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Outspoken Russian Diva And Muse Galina Vishnevskaya Dies At 86

Soprano Galina Vishnevskaya was once caleld the "Russian Maria Callas" for her intense interpretations.
Capitol Records, Inc, courtesy of EMI Classics
Soprano Galina Vishnevskaya was once caleld the "Russian Maria Callas" for her intense interpretations.

Galina Vishnevskaya, once called the "Russian Maria Callas" for her electrifying interpretations, has died at her country home near Moscow. The soprano had been suffering from heart problems in the past few years; according to a spokesperson for the opera center Vishnevskaya founded in Moscow, she died surrounded by her loved ones.

Vishnevskaya commanded an almost royal position in Russian artistic life over a nearly 40-year career and was one of the few Soviet opera singers of her generation known in the West. Her awards included the Order of Lenin and the People's Artist prizes. Her close friends included Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten — the latter two wrote music especially for her. In 1955 she married the celebrated cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, with whom she performed frequently.

Yet her dignified stature proved shaky. When she and Rostropovich offered their home and support to writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet authorities balked and the couple was forced into exile in 1974, eventually settling in the U.S. Four years later, claiming they were "ideological renegades," the Soviet government stripped them of their citizenship, which they regained in 1990 during Mikhail Gorbachev's era of perestroika.

But Vishnevskaya was used to hardship, as her life unfolded with more tragic and triumphant twists and turns than any opera plot. Born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1926, she was abandoned by her parents as a 6-week-old infant. Raised in poverty by her grandmother, Vishnevskaya nearly died several times, first from starvation, then from childbirth (losing a son after 10 weeks) and later from tuberculosis. She also survived the siege of Leningrad during World War II, at one point serving in the missile defense troops.

At age 10, Vishnevskaya received a recording of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, which triggered her dream to become an opera singer. After the siege, she studied at the Rimsky-Korsakov School of Music and eventually began singing at the Leningrad District Operetta Theatre. Later, she auditioned for the Bolshoi Theatre in a youth competition, and was chosen from among thousands.

Vishnevskaya's highly polished voice and commanding technique lent a palpable richness to her many roles, which included a vast swath of the Russian repertoire and such Italian staples as Aida and Madama Butterfly, both of which she sang at the Metropolitan Opera beginning in 1961. When she sang Tosca at the Met in 1975, one New York Times critic wrote, "Galina Vishnevskaya's appearances at the Metropolitan Opera are like a comet's, sudden, infrequent, capable of lighting up the sky."

She was especially highly regarded as Tatiana in Eugene Onegin and as the title character in Shotakovich's biting Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Her portrayal of the tortured heroine is brutally raw yet beautiful and ultimately haunting. She befriended the composer in 1954. In her autobiography, Galina, which recalls many of the extraordinary events of her life, she wrote, "the friendship of Shostakovich cast a brilliant light over my whole life and whose spiritual qualities captured my soul once and for all time."

Vishnevskaya became an outspoken critic of modern opera productions, refusing to set foot in the Bolshoi after seeing a production of her beloved Eugene Onegin. She did, however, attend the reopening of the theater last year after long and controversial renovations.

In 2007, at age 80, Vishnevskaya surprised her fans with a film role. Playing a tough grandmother determined to visit her grandson inside a Chechen army camp, she gave a stunning performance in director Aleksandr Sokurov's Alexandra, which earned a Golden Palm nomination at Cannes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who expressed his condolences, issued a decree last week granting Vishnevskaya with the Order "For Merit to the Fatherland," 1st Class, for her contributions to Russian music and culture. She is survived by her two daughters and will be buried Friday in Moscow next to her husband, who died in 2007.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.