Nicolai Ghiaurov (Николай Гяуров), one of the most prominent basses of the twentieth-century, was born in the small Bulgarian town of Velingrad in 1929. As a child his love of music led him to learn to play the violin, clarinet, and trombone. He first decided to take voice lessons during his national military service, when an officer who had heard him sing recommended him to Christo Brambarov, a singing teacher and prominent baritone in Sofia. It was the Italian-trained Brambarov who taught the young bass the qualities of singing Italian opera in the proper style. The acclaim with which the public received Ghiaurov's portrayals of the Italian roles of Mefistofele (in Boito's Mefistofele) and Philip II (in Verdi's Don Carlo) reflect well on Brambarov's lessons. After studying one year with Brambarov, Ghiaurov attended the conservatory in Moscow for five years. After winning a singing contest in Paris, Ghiaurov made his professional debut in 1955 at the Sofia Opera House as Don Basilio in Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Two years later he debuted at the Bolshoi in Moscow as Pimen in Boris Godunov (he would not perform the title role until 1965). In 1960 he made his La Scala debut as Varlaam in Boris Godunov. Two years later he made his British debut at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (in La Forza del Destino) and a year after that his American debut at the Lyric Opera in Chicago (in Mefistofele).
With his booming bass voice and dramatic sensibilities, Nicolai Ghiaurov quickly rose to the top of his field, excelling in the Russian, Italian, and French repertoires. In addition to Mefistofele and Philip II, among his most acclaimed roles were Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, Gounod's Mephistopheles, and Massenet's Don Quichotte. Verdi's Attila, Fiesco (Simon Boccanegra), Silva (Ernani), and Procida (I Vespri Siciliani), Rossini's Don Basilio, Mozart's Don Giovanni, Mussorgsky's Prince Khovanshchy (Khovanshchina), and Tachaikovsky's Prince Gremin (Eugene Onegin) were other successful roles for him. Most of Ghiaurov's portrayal of these roles and many others were recorded (often several times) either live or in the studio throughout his long career.
Ghiaurov continued singing in the world's greatest opera houses for almost fifty years, until he passed away in June 2004 at the age of 74. A fan of old opera recordings, soccer, and fishing, he was survived by his wife of 23 years, the soprano Mirella Freni, and his two children from his previous marriage, the conductor Vladimir Ghiaurov and actress Elena Ghiaurov. The great bass's last performance, sung in January of his final year, was Don Basilio, the same role with which his operatic career began.