"My art of singing was born in Ukraine" - Xenia Belmas.

XENIA ALEXANDROVNA BELMAS was an opera singer, a diva of the French Grand Opera House (Opera Garnier) and the Berlin State Opera. In 1926, she performed at the legendary Grand Palais of Paris with 17 concerts. She was the record holder among opera vocalists of her time: a one-time streak in Germany totaled more than 80 arias and songs. 


Xenia sang in front of an audience from the very beginning, when she was 6 at a church choir in her native Chernihiv. There she participated in local concerts. Then she attended the Kyiv Conservatory. The girl brilliantly performed Leonora’s super-complicated song from “Fidelio” by Beethoven. She received the gold honors at her graduation. She got an internship at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, and immediately gained a fantastic reaction from the public and professionals.

Experts of the time stated that a new star had stepped on the global stage: “This is a unique soprano.” But a skyrocketing career did not happen: revolution and civil war interfered. She suffered the loss of property, of relatives, and had to sneak out of her own country. In 1921, risking her life, she and her friends crossed the Soviet-Polish border.

Subsequently, she moved to Germany. She studied in Italy, then decided to give Paris a try. “With a few changes of clothes in a suitcase, some petty cash in one pocket, and a letter of recommendation in another, she headed out to conquer the cultural capital of the world. -And Paris fell at her feet”, the doctor of history Iryna Filatova wrote in an article on Xenia Belmas.


Then there was her debut in “Aida” by Giuseppe Verdi at the Grand Opera without any rehearsal. She sang in 17 concerts accompanied by eight leading orchestras at the legendary Grand Palais at the Paris Exhibition of 1926. These triumphs brought recognition and unbelievable success to her.

Xenia Belmas 1930s.  


Still, to make money for living the life of a true star, the singer had to go on tour: Germany, Poland, Scandinavia, the Baltic states, Australia, Monte Carlo. She performed for half of the year along with her friend the famous ballerina Anna Pavlova. When she returned to Paris she got numerous job offers. However, she was not given French citizenship (because she did not live permanently in the country). Then came an invitation to tour to South Africa (1934). She achieved crazy success in the country, and made a decision to stay in South Africa forever. 

The African period of Belmas’ life is the most mysterious one. Why this continent? The singer herself, however, once said that she “found absolute tranquility and pleasure there”. In Durban, she started her own vocal school and dedicated her life to teaching singing. Her students called her “Our Madame”.

Belmas continued to perform. During World War II she gave concerts to raise funds for the purchase of medicine that were sent to the USSR. Even in the last years of her life, despite her age and the fact that private singing lessons were her only source of income (sometimes she had to pawn her things for food money), Madame Xenia dressed according to the latest fashions, and treated students and guests with her “signature” Ukrainian cuisine.


Xenia’s parents died during the revolutionary events of 1917. Her first husband, a wealthy landowner Arkady Bobrovnikov, died of his war wounds. Her second husband, the pianist and conductor Alexander Kitschin, ran away with a wealthy South African. But she had one devoted friend: the Estonian naval engineer Carl von Lilienstein. In her will she asked him to have her ashes buried in Chernihiv.

For 16 years after Xenia’s death, her friend kept the ashes at his home while waiting for the occasion. And at the earliest opportunity, he handed them over to a visiting journalist from the former USSR. She got into this unusual situation and approached the advisor of the Ukrainian Madame Belmas (second from left) with the singers of the Lucia di Lammermoor sextet, 1963. Pupils of Xenia Belmas performing The Tales of Hoffman. Durban, 1964. Embassy, Alexander Tsvetkov, and handed the ashes over to him in November 1998.

Bureaucratic delays took away another year and a half. Finally, at the turn of the millennium (2000), the singer was laid to rest in Ukrainian soil. However, the will of the officials outweighed the will of the deceased: for political reasons Belmas was buried in Kyiv, not in her native Chernihiv.


- The singer’s father was a naturalized Frenchman, and her mother was Ukrainian.

- Belmas: “When I was only five years old, I was already ‘giving performances’. I went from house to house and sang songs that my mother taught me.”

- Among the fans of her talent were: French President Gaston Doumergue, Marshal Henri Patten and Grand Opera Director Jacques Rouché.

- At least twice she lost all her wealth and had to start again from scratch. First, the Bolsheviks confiscated the property that was left to her after the death of her first husband. Many years later, her second husband took all the savings with him when he left her for another woman.

- Belmas’ departure from Europe for Africa at the peak of her career caused much speculation among biographers. Some of them wrote about Xenia with the words “She is presumed dead. There is no information about this singer now.” It was not until 1964, 30 years after her departure, when the rumors about Madame’s death were officially denied.

- She severely criticized the German (“manual”, as she said) performing style that prevailed among South African opera singers.

- She regularly sang during liturgies at the Holy Trinity Greek Church in Durban. She called her enemies a word that was incomprehensible to foreigners: “svolochi” (“bastard”).


- Her collectibles are still sold in Europe: you can find them for sale online.


• Belmas was born in Chernihiv on January 23, 1890.

• She graduated from the Kyiv Conservatory (1906-1910), interned at Bolshoi Theater of Moscow, Italian La Scala.

• She sang in the opera houses of Kharkiv, Odesa, Paris, and Berlin.

• She performed leading roles in the operas “Eugene Onegin” by Tchaikovsky, “The Snow Maiden” by Rimsky-Korsakov, “Fidelio” by Beethoven, “Aida” by Verdi.

• She was fluent in French.

• She died on February 2, 1981 in Durban (South Africa). She was buried in the Baikove Cemetery in Kyiv. There is an inscription on the tomb ceiling: “To the singing voice of Ukraine: Xenia Belmas. 1890-1981. Chernihiv – Durban.” 

This article by Nadiia Avramchuk and Mykola Sukhomozsky is reprinted with the publisher's permission from the book (UN)Celebrated Ukrainians Who Changed the Course of History, SAMIT-KNYHA, Kyiv, 2020. 

To suggest a correction or clarification, write to us here
You can also highlight the text and press Ctrl + Enter