Galina Vishnevskaya: Soprano whose voice entranced Britten and who fled the Soviet Union


Galina Vishnevskaya was famous both as a singer and as the wife of the cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich. As a singer she was famous, in Britain at least, for being forbidden to take the soprano solos at the first performance of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem in 1962 in the newly consecrated Coventry Cathedral; and then for throwing a spectacular tantrum during the recording sessions of the same work in London the following year.

Her absence from the Coventry premiere was a strange business, when one remembers that she was actually in London at the time, singing Aida in her debut at Covent Garden. But the Soviet authorities regarded the War Requiem as "political" and, despite the pleading of Britten himself – he had written the part specially for her, remarking "how extremely difficult it would be to replace Madame Vishnevskaya" – permission was refused, and it was Heather Harper who stood in at the premiere, superbly.

When it came to recording the War Requiem the following year, Vishnevskaya at first failed to appreciate that the work is conceived on different planes, and saw her position with the choir in the Kingsway Hall balcony "as a kind of discrimination", the male soloists, Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, being at the front, near the conductor, with their own dedicated chamber ensemble.

She insisted that she should be with them. Attempts to explain the nature of the work failed and, as the producer John Culshaw recalled, "she then lost her head, and lay on the floor of the vestry ... and shrieked at the top of her voice. You would really have been excused for thinking that an extremely painful process of torture was in progress." Miraculously, she reappeared the following day, totally transformed, and this iconic recording was able to be completed as planned.

Galina Pavlovna Ivanova's start in life was unpromising: born in Leningrad, raised by her grandmother and surviving the siege of the city, all vividly described in her book Galina: a Russian Story, published in 1984. But she always had a voice, and undoubtedly inherited her temperament, and striking dark looks, from her mother, who had gypsy blood.

At 18, Galina was singing with the Leningrad Light Opera Company: "The troupe became for me a genuine school – my only one," she wrote. "It was from those performers that I learned to serve art selflessly: to respect the stage – the performing artist's sanctuary." She married the company's director, Mark Rubin and there was a baby son, who died.

She toyed with the idea of becoming a music hall singer, inspired by Klavdiya Shulzhenko, but it was meeting with the voice teacher Vera Garina that changed her life: "Without her ... I'm certain I would never have become an opera singer."

By 1952 she had joined the Bolshoi company and soon was making concert appearances in Europe and the US. In February 1959 she first appeared in London to sing one item only – Tatyana's "Letter Scene" from Yevgeny Onegin – a matter of regret to the critics: "She would have been welcome in a recital of songs by Tchaikovsky, or indeed any composer," said one.

She first appeared at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in 1961 and at Covent Garden the following year, and sang the role of Tatyana from 1953 at the Bolshoi until her farewell performance at the Paris Opéra in 1982. Other stage roles included Leonore, Butterfly, Aida, Marguerite in Faust, Violetta in La Traviata, Tosca and Liù in Turandot. But it was in the Russian repertoire that her vibrant and exciting dark tones and passionate stage presence fully emerged: Tatyana, Liza in Queen of Spades, Natasha in War and Peace, Katarina Ismaylova, and others. She appeared in films as both a singer and actress and later turned to directing operas.

In 1955 she met Rostropovich, who pursued her relentlessly and within four days had married her. He was also an excellent pianist and they combined to give recitals together at festivals such as Aldeburgh, Edinburgh and elsewhere. There was an instant rapport when Britten first met Rostropovich, for whom a cello sonata was soon written.

This was performed at the 1961 Aldeburgh Festival, when Britten heard Vishnevskaya for the first time and told her he wanted to write a part for her in his War Requiem. In his biography of the composer, Humphrey Carpenter suggests that Britten may not originally have intended to have a soprano soloist at all, but that Vishnevskaya's singing inspired him. The Poet's Echo, settings of Pushkin, followed in 1965, with Vishnevskaya in mind. She was delighted: "He had succeeded in penetrating the very heart of the verse." He also succeeded in demonstrating the singer's versatility and musicianship, switching, in Graham Johnson's words, "with volatile energy from inconsolable loneliness to expansive glee."

In 1974 the Rostropovichs left Russia on a so-called "creative sabbatical", having fallen out of favour for dissident views and particularly for secretly sheltering the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. They hoped to return but were not allowed to do so by the Soviet authorities, who stripped them of their citizenship in March 1978. With a change of regime, this was restored by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 and they were allowed to return. In 2002 Vishnevskaya opened her own theatre in Moscow, the Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Centre; the Washington-based Rostropovich-Vishnevskaya Found-ation, founded in 1991, continues to support programmes to improve the health of children worldwide.

Galina Pavlovna Ivanova (Galina Vishnevskaya), singer: born Leningrad 25 October 1926; married 1944 Georgy Vishnevsky, 1945 Mark Rubin (one son, deceased), 1955 Mstislav Rostropovich (died 2007; two daughters); died Moscow 11 December 2012.