Early Life and Career
Sergei Diaghilev was born to a wealthy and cultured family in Selischi (Novgorod Governorate), Russia; his father, Pavel Pavlovich, was a cavalry colonel, but the family's money came mainly from vodka distilleries. After the death of Sergei's mother, his father married Elena Valerianovna Panaeva, an artistic young woman who was on very affectionate terms with her stepson and was a strong influence on him. The family lived in Perm but had an apartment in Saint Petersburg and a country estate in Bikbarda (near Perm). In 1890, Sergei's parents went bankrupt, having for a long time lived beyond their means, and from that time Sergei (who had a small income inherited from his mother) had to support the family. After graduating from Perm gymnasium in 1890, he went to the capital to study law at St. Petersburg University, but ended up also taking classes at the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music, where he studied singing and music (a love of which he had picked up from his stepmother). After graduating in 1892 he abandoned his dreams of composition (his professor, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, told him he had no talent for music). He had already entered an influential circle of artists who called themselves the Mir iskusstva: Alexandre Benois, Walter Nouvel, Konstantin Somov, Dmitry Filosofov, and Léon Bakst. Although not instantly received into the group, Diaghilev was aided by Benois in developing his knowledge of Russian and Western art. In two years, he had voraciously absorbed this new obsession (even travelling abroad to further his studies) and came to be respected as one of the most learned of the group.
With financial backing from Savva Mamontov (the director of the Russian Private Opera Company) and Princess Maria Tenisheva, the group founded the journal Mir iskusstva (World of Art). In 1899, Diaghilev became special assistant to Prince Sergei Mikhaylovich Volkonsky, who had recently taken over directorship of all Imperial theaters. Diaghilev was soon responsible for the production of the Annual of the Imperial Theaters in 1900, and promptly offered assignments to his close friends: Léon Bakst would design costumes for the French play Le Coeur de la Marquise, while Benois was given the opportunity to produce Sergei Taneyev's opera Cupid's Revenge.
In 1900–1901 Volkonsky entrusted Diaghilev with the staging of Léo Delibes' ballet Sylvia, a favorite of Benois. The two collaborators concocted an elaborate production plan that startled the established personnel of the Imperial Theatres. After several increasingly antagonistic differences of opinion, Diaghilev in his demonstrative manner refused to go on editing the "Annual of the Imperial Theatres" and was discharged by Volkonsky in 1901 and left disgraced in the eyes of the nobility. At the same time, some of Diaghilev's researchers hinted at his homosexuality as the main cause for this conflict. However, his homosexuality had been well known long before he was invited into the Imperial Theatres and so it could not be the real reason for his being discharged.
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