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Russian opera legend Galina Vishnevskaya dies aged 86

Published time: December 11, 2012 14:14
Edited time: December 13, 2012 11:18

Galina Vishnevskaya, singer and teacher, People's Artist of the USSR, arts director of the Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Centre in Moscow, winner of numerous international awards and prizes. (RIA Novosti / Vladimir Vyatkin); Youtube video courtesy of Vaimusic

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The legendary Russian opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya, a star of modern classical music who won the hearts of the international classical music community and received a host of prestigious awards at home and abroad, passed away on Tuesday.

The Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Singing Center will host the last farewell to the celebrated singer on Thursday, December 13 according to the center’s press-secretary. She will be buried at Moscow's Novodevichiy Cemetery, where Vishnevskaya's husband, legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich is interned. A requiem service for Vishnevskaya will be held at Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral on December 14.

Galina Vishnevskaya lived in Moscow. Her husband Mstislav Rostropovich passed away after a long illness in 2007. The couple gave birth to two daughters – Elena and Aleksandra – who now live in France and the US respectively. Vishnevskaya has six grandchildren, all of whom are US citizens.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has expressed his deep condolences to her family.

Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on granting Galina Vishnevskaya with a 1st class Order of Merit for the Fatherland as an outstanding opera-singing teacher.

In early October the Moscow opera singing center founded by Vishnevskaya in 2002 marked its 10th anniversary. The school released an impressive number of young singers who are now making successful careers and performing around Europe and the rest of the world, including the Netherlands, Germany, Hungary, Italy, South Africa and Mexico, among others. The Center initiated a contest for young talents from around the world, which has developed into a prestigious and internationally acclaimed competition of opera singers named after Galina Vishnevskaya.

The first and the only President of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev said this is a “huge loss for Russian culture.” “She was an outstanding performer and signer, a person with a global name,” he said.

Speaking of Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich, Gorbachev added: “They were people who were not only brilliant in art, but who always were there when somebody needed help.”

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Diva's life full of hardships

As Vishnevskaya claims in her autobiography, she was determined “to become a great artist like Fyodor Shalyapin” and the ephemeral glow of medals couldn’t seduce her into wasting her talent on short-lived performances. Indeed, her repertoire has always consisted of classical operas – from “Aida” to “Eugene Onegin.”

Vishnevskaya’s singing talent was noticed early; as a little girl, Vishnevskaya liked to impersonate popular Soviet singers, climbing up on a chair to perform during family gatherings. At the age of 10, she received some opera recordings as a present. The gift would change her life forever. After WW2 Vishnevskaya took part in auditions for opera internships at the Bolshoi Theater and was accepted into the theater's ensemble. Her natural beauty, talent and acquired professionalism played their part – she was the only one to be offered the position out of the thousands who auditioned all over the Soviet Union. She was immediately offered a most difficult part in "Fidelio" – the only opera written by Beethoven – in which she played Leonore.

What followed was imminent success. Vishnevskaya was very selective of her roles. She didn’t want to perform in meaningless operas created by some Soviet composer on order of the Communist Party.

Watch RT's 2008 interview with Galina Vishnevskaya

Opera singer (lyrico-dramatic soprano) Galina Vishnevskaya, a People′s Artist of the USSR, at the jubilee evening dedicated to the 45th anniversary of her creative activity, held in the State Academic Bolshoy Theatre of Russia. (RIA Novosti / Yuryi Abramochkin)
Opera singer (lyrico-dramatic soprano) Galina Vishnevskaya, a People's Artist of the USSR, at the jubilee evening dedicated to the 45th anniversary of her creative activity, held in the State Academic Bolshoy Theatre of Russia. (RIA Novosti / Yuryi Abramochkin)

In 1955, Vishnevskaya traveled to Prague to take part in an arts festival for students and youth. It was there that she met the famous cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. It was love at first sight and the pair became man and wife just four days after meeting.

Vishnevskaya and Rostropovish lived together for 52 years until his death in 2007. The two performed together regularly. Their family enjoyed composer Dmitri Shostakovich as a personal friend. Together they made an electrifying recording of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk for EMI.

Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich were good friends with Russian writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, who was struggling with opposition from Soviet authorities. For four years, the couple gave him refuge in their country house, which made them tacit enemies of the state by default. Pressure from the government was soon to follow: Rostropovich was prohibited from touring abroad and was expelled from the Bolshoi Theater. Vishnevskaya’s performances received no coverage in the Soviet press and TV and radio stations were banned from broadcasting her concerts.

Singer Galina Vishnevskaya, left, and Mstislav Rostropovich, cellist and orchestra conductor, 2nd left, congratulate Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 2nd right, and Natalya Svetlova, his wife, right, on the writer′s 80th birthday during a Moscow Conservatory gala concert, 1998. (RIA Novosti / Yuryi Abramochkin)
Singer Galina Vishnevskaya, left, and Mstislav Rostropovich, cellist and orchestra conductor, 2nd left, congratulate Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 2nd right, and Natalya Svetlova, his wife, right, on the writer's 80th birthday during a Moscow Conservatory gala concert, 1998. (RIA Novosti / Yuryi Abramochkin)

In 1974 the couple was forced to leave the USSR, unable to deal with the pressures of their homeland's ideology. They first settled in the US and, eventually, Paris. In 1978 the USSR proclaimed them "ideological renegades" and stripped them of their Soviet citizenship. They weren't permitted to regain their nationality – or return to the country – until 1990, when both of them were rehabilitated.

Vishnevskaya bid farewell to the opera stage only in 1982, at the age of 57, in one of her favorite roles – Tatyana in “Eugene Onegin.”

The unstoppable soprano continued to be an enormous presence on the world's cultural and social scene. In 2007, despite losing her husband that same year, Vishnevskaya starred in Aleksandr Sokurov’s movie “Aleksandra.” She played the role of a grandmother who comes to see her grandson during the Second Chechen War. The film received massive critical acclaim and was nominated for the Golden Palm award in Cannes in 2007.

After 30 years of life on the stage, Vishnevskaya never stopped working hard in the field where her heart lied. She later turned to teaching, and in 2002 she opened her own Center of Opera Singing. Graduates from her center are renowned for singing at the Bolshoi as well as touring the world.

Read more about Galina Vishnevskaya on RT's Russiapedia

Galina Vishnevskaya (left) as Catarina and Yevgeny Kibkalo (right) as Petruccio in a scene from the opera "The Taming of the Shrew", 1964. (RIA Novosti / Yuryi Abramochkin)
Galina Vishnevskaya (left) as Catarina and Yevgeny Kibkalo (right) as Petruccio in a scene from the opera "The Taming of the Shrew", 1964. (RIA Novosti / Yuryi Abramochkin)
People′s Artist of the U.S.S.R. Galina Vishnevskaya in mono-opera "The Human Voice" by Francis Poulenc at the State Academic Bolshoi Theater. (RIA Novosti / Leon Dubilt)
People's Artist of the U.S.S.R. Galina Vishnevskaya in mono-opera "The Human Voice" by Francis Poulenc at the State Academic Bolshoi Theater. (RIA Novosti / Leon Dubilt)
Galina Vishnevskaya (right) with daughters, 1959. (RIA Novosti / Sholomovich)
Galina Vishnevskaya (right) with daughters, 1959. (RIA Novosti / Sholomovich)
Galina Vishnevskaya as Liza in a scene from Pyotr Tchaikovsky′s opera The Queen of Spades staged at the State Academic Bolshoi Theater of the USSR, 1973. (RIA Novosti /  Stonalov)
Galina Vishnevskaya as Liza in a scene from Pyotr Tchaikovsky's opera The Queen of Spades staged at the State Academic Bolshoi Theater of the USSR, 1973. (RIA Novosti / Stonalov)

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