Sergei Yakovlevich Lemeshev (Russian: Серге́й Я́ковлевич Ле́мешев, born July 10, 1902 – died June 26, 1977, Moscow) was one of the most well-known and beloved Russian operatic lyric tenors.
Early Life and Career
Lemeshev was born into a peasant family, and his father wanted him to become a cobbler. In 1914, he left a parish school and was sent to be trained to make shoes in St Petersburg. In 1917, he graduated from school in Tver, where he received vocal training. He began first at a local workers’ club and later moved to Moscow.
Between 1921 and 1925, he studied at the Moscow Conservatory with Nazari Raisky. In 1924, he sang in the opera studio of Konstantin Stanislavsky. From 1926 and 1931, he sang in the theaters of Sverdlovsk, Harbin, and Tbilisi.
In 1931 Lemeshev was invited to the Bolshoi Theatre, made his debut and eventually became the theatre’s soloist. Lemeshev was a great worker and worked hard to develop each of his opera roles. His vocal and artistic qualities, evident to every listener, are beauty of timbre, musicality, effortlessness of vocal production, expressiveness, very clear diction and incredible pianissimo. The best years of his operatic career were from 1931 to 1942. He was also an outstanding concert singer and a brilliant performer of traditional Russian folk songs. In 1938, he became the first artist to sing all 100 romances by Tchaikovsky in 5 concerts. Folk songs broadcast on the radio further sealed his stature as a truly national singer.
The beginning of the Great Patriotic War (the Russian term for the war on the Eastern Front during WWII) was crucial for Lemeshev; during one evacuation he caught a very bad cold which resulted in two attacks of pneumonia, complicated by pleurisy and tuberculosis of the right lung. He was treated with an artificial pneumothorax, which induced the therapeutic collapse of one lung. Although singing was forbidden, he adapted by being more conscious and sensitive with regard to his technique and continued to sing with one lung from 1942 to 1948, when the other lung was also artificially collapsed and re-inflated.
In 1947, he toured and performed at the Berlin State Opera. Along with his friendly rival, tenor Ivan Kozlovsky, he was the leading tenor at the Bolshoi until 1956.
Signature Role as Lensky in Eugene Onegin
Lemeshev’s signature role was as Lensky in Eugene Onegin by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, and he performed it more than 500 times from 1927 onwards. He performed it for the last time on his 70th birthday, after suffering three heart attacks and having a lung removed.