Boris Christoff was born in Plovdiv, Bulgaria on 18 May 1914.
The family was very well to do and Boris received the best
education available, including a period of study at the University
of Sofia. During this time he sang both with the chorus of
the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and with the Opera company
in “Lohengrin”, “Tannhauser” and “Prince
Igor”. He gave up formal studies in 1939, but continued
to be privately tutored with the definite intention of pursuing
an operatic career.
Boris made enough money to support himself working as a judge
and he occupied much of his spare time singing with the Gusla
Chorus. In 1940, after making an enormous impression as the
chorus’s soloist, he sang his first recital at Sofia’s
Sala Bulgaria. Four days after the outbreak of World War II,
Bulgaria declared its neutrality, so Boris was spared the
horror of armed conflict. At some point after his graduation
from the University, Boris did serve in the armed forces and
was commissioned in the cavalry. He sang regularly in military
concerts and was so admired that he was invited to appear
on Bulgarian radio as a soloist.
With his military service behind him, with financial help
from the Royal Family, and with his family’s blessing,
on 18 May 1942, his birthday, he emigrated to Italy where,
he felt he might better advance his career. The details are
unclear but it is certain that sometime during 1942, with
help from Giuseppe de Luca, he was introduced to Riccardo
Stracciari, who took an immediate interest in the youngster.
The great baritone worked with Christoff for nearly two years,
tutoring him in the core Italian bass repertoire: Mefistofele,
Don Basilio, Philip, Ramfis and Guardiano, as well as Leporello
in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”. Christoff returned
to Sofia for concerts in 1943, and after further study with
Stracciari, he moved to Austria, where, during 1944 and 1945
he made several guest appearances in concerts and recital
including several broadcasts.
After the defeat of the Axis powers, life began to return
to normal and Boris was free to travel wherever he wished.
He returned to Italy, where, on 28 December 1945 under the
auspices of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, he made what he
considered his official stage debut. The program consisted
of several Russian songs, Leporello’s catalogue aria
and Boris Gudonov’s “I have attained the highest
power”. A month later, at Rome’s Teatro Adriano
he sang Wotan’s Farewell with the Santa Cecilia orchestra
under Molinari Pradelli and on 12 May 1946 he made his operatic
debut as Colline in “La Boheme” at Reggio Calabria.
On 7 February 1947 Christoff sang an all Brahms recital at
the Accademia di Santa Cecilia and the following evening he
made his debut at Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera as
Pimen in “Boris Gudonov”. This was a real breakthrough;
he had made it into Italy’s second theater in a leading,
if not starring, role, and the reviews were excellent. At
the end of the month he appeared at Palermo’s Teatro
Massimo in Beethoven’s Symphony Number Nine, after which
he returned to Rome for Zehrer’s “Requiem Mass”
and Handel’s “Messiah”.
Christoff debuted at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice on the
20th in the Mozart “Requiem” and ive days later
sang in the “Creation” at Perugia. It was clear
that he was very much admired as a vocalist, but that most
of Italy was not ready to offer him lucrative opera engagements,
yet. He returned to Venice in November for Beethoven’s
9th and on 30 December made his opera debut there as King
Mark in “Tristan and Isolde” with Callas, Barbieri,
Tasso and Torres under Serafin’s direction. Boris was
certain that this engagement would assure his passage from
comprimario to star, and his intuitions were correct.
On 17 February 1948 Christoff debuted at Trieste’s
Teatro Verdi as Dosifey in “Khovanschina” and
a week later assumed the role of Hagen in “Gotterdammerung”.
He received enormous acclaim in the press and was called almost
immediately to substitute for an ailing Tancredi Pasero as
Tsar Boris at Cagliari. It was an historic performance, calling
forth every superlative imaginable. “Christoff has interpreted
this most difficult role with a remarkable personality….
The death scene culminated in a display of extraordinary dramatic
power and sublime singing”. - Corrado Atzeri.
Boris was now hailed as one of Italy’s leading singers.
Florence saw him as both Dosifey in “Khovanschina”
and King Henry in Lohengrin during the festival weeks of the
Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and in July he debuted at Caracalla
as Ramfis. In September he sang in Handel’s “Samson”
at Perugia and in October he assumed the role of Fiesco for
the first time with the forces of Rome’s Radio Station.
In November with Turin Radio he sang Kaspar in “Der
Freischutz” to the Agathe of Caterina Mancini and in
December he returned to Florence in “Khovanschina”
with Rossi-Lemeni. On 23 December he debuted at Naples’
Teatro San Carlo as Oroveso in a cast that included Maria
Caniglia, Elena Nicolai and Mirto Picchi. Christoff walked
off with the reviews. “Majestic, of a grandeur that
this theater has not seen since before the War”. On
the 28th he ended the year at the San Carlo with “Der
1949 began with the historic revival of “I Puritani”
at the Fenice with Maria Callas, who stepped into the role
of Elvira on five days notice, replacing an indisposed Margherita
Carosio. Her performance made headlines throughout Italy.
Commentators went to history books to find another occasion
in which any singer had alternated such distinctly different
roles as the Walkuere Brunnhilde and the Bellini heroine.
Christoff was again lauded for the authority of his acting
and the magnificence of his voice. On 31 January he appeared
as Rocco in “Fidelio” at La Scala and on 9 February
he sang Dosifey partnered again by Rossi- Lemeni. Late in
the month he returned to Venice for Dosifey and in March he
sang in Cimarosa’s “Il Matrimonio Segreto”
at La Scala.
The Milan public saw him as Guardiano on 22 March in a cast
that included Elisabetta Barbato, Giulietta Simionato, Mario
Filippeschi and Paolo Silveri, and after several concerts
in the spring, he appeared at the Verona Arena on 21 July
in “Lohengrin” with Renata Tebaldi, Nicolai, Gianni
Poggi and Torres. At Salzburg, he appeared in the Verdi Requiem
and Beethoven’s Symphony # 9 and in September he sang
Seneca in “L’Incoronazione di Poppea” at
Vicenza. The opera was repeated intact at Venice’s Fenice
on 16 September. In October he sang Banquo for the first time
for Turin Radio and on 19 November he debuted at Covent Garden
as Tsar Boris. The London Times reported “the fact that
Christoff sang the role in Russian was a small price to pay
for such a fine interpretation”. A later article sported
the banner headline “Covent Garden finds a new Chaliapin”.
Harold Rosenthal stated that London had been privileged to
see his debut in the role and that he had previously sung
only Pimen and Varlaam. Neither statement was true; he had
previously sung Boris and he had not sung Varlaam. In fact,
he sang Varlaam only once, in a semistaged television broadcast
from Copenhagen in 1971, a performance in which he also sang
Boris and Pimen. On the 25th he repeated the Beethoven 9th
at Royal Albert Hall with Schwarzkopf, J. Watson and Schock
under von Karajan’s direction. During his stay he made
his first recordings for HMV. He closed out the year with
another triumph as Tsar Boris at La Scala.
On 21 January 1950 Boris appeared in “Simon Boccanegra”
at the Fenice with Mancini, Penno and Tagliabue and on 4 February
he sang Gounod’s Mephistopheles for the first time.
His Venice season ended on 19 February as Rocco in “Fidelio”.
The Naples San Carlo presented him in Tannhauser on 12 March
with Tebaldi, Hans Beirer, and Tagliabue and later in the
month he returned to Cagliari for “Il Matrimonio Segreto”
and “Khovanschina”. In April he repeated Dosifey
at La Scala and on 27 May, for the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino,
he sang Philip in “Don Carlo”. The stellar cast
of Caniglia, Stignani, Picchi, Silveri and Neri was conducted
by Tullio Serafin. On 15 June, at Florence, he sang Agammemnon
in Gluck’s “Iphiginie in Aulide” and at
the end of the month Boris traveled to Berne for “La
Forza del Destino”. At La Scala he appeared in Beethoven’s
“Missa Solemnis”, Bach’s Mass in B minor,
and in Brahms’ “Deutsches Requiem” with
Victoria de los Angeles, all of which received unqualified
It was time for Christoff’s Met debut. Rudolf Bing
had decided to inaugurate his era with “Don Carlo”
and he invited Boris to debut on the opening night. The United
States government had just enacted the McCarran Immigration
act by which citizens of many countries, including Bulgaria,
were barred from entry into the country. In fact, Christoff
was accused of being a Russian, from Moscow, and he naively
declared in a sworn statement that he had never even been
to Moscow. The immigration service would not relent despite
intervention from Sol Hurok and other high placed dignitaries.
With a short time remaining until the first performance, Bing
reluctantly gave up hope that the issue would be resolved
and offered the role to Cesare Siepi. The production and the
libretto were protested as subversive, anti Catholic and pro
Communist by many Roman Catholics and some far right politicians.
The fact that Christoff had been engaged only contributed
to the controversy and there were pickets at the Met for a
considerable period of time before the premiere and during
its run. Boris Christoff would sing in the United States six
years later, but his subsequent negotiations with the Met
amounted to nothing, and he never did appear in that theater.
The Met’s loss was posterity’s gain, because
on 20 November 1950 he recorded the role of Gurnemanz in a
most moving performance of Parsifal for Italian Radio. Maria
Callas sang a surpassing Kundry and among the Flower Maidens
was Lina Pagliughi. It has been released in several editions
and is among the author’s favorite recordings. On 23
December he sang the role of Cerevik in “La Fiera di
Sorocinski” at the Rome Opera and two weeks later sang
in “La Sonnambula” at that theater with Carosio
and Cesare Valletti. On 6 February he recorded both Galitsky
and Konchak in “Prince Igor” for Italian Radio
and later in the month he returned to the Rome Opera for “Ernani”
with Mancini, Penno and Silveri.
On 26 February he repeated Gudonov at London’s Covent
Garden and made additional recordings for HMV. March found
him at Cagliari for the Manzoni Requiem and “Don Carlo”
and in April he returned to La Scala for Galitsky and Konchak.
In May he sang Procida for the first time in a spectacular
production at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Callas was Elena,
Kokolios sang Arrigo and Enzo Mascherini sang Montforte. It
is preserved on record and is a truly grand performance, even
if the tenor leaves something to be desired. He continued
his season at Florence in Haydn’s “Orfeo ed Euridice”,
again with Callas, after which he took a long break from performing.
On 6 September he debuted as Philip at Rio de Janeiro’s
Teatro Municipal and on the 16th he sang Oroveso to the Norma
of Callas, the Adalgisa of Nicolai and the Pollione of Picchi.
On 9 October he debuted at Antwerp as Tsar Boris and on 3
November he sang Oroveso at Catania. Callas, Simionato and
Gino Penno rounded out the cast and the Sicilian press declared
the revival the most satisfactory in this Century. Six days
later he sang in “I Puritani” with Callas, after
which he traveled to Florence for his first assumption of
the title role in Rossini’s “Mose”. Mancini,
Carteri and Gustavo Gallo were his partners. On 7 December
he opened the La Scala season as Procida, again with Callas
who was making her official debut at the theater.
On New Years Day 1952 he debuted at Barcelona’s Liceo
as Tsar Boris and on the 17th he returned to Rome for “Der
Freischutz” with Mancini, Simionato and Franco Albanese.
On 21 March he recorded Boris Gudonov for Rome’s Radio
Station and on 16 April he recorded the “Deutsches Requiem”
with Carteri. On 27 July he performed Boito’s Mefistofele
for the first time when he debuted at Naples’ outdoor
Arena Flegrea. In the autumn Bologna heard him in “Lohengrin”
with Carteri, Nicolai and Penno and in “Simon Boccanegra”
with Mancini, Penno and his brother in law, Tito Gobbi. Theirs
was not a good relationship, and as we will later see, there
were public feuds, which both men in later years attempted
to play down. On 14 December he repeated Tsar Boris for the
Rome Opera and opened the New Year in the role at Modena’s
In 1953, Boris sang Boris at Venice, Cagliari, the Paris
Opera, and at Nice. He also sang in “Faust” at
Rimini, “Don Carlo” at Bologna and “Norma”
with Callas, Nicolai and Corelli at Trieste. Il Giornale di
Trieste: “Boris Christoff defined with unquestionable
authority the beauty and vigor of his voice and the dignity
of his acting”. Boris opened 1954 with “Don Carlo”
at Venice and on 13 February he sang Gounod’s “Mephisto”
at La Scala with Schwarzkopf, Poggi, and Mascherini. In March,
the Rome Opera presented Christoff, Mancini, Nicolai, Corelli
and Gobbi in a stunning and hugely successful production of
On 8 June, Boris sang in Tschaikovsky’s “Mazeppa”
at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino with Magda Olivero, and
at Caracalla, in July, he sang Zaccaria in “Nabucco”
with Mancini, Albanese and Gobbi. August found him at Naples
for “Aida” with Cerquetti, Nicolai, Penno and
Giangiacomo Guelfi and for “Faust”. In November
he sang Ivan in Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera on Milan’s
Radio network and in December he returned to Florence for
“Nabucco” and “La Boheme”.
In early January 1955 Boris sang both Galitzky and Konchak
at the Rome Opera and began rehearsals for “Medea”
with Maria Callas. Callas, when told that Boris would be Creonte,
protested that she should have known earlier, claiming veto
rights over casting until shown her contract. Christoff protested
cuts in the score, stating that he was left with one third
of the role, and that he would not sing unless the cuts were
restored. He furthermore asserted that the Meneghinis were
behind it. Meneghini, for his part, hired a claque to disrupt
Christoff'’s scenes, and on the first night, 22 January,
a large number of people did exactly that at the end of Creonte’s
invocation. There were fights in the balcony and police had
to be called to the upper reaches of the theater to restore
some semblance of order. Maria was protested at the end of
“Deh tuoi Figli” and again, there was a delay.
At the end of act two, as Maria approached the proscenium
for a solo curtain call, Boris blocked her way and refused
to allow her passage. “Either we all go out together,
or no one goes out”. The applause was frantic and interminable
but no one appeared on the stage. Finally, the theater’s
manager explained to a large group of onlookers and reporters
“ Oh it’s nothing serious. Just a Greco-Bulgarian
war”. Callas ultimately retreated to her dressing room.
They completed the engagement and never sang together again.
In 1955 Boris added Handel’s “Judas Maccabeus”,
“Acis and Galatea” and “Giulio Cesare”
to his repertoire and in 1956, he sang Sarastro at Naples
and Don Basilio at Rio de Janeiro for the first times. He
also debuted in the United States at the San Francisco War
Memorial on 25 September as Tsar Boris and a few nights later
he sang in “Simon Boccanegra” with Renata Tebaldi
and Leonard Warren. The company performed both operas in Los
Angeles. Arthur Bloomfield’s “The San Francisco
Opera” - “When Christoff arrived, he did not like
the production at all. Furthermore, he had an argument with
Steinberg who had replaced Von Matacic as conductor and left
a rehearsal to sulk in his dressing room. Swallowing his dissatisfaction
somewhat, he ultimately did perform as advertised”.
On 10 December he sang in New York for the first time at the
NBC studios. In a concert that included Marian Anderson, de
los Angeles and Richard Tucker, Christoff sang Boris’s
Farewell and Death. On 26 December he returned to Rome for
“Iris” with Clara Petrella and Giuseppe di Stefano.
The performance has been preserved on CD and is among the
favorite versions of that opera for a large number of people.
In May1957 he debuted as Dosifey at Lisbon’s Sao Carlos
and later sang in “Simon Boccanegra” there with
Pobbe, Gobbi and Corelli. On May 25 he recorded Massenet’s
“Don Quichotte” at Milan with Teresa Berganza
and in June he returned to the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino
for “Ernani” with Cerquetti, Del Monaco and Bastianini.
In September, Cerquetti, Simionato, Miranda Ferraro, Protti
and Christoff record “La Forza del Destino” for
RAI. The Convent Scene is among the great moments in our recorded
legacy, and, though flawed, is of a grandeur that is breathtaking.
So says the author. Boris returned to the United States in
October for a debut at New Orleans as Tsar Boris and followed
that with concerts at Miami, Washington, Philadelphia and
Pittsburgh. On 22 November he debuted as Philip at the Chicago
Lyric with Cerquetti, Nell Rankin, Brian Sullivan and Tito
Gobbi. Paul Fornatar remembers - “I was fortunate enough
to see everything Christoff did in Chicago. Sublime would
describe the total package of voice, acting and makeup. He
was the role he was singing and I think he might have considered
himself a great artist…that was the magnetism that crossed
the footlights…….The voice never recorded as full
and penetrating as it was in the house…It wasn’t
a large voice but a dark arrow which penetrated to the marrow”.
1958 recorded one of the most infamous episodes in Christoff’s
professional life. At the Rome Opera during a rehearsal of
Don Carlo, as Philip was in the act of confronting his son
in the “Auto da Fe”, Christoff’s sword came
crashing down upon Franco Corelli’s own, and blows were
struck. Tito Gobbi describes the scene “It is a terrific
moment and I still see Boris, as the King, meeting the uplifted
sword of the young and handsome Corelli and the fierce blows
they exchanged before I stepped hastily forward to prevent
quite a serious accident. Recalling this tempestuous rehearsal,
I cannot help asking myself whether some magic from the scenic
suggestion affected them or some private grudge provoked this
realistic encounter”. Christoff retreated from the theater
and withdrew from the production, declaring that Corelli was
devoid of artistic integrity. Mario Petri replaced him and
the revival was, despite the defection, an enormous success.
The year also found Christoff’s in two of his most
celebrated performances, both preserved on LP and CD. At Naples
in March, he sang in “La Forza del Destino” with
Tebaldi, Dominguez, Corelli, Bastianini and Capecchi and in
May he appeared in the historic Visconti production of “Don
Carlo” in London with Brouwenstijn, Barbieri, Vickers
and Gobbi. Nick Palmer remembers - “I guess that I went
to some 20 performances with Christoff, Boris and Don Carlo
mainly. ….Irrevocably etched in my memory - his curtain
calls. I never saw him acknowledge the audience with other
than a grave inclination of his head. I never saw him even
lift his arms. I never saw even the remotest hint of a smile.
Even amidst the audience cacaphony he stood nearly immobile
- almost arrogant….”. On 2 December he made his
Carnegie Hall debut in a concert version of “Mose”
with the American Opera Society and on 18 December he repeated
the role at La Scala.
In the spring of 1959, after further performances of “Mose’
at Rome, he returned to La Scala for “A Life for the
Czar” with Scotto, Cossotto and Gianni Raimondi, and
in June, Boris sang for the Milanese in “Iphiginie in
Aulide” with Simionato, Adriana Lazzarini and Mirada
Ferraro. In August at Rome he recorded the Verdi Requiem with
Vartenissian, Cossotto and Fernandi and in September he recorded
a recital of Tschaikovsky songs at Paris. Christoff ended
the year with Boris Gudonov in London.
January of 1960 found Boris in Philadelphia and New York
for concerts, and in February he returned to La Scala for
Tsar Boris, followed by “Parsifal”. He sang in
“Don Carlo” at Salzburg in August, and in October,
he returned to Chicago as Philip with Roberti, Simionato,
Tucker and Gobbi. The arguments between the two brothers in
law were horrific and Gobbi said in a later interview “men
who are secure in themselves and know what they want, will
disagree”. The local newspapers referred to gross epithets
that were unprintable. The theater’s management attempted
to mitigate the damage by painting a picture of two men who
misunderstood certain directions in the production and Gobbi
later stated that “we basically argued over two dogs
in one of the scenes, nothing more than that”. The performances
were considered superb and the incident was all but dropped.
On 13 December, Boris returned to La Scala for “Don
Carlo” with Stella, Simionato, Labo and Bastianini.
The newcomer, Nicolai Ghiaurov, was assigned the role of the
Grand Inquisitor. So much anger passed between the two men
that physical restraint was threatened on more than one occasion.
Ghiaurov was admired and supported by the Communist regime
in Bulgaria, and Christoff was so despised, that when his
father died earlier in the year, he was denied a visa to attend
the funeral. Audiences were mesmerized by the palpable effect
of their intense animosity, most thinking that it was the
product of a dramatic brilliance engendered by the opera.
The tensions became unbearable, and Christoff announced that
the theater was not large enough to accommodate both men.
He was very specific in his demand that one or the other would
have to leave. The Scala management chose not to capitulate
and offered Boris the opportunity to honor his contract with
“Parsifal” which was already in rehearsal with
Rita Gorr, Sandor Konya, and Gustave Neidlinger. He chose
to sing Gurnemanz. On 11 May, 1961 the doors of La Scala were
closed behind Boris Christoff, never again to be opened.
In August Boris debuted at the King’s Theater in Edinburgh
as Don Basilio and in September he recorded “Gallo d’Oro”
(The Golden Cockerel) for Rome Radio. He returned to Chicago
in October for “Mefistofele”, ‘La Forza
del Destino” and “Barbiere di Siviglia”
and ended the year at Naples as Philip.
In March 1962 he debuted at the Vienna Staatsoper in “Don
Carlo” with Sena Jurinac, Simionato, Labo, Eberhardt
Waechter and Hans Hotter and in May he returned for “La
Forza del Destino”. In October, Chicago saw him in “Prince
Igor” and “La Boheme” and in December Boris
sang in Verdi’s “Attila” for the first time
at Florence’s Teatro Comunale.
In April 1963 Christoff debuted at Hamburg as Philip and
in May he sang in “Faust” at Geneva. Chicago hosted
him as Zaccaria, Pizarro and Don Basilio in the autumn, and
he ended the year at Florence with Tsar Boris. In January
1964 Boris sang Pogner at the Rome opera, and after appearances
at Paris and Vienna, he sang in “Prince Igor”
at Rome in September.
He returned to the United States on 16 March 1966 as “Boris
Gudonov” with the Boston Opera Company. As a critic
said:” He was magnetic and deeply moving. Audience reaction
Boris Christoff never sang before a live audience in his
homeland Bulgaria after his debut at Rome in 1945.
On 23 June 1993 Boris’ life was spent. His body was
returned to the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia where he
had first sung as a boy, for a state funeral.