Today, we invite you to listen to recordings by the astonishing Ukrainian bass Alexander Kipnis (1891 – 1978) on a two-CD set from Nimbus, Alexander Kipnis in Opera and Lieder. If you are a member of Classical Archives, we invite you to listen now.
About Alexander Kipnis
Ukrainian bass Alexander Kipnis (1891 – 1978) was one of the greatest singers of the last century, and certainly one of the greatest basses of all time.
Perhaps because he performed at the highest levels across multiple musical genres, he is sometimes hard to categorize. He was a Ukrainian/Russian bass in the grand vocal tradition whose portrayal of Boris stood at the pinnacle of Russian art. But he was also among the greatest Lieder singers of the last century, on a par with giants like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Hans Hotter and Fritz Wunderlich. But if you start to pigeonhole him as a Lieder singer, you discover still more of his opera recordings and learn that he was a genuinely comic Leporello, a formidable Sarastro, and much more. And if you listen to his portrayal of Hunding in a recording of die Walküre with Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad, you have to accept the fact that he was a bass who would walk out onto a stage and positively roar.
Who was this category-defying bass who could spin out ravishing pianissimi in songs by Brahms and Schubert, yet unleash torrents of beautiful sound on the stage? Who exactly was this amazing singer?
A Remarkable Life Story
A little more than two decades ago I was writing a biography of Alexander Kipnis with his son Igor, a wonderful gentleman and, of course, a renowned harpsichordist. When Igor passed away in 2002 from kidney disease, I lost both a friend and the co-author of my book. Amadeus Press, the publisher of the book, wanted me to finish writing it, but without Igor, there was no way I could, and I abandoned the project.
But in the process of working on that biography, I learned a number of things about Alexander Kipnis – possibly facts that few other people know today. In this post, I would like to share some of that information with you, interwoven with facts about the singer’s life that are better known.
Who Alexander Kipnis Was
Alexander Kipnis, who was Jewish, was born into poverty in the ghetto of the town of Zhitomir in Ukraine. His father was a trader who dealt mostly in feathers. Like other Jews who resided in the Pale of Jewish habitation, he was forbidden to own land and had to eke out a living by buying and selling whatever he could for marginal profit. He hauled around a wooden cart and labored outdoors throughout the year.
Igor told me that his father Alexander remembered that his carter father had “coughed his lungs out” and died of tuberculosis. Igor also told me that Alexander, through his life, could remember blood on the floor of the unheated mud hut where the whole family lived – father, mother, Alexander and his three siblings.
At age 12 after his father died, Alexander became apprentice to a carpenter to support his family. He also began to sing in synagogues and joined a Yiddish theater group. Igor told me that his father harbored some lifelong guilt because he did not spend his life supporting his mother and siblings. It is possible that he wanted to enjoy a life that was better than that offered to him by a squalid ghetto. But based on my work on the biography of Alexander Kipnis, I think that music had almost literally seized him, starting when he was just a boy, and that it drove him ever westward through Poland, Germany, Austria, and finally to America.
In a recorded interview of Alexander I heard while I was working on the book, he told a story of an early encounter he had with music. While a little boy, he left the ghetto one night and went into town where, surrounded by local citizens, he listened to a band playing. When he went to a water fountain to take a drink, someone came up behind him, called him a rotten Jew, and hit him in the back of the head. Many years later, he still vividly remembered the sight of his own blood, mixed with water, running down the drain.
By age 19, Alexander had somehow managed to matriculate in the Warsaw Conservatory, perhaps because as a Ukrainian, he could freely cross the border into Poland. Apparently, Kipnis remained in Warsaw for only a few years. While he was in the choir of a synagogue there, the choirmaster arranged for him to enter the Berlin Conservatory – another major advance in his musical training – where he studied singing with Ernst Grenzebach, who also taught Lauritz Melchior, Max Lorenz and Meta Seinemeyer, a phenomenal soprano who, according to Igor Kipnis, became Alexander’s lover.
(Seinemeyer had a very operatic and tragic life. She died slowly of leukemia but still managed to sing leading roles in German opera houses up until the end. Incidentally, there is a phenomenal recording on Classical Archives of Seinemeyer singing a selection of opera arias. You won’t want to miss it.)
There is a famous story, borne out by what Igor Kipnis told me, that after the First World War started, Alexander was stranded in Berlin and could not return to either Poland or Ukraine, and he was held in a Berlin prison as an enemy alien. This legend relates that while Kipnis was singing to himself in a jail cell, he was overheard by an army captain whose brother was Intendant of the Wiesbaden Opera, where Alexander was given a soloist contract and sang more than 300 performances until he joined the Berlin Staatsoper in 1922. Note that there are similarities between this story and that of the great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who was discovered when he was a prisoner of war following World War II. Incidentally in a recorded interview I listened to as part of my research, Kipnis said that it was actually not a guard who overheard him singing, but rather another prisoner with whom Kipnis had performed in Yiddish musicals. So the story, while possibly embroidered a bit by someone over the years, has some truth at its core.
Alexander’s life continued to take unusual turns. In 1923, he visited the United States with a touring company called The Wagnerian Opera Company. Like a number of touring companies of the day, this one apparently ran out of funds while on tour and its artists were forced to find funding to return home. But in Chicago, Alexander met Mildred Levy, the daughter of the respected pianist and pedagogue Henriot Levy. Alexander and Mildred married in 1925.
From 1923 until 1932, he was on the roster of the Chicago Civic Opera. Yet he continued to return to Europe to perform. Kipnis remained with the Berlin Opera until 1935, when he was able to claim illness so he could break his contract and depart Nazi Germany. He then appeared for several seasons as a guest with the Vienna State Opera. Because he held dual citizenship with Germany and the United States, he was able to return and perform in Germany, most notably at Bayreuth, where despite his Jewish heritage he was reluctantly admired by Goebbels and allowed by high-ranking Nazis to perform. Among the materials that Igor Kipnis had on file about his father, one was a document, signed by Josef Goebbels, which gave Alexander Kipnis permission to perform at Bayreuth. I held this document in my hands, and it was chilling to see.
Kipnis was signed by the Metropolitan in 1940, by which time he had appeared in most of the world’s major opera houses, including the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, (in 1927 and 1929–1935), the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires (1926–1936) and of course at Berlin and Bayreuth.
At the start of his Met years in 1940, Kipnis was treated in strange, possibly discriminatory ways by the Met administration. Curiously Ezio Pinza, not Kipnis, was chosen to sing Boris that year at the Met. Why did the Met choose an Italian, not a great Russian/Ukrainian bass like Kipnis, for that assignment? It would be hard to blame Kipnis’s marginalization on Bruno Walter, who was the Met’s Music Director, on the grounds that Walter was an anti-Semite. Walter was Jewish too, after all. Any frictions apparently did not last long because by 1941, Walter was conducting performances of Fidelio at the Met with a cast that included Kipnis, Herbert Janssen and Kirsten Flagstad.
Alexander Kipnis continued to appear at the Met until 1946 when, at the age of only 56, he made a decision to retire because he did not feel that he was still capable of performing at the highest level. He then went on to teach singing at Juilliard and died in Westport, Connecticut in 1978, at age 87.
Listen to Alexander Kipnis on Classical Archives
As I mentioned earlier in this article, the Nimbus two-CD recording, Alexander Kipnis in Opera and Lieder Is available on Classical Archives.
In it, you will discover Kipnis’s artistry and phenomenal voice in performances of opera arias by Mozart, Verdi and Rossini as well as Lieder by Brahms, Schubert and more. Have you ever heard a more commanding performance of Wotan’s farewell from die Walküre, a more chilling interpretation of Schubert’s Erlkönig or a more deeply moving performance of Brahms’s Auf dem Kirchhofe? We would be surprised if you had. These are among the most fulfilling performances ever committed to record.