. Lemeshev, "Billy's aria" from "Trilby" by Yurasovsky. 1928, Harbin. Cond.  Ya. Posen.

“ If in Sverdlovsk I passed the test on professional suitability for opera, then the next two seasons gave me a  certain stage experience. After that, I didn’t want to stay there any longer – I wanted to be back home. Besides, I understood that for my further artistic development…it was necessary to change the environment, to meet a new audience and new partners, and to perform a new repertoire.” 
In March, 1929, Lemeshev returned to Russia, and did it just in time, because three months later, on June 10, Chinese forces seized the railroad. The Soviet government announced the breakup of Soviet-Chinese diplomatic relations. Though  5 months later diplomatic relations were restored, the political situation became even more tense. However, many Soviet artists returned there and stayed in Harbin until the 1930’s, because of the much higher standard of living. Here it is necessary to go back and look at certain things which Lemeshev did not mention in his book: the “temptations” of that strange, half-bourgeois society.  

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. 
Yet on my way to Sverdlovsk, I set a goal for myself always to work in the best provincial theaters for no less than five years. I had not thought about the Bolshoi yet, and for this reason my acquaintance with I. Machabeli, the Chief Manager of Tbilisi opera theater, was to determine my life for two next seasons. During our negotiations, Machabeli offered me a salary of 500 rubles per month, with the understanding that I would do 8 performances per month. I firmly insisted on 7 performances, as my experience had convinced me that was a stress limit for performers of leading tenor parts. Machabeli was slightly puzzled, “Why are you talking about fewer performances instead of higher salary? Are you sure that you’ll be singing so often? You’re a young singer.”  "Yes, I’m sure," I replied, and continued to insist.
My persistence aroused the manager’s curiosity,  he wanted to audition me. Already infected with “leadership,” I considered it humiliating to sing for him like a beginner, and I suggested he listen to the recordings that I had made in Harbin…But that never happened. Machabeli called me and said that he had received the best reviews on me and accepted my conditions.
I was glad that things turned out my way, but it was at just that point that I began to become anxious.  With everything resolved the way I wanted, I was afraid of Tbilisi. Experienced singers told me many times, that it was not easy to “pass” there, as it was a city of old operatic traditions. As early as in the middle of the 19th century, an Italian company had worked there regularly. In the 1880’s it was replaced by a Russian opera company, headed by M.M. Ippolitov-Ivanov. All the outstanding Russian singers willingly visited Tbilisi. It is known that the young Chaliapin had his first success there. In the first decades of the 20th century the public’s idol was the wonderful Georgian tenor Vano Saradjishvili. I also heard a lot of stories about the local audience – hot tempered, very much in love with singing, but spoilt by outstanding performers and very demanding because of that.” [For Georgians, singing was always a national sport. As historians and musicologists recalled, sometimes Tbilisians assimilated operatic melodies by Verdi and Mozart, adding Georgian lyrics and singing them as traditional songs.] footnote. 

“I understood that that season would very likely affect my entire future. In those days, with the existing contract system, to have interesting offers and to rank highly, a singer had not only to conquer the audience once, but to maintain and improve their reputation. The main criterion of success there was an offer to stay for a second season. That meant that an artist had been successful with the audience. If an artist stayed for a third season, everyone understood that they had become the local public’s favorite. I firmly decided to stay in Tbilisi for at least two seasons.  I set that as a goal, while being jostled about in the train for nearly 4 days. At that time there was only one road to Tbilisi – through Mineralnye Vody and Baku . I went to the Caucasus for the first time and the entire journey was most interesting! Even the salt flats and the forest of derricks surrounding Baku made a huge impression on me. Tbilisi…conquered me forever with its incomparable combination of  fine European architecture, bright Southern colors, burning sun, abundance of trees, and unusual cheerfulness." 

 View of  Old Tbilisi

"Except for the director Bogolyubov, with whom I had worked in Sverdlovsk, I did not find any other familiar people in the theater. The company  was dominated by Georgian singers with fine voices: the excellent dramatic tenors D. Andguladze and N. Kumsiashvili; the subtle and artistic lyric baritone A. Inashvili, along with his brother—another talented baritone—G. Venadze; the dramatic baritone G. Kartsivadze; young D. Badridze, [a lyric tenor, who later sang in the Bolshoi]; and V . Sharashidze, a bass and brother of the Bolshoi’s director T. Sharashidze. Among the singers who had  arrived from other places I can list the excellent coloratura soprano Ye. Popova, who worked in Tbilisi for many years; the lyric soprano M. Baratova – later transferred to the Bolshoi; and the outstanding dramatic baritone I. Gorelov. At the conductor’s stand there were Ivan Petrovich Paliashvili and A. Pavlov-Arbenin ,a very profound and  original musician. But what especially struck  my imagination were the names of the guest artists: A. Pirogov, K Derzhinskaya, S. Migai, V. Slivinsky, M. Maksakova, N. Pechkovsky, D. Golovin.
My first performance  was “Eugene Onegin.” The title part was sung by Sandro Inashvili – one of the best Onegins I ever met on stage…M. Baratova sang Tatyana, the young and talented V. Ovcharenko was Olga; V . Ulrich conducted. That performance does not stand out in my memory, perhaps because even though it had gone well enough, it did not create much of an impression. The Tbilisi audience, who remembered Vano Saradjishvili as Lensky, and who five years ago had greeted Sobinov in their theater—and Kozlovsky approximately a year ago—was just getting used to me, the new performer. Besides, for a long time the cult of bel canto had been alive in the Tbilisi theater. The cult of vocal skills—a  tradition left over from the time of the former Italian company—matched the national character and the gorgeous nature of Georgia. Meanwhile in the role of Lensky on the first place  is profound and pure lyricism .Nevertheless, my début apparently went reasonably well, because after that performance I got all the leading tenor parts, including some new roles: the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto,  Rudolfo in La Boheme and Gerald in Lakme. 

                                      Vano Sarajishvili.

In comparison to Sverdlovsk and Harbin, Tbilisi had a different "singing climate," so to speak. Listening attentively to the voices coming from the stage, I noticed a bright sound , full range, smooth registers, firm top notes, and long vocal lines. All these constituted the necessary norm of a performance, and were approved not only by conductors, but also by directors. That attracted fine performers to the company, and in fact the best artists from Moscow and Leningrad willingly visited the capital of Georgia. There was less innovative directing in the theater, though the general level of stagecraft was high , undoubtedly… All this created perfect conditions for the development of young singers, who must establish  their vocal skills first of all. The things I found in Tbilisi were  simply a treasure for me. Paliashvili and Pavlov-Arbenin helped me a lot in my vocal development, both because of their great experience with operatic conducting in particular, and because of their special attention to the vocal side of characters..” 

 Tbilisi opera theater.

Among the people he met in Tbilisi who had great influence on his professional life, Lemeshev singled out Alexander Shamil’yevich Melik-Pashayev as “a conductor by the  grace of God. ” [ Melik-Pashayev (1905-1964) had just died when Lemeshev wrote a three page memoir of him in the book]  A graduate of Leningrad Conservatory, Melik-Pashayev began his career in the Tbilisi theater in 1931. He was then invited to the Bolshoi (along with Lemeshev), where he soon gained a position of Chief Conductor. Lemeshev worked with him at the Bolshoi for more than 30 years. 

Alexander Melik-Pashayev.

“I remember very well how we first met. I was introduced to him as a performer of the role of Vladimir Igorevich. He smiled, shook my hand and, as it seemed to me, looked at me slightly mistrustfully. And I looked mistrustfully at him. We seemed too young to each other. I remember that I had thought, in a slightly wounded way,  ‘Of course, I’m young, but you’re no older!’ (As it later turned out, Alexander Shamil’eyvich was even three years younger than me!) But since Melik-Pashayev was a conductor, I considered his youthfulness unforgivable… Alexander Shemil’yevich was quick to ask me if I wished to sing my part with him. Naturally, I agreed. On our way to the classroom, I remembered that we should invited a pianist. ‘We shouldn’t,’  said Melic-Pashayev, ‘I’ll accompany.’  ‘Then let’s take the  piano reduction,’ I said.  ‘We don’t need the piano reduction.’
Completely surprised, puzzled and even dismayed by the young man’s seemingly off-hand way, I walked into the class. I knew the part  well, as I had performed it many times, and I didn’t worry about myself .The conductor sat at the piano, and I suddenly wondered what was going to happen! But he played several chords, as if to check the instrument, and then instantly the Eclipse Scene from the Prologue emerged. As though I was hypnotized, I looked at Melik-Pashayev’s hands, which made the piano sound like an orchestra . He played extremely well; it was very comfortable to sing with him…And, what was most remarkable, he was, as a brilliantly educated musician, able to become inspired along with the singers, responding to their wishes and developing their ideas. There was no submission of singer to conductor or vice versa, as often happens. There was a confluence of two artists, equal in their rights. Yes, equal, although it was very unlikely that any of the singers possessed musical erudition and talent like Melik-Pashayev’s…He never raised his voice , nor did he oppress with his authority. 
Melik-Pashayev, with his wonderful sense of ensemble, was in love with cantilena. Possessing the melodious soul of a very subtle musician, he could evoke this melodiousness in both the singer and the orchestra. He gave a lot to me as an opera singer. When  Melik-Pashayev was on the podium, I was not only calm (a state that is necessary for a singer), but I was always excited, anticipating another meeting of minds with that inspired artist. All this helped me to overcome any vocal difficulties I may have had. It seemed that the conductor breathed and sang with the singer…” 

Another interesting acquaintance was with Yelena Grosheva, then a student of Tbilisi Conservatory. She later became an influential opera critic, an historian of theater and a friend, who helped Lemeshev write his memoirs in the 1960’s. In 1929, Yelena heard him in Eugene Onegin for the first time. “The audience was conquered by the charm of Pushkin’s character, by the beauty of his voice, tender and expressive, by his precise diction and artistic freedom on the stage. It was just his fourth season,” she recalled, “but a group of fans immediately  gathered around the young singer (this was to be the case through his life). The walls of the huge lobby of the apartment building in which Lemeshev lived were covered with writings expressing admiration  and love for his art.”  

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.) 

“…Among the parts I sang for the first time on the Tbilisi stage, the most memorable for me was the Duke of Mantua. I started to work on it with some shyness. I dreamed about the role of the Duke from my first years in the Conservatory, as soon as I heard it in the Zimin opera during the 1922-23 season, performed by the tenor Doriani, who had just come from Italy…Earlier, of course, I had heard the famous canzona  of the Duke;  and even tried to sing it myself, while performing in the amateur theater of the Cavalry school.  However, I did not master it.  Upon entering the Conservatory, I became bolder, as I was sure that they had found professional qualities in me. As I thought then, that gave me the right to any repertoire. With a strong sense of that right, I attacked the part …and retreated again. I’m writing about it because I know what torment it is to understand the part, to feel it, and not to be able to master it…But I was lucky: Russian folk songs taught me almost from my childhood to pay attention to the emotions contained in lyrics. N.G. Raisky fascinated me with artistic tasks and at the same time made me work hard, by saying that (otherwise) my voice would condemn me forever to supporting parts. K.S. Stanislavsky suggested that I analyze remarks which were made during rehearsals. After his lessons, perhaps in spite of my own wishes, …I dared not substitute fantasy for reality.  
Nature was not overly generous with me in terms of natural voice, especially as regards range and power.  There are many singers who have a full natural range , free top notes and sufficient power. My voice, as I later came to understand, could attract mainly by its timbre. The power of sound (comparatively speaking, for a lyric tenor), the range – all this was achieved later as a result of work. But apparently I was always  missing something, or not satisfied by something, as I tried (far too early) to “sing thoughts.”  
Looking back at my development, I see how intelligently conductors guided me, how gradually they gave me one part after another, protecting me from music that would have been beyond my powers. Even though in 1924 and 1925 I still had difficulty learning Lensky, I did at least, over the course of the next two seasons, sing Almaviva, Alfredo and even Faust. I say “even Faust,” because that role is as difficult vocally as it is beautiful, but for some reason I never felt particular joy performing it. There’s nothing to act there. Goethe didn’t help me either, because the operatic Faust doesn’t have anything to do with the philosophical creation of the great German poet…The music of the Prologue is written for “firm voice” (The Prologue is often sung by lyric-dramatic tenors), but you have to play a decrepit  old man. After the “rejuvenation,” Faust becomes a typical operatic lover… But in spite of the unattractiveness of the role of Faust for me, it led me to the Duke of Mantua. 

                              "Salute demeure..." recorded in 1934

I started working on the part with I.N. Sokolov before my departure to Sverdlovsk…I kept it “in sight” all the following years, but couldn’t attain the required mastery and effortlessness of singing. And then, three years later, when I got back to “Rigoletto,” I suddenly felt the desired freedom which I had lacked so much before. However, I did not work on the Duke for a long time in Tbilisi; they couldn’t wait until I “worked it out” – there was tense pace in the theater, and if you couldn’t catch up with it, you would find yourself on the side of the road…
I bravely came to the piano rehearsal, knowing the part well, and somehow it revealed its positive side to me.… Soon I sang the famous canzona  five or 6 times as an encore in four languages, including Georgian, Armenian and Italian, not being “niggardly,” not worrying about the very difficult quartet that follows it. It was a significant advance in my vocal development. I was not afraid of the difficulties and the tessitura of the part anymore; on the contrary, I felt that it lay in my voice very naturally and comfortably, though initially I was scared every time I looked at the sheet music, “How can it all be sung?” In this sense, Russian music is something very different, especially Glinka and Rimsky-Korsakov. You look at the sheet music and everything seems  simple and easy, but when you start to sing it, and difficulties  appear out of the blue. For example, Bayan’s part from “Ruslan and Lyudmila” doesn’t go above the staff higher than G, but try to master it! Its epic nature provokes a heroic vocal production which may in turn result in a forced sound that impedes the free flow required for a smooth, melodic line.  

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.” 
“After the Duke, I sang Gerald from Lakme—a part which is scenically very unrewarding, though it is very difficult vocally. Work on the part was complicated by the ridiculous libretto, written by M. Galperin. (Sadly, that text was approved in the Bolshoi too). It was informed by the vulgar sociology which in those days affected art very much. It would be enough to say that the writer tried to ‘interpret” Delibes' tender music as a dramatic story of the Indian nation’s struggle against colonial slavery. The religious fanatic Nilacantha  was portrayed as a national hero, almost a leader of Indian rebels. That was in contradiction to the music, and yet the opera was moving. As for me, apparently I was, at that time, able to master the vocal side of my role firmly enough to make a début in it later at the Bolshoi.”  

Lemeshev’s relationship with Stanislavsky’s System was complicated during his first season. In Tbilisi he felt confident enough to start using the knowledge he had attained in the Studio. “Though I left the Studio, being in some sort of conflict with the System, I nevertheless did not forget what I had been taught there. In every role (as far as it was possible for me) I aspired to achieve the synthesis of vocal and scenic sides of the character; to combine expressiveness of words with plasticity of vocal line… Everything Stanislavsky had taught me had been absorbed—even against my expectations. I could not sing without thinking about my character’s feelings, motivations, or behavior.. Or not imagining the character’s nature and its relationship to other characters. 
It turned out to be very helpful, especially in Tbilisi. All the productions in which I took part had been put into the repertoire a long time ago. There wasn’t anyone in the theater who would have found time to busy himself with me. Lyric operas – the most popular and most familiar for performers, don’t have mass scenes, so they were given to assistant directors, who gave artists full freedom in stage work. Because of that I had to work a lot on my own, to think over all the details of my on-stage behavior, to search for the mise-en-scenes which would be the most expressive and at the same time comfortable for singing. I often came to rehearsals having planned out the role. Most often, directors approved my ideas. So it was with La Boheme. When in 1930 the outstanding opera director V.A. Lossky arrived in Tbilisi, he asked me with whom I had prepared the role of Rodolfo. He valued the logic and believability of my acting and advised me to work on my own in the future. He didn’t know, of course, that by that he had advised me not to forget what the Studio had given to me.” 

“In any event, the ability to adapt myself to new tasks was very helpful during my encounters with important guest artists. Even in my first year in Tbilisi I sang Faust, Trilby and The Barber of Seville with A. Pirogov. In Daemon, Rigoletto and “The Barber I sang with with D. Golovin. With V. Slivinsky I sang in Onegin and Faust; with S. Migai in the Barber and Onegin; and in the Tsar’s Bride with M. Maksakova.  At that time S.I. Migai became keen on doing some research. He surprised me a great deal when he said, after The Barber, “Sergei! Why are you singing all the time? Here you should declaim more.” I was astounded. I remember that I said to him, “Sergei Ivanovich, is it from you I’m hearing that? It was exactly this kind of melodiousness that I learnt from you.”  "I thought so before, he replied, but now I see it differently". I disagreed with him.  Later I learned that he had apparently become fascinated with dramatic parts (Rigoletto, Gryaznoy, Telramund, Igor, Daemon) and to some extent had lost his precious effortlessness and plasticity of sound and tried to compensate for it by declamation….But that’s just a detail. 
Guest artists from Moscow and Leningrad were the greatest authorities in the art for me, of course.  I listened and analyzed their vocal methods, or was sometimes  simply spellbound by the beauty and expressiveness of their singing. The artistic talent of D. Golovin impressed me with his freedom, his powerful sound, and the beauty of his timbre and acting skills. His Daemon and Figaro were unique phenomena on the Soviet stage.  And how good Maria Petrovna  Maksakova was!  She was very young then!… I saw her as Carmen; I was thrilled by her charming youthful Dalilah…and  was won  over by the chastity and femininity of her Charlotte (Werther). Her partner was the wonderful Werther of those times, N.K. Pechkovsky. To my great delight I had a chance to perform in the opera with Maria Petrovna too. It was a bit unexpected. Reporting my repertoire to the management, I purposely didn’t mention Lykov, as I didn’t like the part, though I had rehearsed it many times in Stanislavsky’s studio. 

 Maria Maksakova

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.] 

In Tbilisi I met Alexander Stepanovich Pirogov , who had conquered me and my peers in our old conservatory days by his sarcastic larger-then-life portrayal of Mephistopheles. ..Pirogov as Svengali (in Yurasovsky's Trilby) provoked great sympathy . I remember him in the first scenes – how much dignity and even daring self-assuredness he possessed ..And by contrast, I remember the scene of his last visit to the artists’ studio, where Trilby found shelter. Svengali, ill and broken by his fate, was begging, “Trilby, don’t leave me, don’t leave me…” Repeating “don’t leave me,” he unfolded the note so that there was such concentration of feeling in it that it revealed the desperation of  a great heart. It is impossible to forget it, even now.  Such is the power of great singers’ art. They not only please the ear, but more importantly, they astound the audience by revealing the greatness of human passions, thereby winning the sympathy of both public and colleagues. Moreover, this always brings some new colors into your own performance. 

 Alexander Pirogov. Photo signed, "To my dearest friend Sergei!"

Perhaps because I am a singer and love my job, it seems to me that among the theatrical genres, opera in particular can express the deepest emotions because of all its expressive means,  and primarily through the effect created by the beauty of human voices.  Some may object, pointing out   Shakespeare, Tolstoi, Dostoyevsky…Perhaps my opponents would be right, but still I am for opera…
In Tbilisi, in The Queen of Spades, I heard Pechkovsky sing such a note as I will never forget…In the barracks scene,  Gherman  is tormented by horrible memories. Pechkovsky, an excellent actor, prepared the audience by the mood of the previous scene . He sang the line, “Ah yesli b mne zabyt’sa I zasnut" (Ah, if only I could forget myself and  sink into reverie." He sang it in a mezzo-voce of such beauty and expressiveness that could be “sung” only by a cello in the hands of the great master. Another time I was astounded by him as Gherman on the Bolshoi’s stage was during the ball scene. When he got the key to Lisa’s room, Gherman (Pechkovsky), obsessed by some exultant power, came almost to the prompter's box and sang the final line, “No longer I, but my fate itself wants me to know the three cards.” He held the word “cards" (karty) on an A natural, twice as long as it was written, and filled it with such exultation of victory, that his voice covered  the entering brass section. All of us sitting in the artists’ box simply gasped—for the first time we had witnessed  a singer piercing through the orchestra on that line. It was not only the strength of his vocal apparatus that helped him to do it. It was rather because of the actor’s transformation, the power of his feelings and his faith. He put into the note  the impulse of his soul and all the tension of his nerves. At that moment , the words of that line focused, for Gherman, the meaning of his life. That was why the audience was overwhelmed.   It is impossible to simply say that—it can only be sung ! That is why, when it comes to the expression of passions, I give my preference to opera over anything else. 

                          Nikolai Pechkovsky. "Vesti la giubba" the 1930's

But let me go back to my first meeting with Alexander Stepanovich Pirogov. He was a famous leading singer of the Bolshoi, and had gained general acceptance. Even so, he treated me, a beginner, as a peer. This won me over, and I loved to discuss with him our profession and theater, which he worshiped . With all that, he never lectured; he neither imposed anything upon me, nor did he give advice. But he willingly answered my questions, trying to find the solution together with me. I remember that once I asked him, ‘Sasha, do you think I should emphasize Faust’s decrepitude in the Prologue, as directors demand?  You walk around hunched over like an old man , but then as soon as you start singing, the sound must be powerful and firm.”
“Yes," replied Pirogov, "the tessitura here can fit even a dramatic tenor, and the scientist’s decrepit look doesn’t match it.  But I doubt that it has to.  Faust is still racked by passions. He even agreed to sell his soul to the devil to get his youth back. But it’s not necessary to be an old man to wish to become young. Besides, there’s nothing about it in the music, and music is the main thing for us, no matter what directors say.” Since then, Alexander Stepanovich and I have become friends. I’m obliged to him also because he had been the first person who suggested to me that I should make my début at the Bolshoi. Almost all the singers I have written about performed during my second season in Tbilisi, and I was their constant partner. Of course, I did not consider myself equal to the guest artists from Moscow, but in any event I didn’t ruin ensembles.  They were content with my performances. This suggested to me the idea of a début at the Bolshoi, and I was encouraged by Pirogov, V. Slivinsky and some other people whom I trusted.

And there I was, writing a letter to B.S. Arkanov (who at that time had already became the Vice Manager of the Bolshoi), asking him to let me make my début in the roles of Tsar Berendei and the Duke.  The reply came soon; I was informed that my performances were scheduled for February 20th and 23rd, 1931. The Bolshoi's Snow Maiden was staged by V.A. Lossky. Luckily, at that time he was in Tbilisi. I asked Vladimir Apollonovich to go through the part with me; in Tbilisi the opera was not currently being performed. Lossky worked out the role of Berendei with me in every detail, literally introducing me to the Bolshoi’s production. I didn’t see the opera but learnt all the mise-en-scenes and the character’s behavior.  
I got a send-off from my friends and started for Moscow. However, as one might imagine, the journey was not without obstacles. We were caught in such a snowstorm that the train was stuck near Rostow for 24 hours. I had to send a telegram to Moscow, informing them that I would be late, but would sing anyway.
I arrived in Moscow the night before the performance. In the morning I came to the theater. Both my débuts were already on the bills.  At the theater I was introduced to the conductor V.V. Nebolsin.  “This is your Tsar Berendei” for the today." He looked at me with slight mistrust. I suggested to him that I could sing in half voice to check the tempi. He saw that I knew the part and soon let me go, to avoid useless tiring of my voice. After that I fell into the “ hands “ of the director V.L.Nardov  [ O.L. Knipper-Chekhova's brother - footnote] I decided to be a bit clever: not telling him about my work with Lossky, I asked him to just describe Berendei’s mise-en- scenes. I simply wanted to check and see if anything had changed in the production or not. It turned out that everything I had been taught by Vladimir Apollonovich, remained the same. Naturally, I knew not only the mise-en-scenes, but every movement. I pleaded tiredness and refused to repeat them, telling him that I remembered everything. Apparently, Nardov thought that I was an insolent fellow, though he didn’t reveal his “discovery." 
I don’t know how to express in words my emotions before the performance. I was gripped by the most contradictory feelings, but all  my doubts and fears were shoved to the background by the huge emotional animation. I hadn’t experienced anything like that before. And it’s natural – from the days of my youth the Bolshoi represented for me the most sacred things in art; it had been my goal for many years…While I was putting makeup on and dressing up, I still  felt as though  I were in a fairy-tale, not believing that soon everything would happen. Before my entrance,  Khanayev came in; he was a friend of mine from the Conservatory, and had sung at the Bolshoi for five years. He reminded me that the Bolshoi’s acoustics do not tolerate forced sound, but rather it decorates and enriches the voice, if an artist sings naturally, without tension. “Just show your timbre and everything will be all right,” he said… 
And there I was on the stage, with a paint brush in my hand, sitting and painting flowers on the column. Incidentally, I turned, looked into the darkness of the hall and was terrified: the conductor loomed somewhere far, far away. “How will I sing?” However, I got control of myself, taking comfort in the thought that there was much time left to adapt. I started to paint flowers again, and to show that I was calm, I found the strength to reproach the “servants”, surrounding me, for giving me brushes with only black paint, while the flower must be many-colored. That switch of attention was very helpful, I distracted myself from scary thoughts. Psaltery players stopped singing. For a moment I stayed alone on the stage. It was unpleasant… but then came Bermyata – Sergei Krasovsky— a friend of mine from Raisky’s class. I was so glad to see him, as though he was my relative, and I started to forget about the audience. 

 Lemeshev as Tsar Berendei, the 1930's

Tsar Berendei is a very rewarding part for a début. It gives you an opportunity to get used to the stage, to think it over and to concentrate. The main thing in this part is timbre, calm and beautiful, smooth singing. …The time came for the scene with Kupava – K.G. Derzhinskaya—and I suddenly felt underlying cheerfulness and support in her singing. And so it was, of course: when after the duet I went to see Kupava to the door , Ksenia Georgiyevna managed to whisper a couple of approving words to me, and they were like balm for my soul, “Don’t worry, everything's all right. You have a pleasant voice.”  The moment came for me to begin to sing the cavatina, I felt at home and thought only about singing. I finished the cavatina to applause. 
Two days later was my second scheduled performance, in “Rigoletto.” I took part in the piano rehearsal and the stage rehearsal. Golovin and I were already in make-up, and waited for the bell to ring to go on the stage. But we didn’t hear it; the house was empty. It turned out that all the tickets had been sold to some military organization, which failed to  attend that evening. The show was canceled right before the start. I was terribly upset. First, because I felt that I was in good vocal form, and second, because after that performance the decision was to have been made, as to whether I would be in the company, or not. 
However, my luck helped me again. As soon as we were told about the cancellation, Alexander Ivanovich Alexeyev came to the dressing room. He was  a good singer and a friend of mine from Stanislavsky’s studio. Upon learning about the show, he hurried to offer me an opportunity to replace him as Gerald in Lakme on February 26. He immediately promised to settle that matter with the management and to introduce me to the production. I agreed, of course, though I didn’t want to make a début in such an unrewarding role, but I had no choice…The opera was heard by Ye. K. Malinovskaya and B.S. Arkanov. Of course, I was very nervous again, but a solid knowledge of the part and the friendly attitude of my partners helped me.
The following morning I was invited to see the Chief Manager. After a short, but kind speech, Yelena Konstantinovna Malinovskaya  said that she could offer me a generally modest salary to begin with, though on the leading tenor roles, 350 rubles per month (the highest salary was 700 rubles) and a guarantee of 7performances a month. All this she confirmed in a telegram to Tbilisi , where they already knew that I had been accepted by the Bolshoi. I was enlisted as a leading tenor and I signed a one-year contract.  

S. Lemeshev “Put k iskusstvu” 1968

E. Grosheva “S. Ya . Lemeshev” 1987.

N. Bogolyubov. "Shestdesyat let v opernom teatre"1967
V.N. Kudryavtseva - Lemesheva. "Ryadom s Lemeshevym"2002
A. Orfenov "Zapisky russkogo tenora" 2004

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.