He was born near Rostow into a poor family. His voice was discovered while singing in a church choir. The composer Anton Rubinstein advised him to study with the well-known teachers Gabel and Palatchek in St Petersburg. He also travelled to Italy for further studies with Cesare Rossi.
After returning to Russia in 1894, he spent a season at the opera house of Kharkov. The following year he was contracted to the Mariinsky Theatre, where he remained a principal of the company for 34 years! His popularity in Russia was enormous and he was called “The Russian Tamagno.” He specialized in heroic parts such as Otello, Florestan, Tristan, Lohengrin, Siegfried and Tannhäuser.
His Russian roles included Finn in Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila, and Grishka Kuterma in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, opposite the beautiful soprano Maria Kuznetsova . He was Berendy in Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden, Sadko (Doubrovsky) and Tucha in Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Maid of Pskow.
Ivan Yershov was undouptedly the greatest Russian heroic tenor of his time. After his retirement he continued to sing in concerts and became a renowned singing coach at the Leningrad Conservatory.