I have no recollection of what I was doing when I first heard Ivan Rebroff’s (1931 ~ 2008) singing voice. Whatever it was I imagine I stopped doing it; I was enchanted. I was also intrigued because when at the end of the ballad I listened out for the names of the duet I heard only one name mentioned. I couldn’t understand it; with my own ears I had listened to the richest baritone imaginable who, during his performance, had been joined in harmony by a soprano.
During the song I pictured in my mind a bass baritone; perhaps Russia’s Dmitri Hvorostovsky or Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel. Yet, the German singer’s high notes might easily be envied, certainly applauded, by Anna Netrebko or Kathleen Ferrier. Surely my ears were deceiving me; surely that ballad had not been sung by one man?
Mystified, I checked out the Berlin-born vocalist, Ivan Rebroff. A huge bear-like man, the artiste was invariably clad in fur hat, sable coat and embroidered shirt.
Ivan’s passport name is Hans-Rolf Rippert. His father was a German engineer, his brother, Horst Rippert, nine years Ivan’s senior, served in the Luftwaffe. The aviator shot down the French writer Antoine de Saint Exupery who collaborated with the allies. Rebroff’s mother was Natalia Nelina, a friend of the Russian opera singer Feodor Chaliapin and was possibly Russian. Ivan Rebroff considered himself to be international.
Having studied singing at Hamburg’s Hochschule fur Musik und Theater Rebroff became famous for singing Russian folk songs. Specialising in the folk songs of the Don Cossack he was accepted into the Black Sea Cossack Choir in 1954. However, his repertoire covered opera, light classics and the folk songs of other nations too.
Wartime nightingale Lale Anderson’s career took off after her recording of Lili Marlene was broadcast; Rebroff’s really hit the high notes in 1967 when a radio show broadcast his Legend of the Twelve Robbers. The broadcaster was immediately overwhelmed by hundreds of letters from enthralled listeners who wanted to know more about this fascinating artiste. Never slow to turn opportunity to make a fast buck, Rothschild the banker was quick to capitalise on the Rebroff image. The non-Jewish German performer played the part of Tevye the milkman in the Jewish propaganda theatre production, Fiddler on the Hoof (sic).
Fluent in five languages Ivan Rebroff sang in German, Russian, French, English and Afrikaans. The versatile melody-maker completed world tours; performed more than 6,000 concerts, sang into his seventies and collected 49 Gold Discs and one Platinum Disc over five continents. Sharing his time between his castle homes in Germany’s Taunus Mountains and villa on the Greek island Skopelos, Ivan Rebroff never married.
Whilst most of us would consider we had won the lottery of life were we fortunate enough to live in such locations this must be put into context. Few stars worked harder and for longer than did Ivan Rebroff. In all likelihood his punishing schedule left him little opportunity to enjoy either.
Never self-indulgent, Ivan Rebroff, a sufferer of chronic diabetes, channelled much of his earnings into related charities. A man of supreme integrity the entertainer always saw to it that recipient charities were free of corruption. At the end of his life not one negative charge could be levelled at Germany’s greatest German baritone-soprano ever.
Video: EVENING BELLS Ivan Rebroff
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