Galina Vishnevskaya (1926-2012)

Great Russian soprano dies, aged 86

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Galina VishnevskayaGalina Vishnevskaya, the great Russian soprano, has died at the age of 86.

A star singer of the Bolshoi in the Soviet era, Vishnevsakaya was born and studied in St Petersburg. She made her stage debut in operetta in 1944, before joining the Bolshoi in 1952, where she soon became known for her intensely passionate and richly expressive voice.

Vishnevskaya was a renowned interpreter of Russian repertoire – Musorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich in particular – and at the Bolshoi was the first to sing the roles of Natasha in Prokofiev’s War and Peace (1959) and Sofia in his Semyon Kotko (1970). ‘When I joined the Bolshoi I was already a creature of the stage, ready to sing the opera parts and to act the roles,’ said Vishnevskaya, ‘to create stage images in the full sense of the words.’

She was also a muse of Britten and Shostakovich. The British composer was inspired to compose the taxing soprano role in his War Requiem for her, after hearing her in a recital in Aldeburgh including Musorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death. In the event, Soviet restrictions prevented Vishnevskaya from appearing in the 1962 premiere, but she did go on to sing on the premiere recording, conducted by Britten.

Vishnevskaya’s voice was the inspiration for Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony, and his Blok Song Cycle, which was written for Vishnevskaya and her husband, the legendary Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. And Britten penned his Pushkin cycle The Poet’s Echo for the pair, who married in 1955. In 1974, they left the Soviet Union for the USA and then Paris, and were only allowed to return to their home country in 1990.

Named a people’s artist of the USSR in 1966, Vishenvskaya was just this year awarded the first class Order ‘For Merit to the Fatherland’ for her ‘outstanding contribution to Russian culture and music’ by the president Vladimir Putin. Her final opera performance was in 1982, as Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, and in 2002 she founded a singing centre in Moscow for the best young opera singers in Russia.