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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Galina Vishnevsakaya
Text Marina Lukanina
Photos Alexander Gaiduk

t is hard to find suitable words to describe Galina Vishnevskaya – outstanding opera singer, prima of the Bolshoi Theater, wife of world-famous cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, mother of two daughters and a grandmother of six grandchildren, a strong person with a greatness of spirit. She is the queen of her own Kingdom called The Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Centre in Moscow. My first question was about her latest “baby” – the Galina Vishevskaya Centre.

When did the Centre open?

In 2002. We offer a two year course of study. We keep the most talented on for a third year. Most schools try to get rid of students – we try to keep them as long as possible to help them master their skills.

You always speak with such love about St. Petersburg. Why did you decide to open the school in Moscow?

Because I was offered a chance to make it happen here. There were people interested in the project. I am very grateful to the mayor of Moscow.

How big is your Centre? What kind of performances do you stage?

We accept 35 students a year. The education of 25 of them is funded by the City Government. We also have 10 commercial students. Every year about 100 people compete for places.

Every year we stage new operas; so far we have staged seven. These are full blown operas. Our theater can seat 360 people.

Do you have time to go to the theater yourself?

No, and I am not that interested. I am so immersed into my own Centre and that’s enough. Also, for me to go somewhere, I need to be 100% sure that it would be good and sadly I have not had such confidence lately. Witnessing real hooliganism on the stage in several shows that I did see made me feel sick. I do not need to see the heroes of Rigoletto dressed up like monkeys or Aida’s characters carrying guns. This is bizarre!

Do you think this is temporary?

Of course it is. We have gone through this in the 1920s when the opera Toska was called “The Fight for the Community;” Huguenots were “Decembrists;” Ivan Susanin was called “A Life for The People” and not “A Life for the Tsar.” At least they changed the titles back then, now they don’t even bother doing that.

September 1, 2009 will mark my 65 years of serving the Arts. 65 years I spent on the professional stage. It’s hard to see what I gave my life for, to be so humiliated, to witness the triumph of militant mediocracy.

What about the Bolshoi Theatre?

I take everything that happens at the Bolshoi Theater very personally; as it has been such a huge part of my life for almost a quarter of a century. I gave everything to this theater; it’s the theater of my life. Living abroad, I sang on other stages, but my heart always belonged to the Bolshoi. All my best memories: the roles that I created together with Pokrovskii, Melik-Pashaev, everything, are from there.

You once mentioned you support the idea of censorship?

Under current circumstances I am fully convinced we need it. TV channels show horrible things. I do not want my grandkids to see it. It has to be forbidden. Though I understand that such prohibition might cause banning something that is useful, I still support forbidding such material being shown. If people do not have “internal censorship,” then censorship has to be institutionalized.

Throughout your life you have met with extraordinary people. Who do you mark out as being particularly amazing?

Of course I remember Shostakovich the most. He was a genius, and our friend. He dedicated three of his compositions to me. I sang his 14th symphony that he created specifically for my voice, I acted the role of Katerina Ismailova for a film, based on his “Lady Macbeth.” I spent a whole creative life with him. For 20 years we welcomed the New Year together, he was an inalienable part of our lives. His loss left an empty space in my soul.

In 1975 we were invited to the Pope’s residence in the Vatican. The Pope impressed me tremendously.

I also met with our Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Alexii II shortly before his death. It was an incredible meeting. While displaying gentleness he was in fact very strong, a real pastor who managed to united the Russian and the foreign churches.

Is it true that after playing on Solzhenitsyn’s 70th birthday, Rostropovich never performed in Russia because he was insulted by what the press wrote about him?

Yes, Rostopovich was insulted. It was when he played at Solzhenitsyn’s 70th birthday at the Conservatory. It was a brilliant performance. And some journalist wrote that any student could have played better than Rostropovich, and he wrote these using rude expressions. This was worse than just rudeness – it was something else. I am unable to classify such an act. Rostropovich continued his work as a mentor but he never performed in Russia. I tried to argue with him that it’s not worth depriving millions of people who adore you because some blockhead wrote a nasty comment, but he remained adamant.

How did Sokurov talk you into acting in “Alexandra”?

Sokurov told me he wrote the script just for me, that there wouldn’t be a movie if I don’t agree to be part of it. It was hard work as it was filmed in Chenya in +40 C degree heat, but work is what I am good at. Since the age of 17 onwards, I have worked on the stage. I have been through all the genres, except ballet.

You still consider yourself Russian?

Of course I am. I am a Russian woman, part of this crazy nation. Why do Russians have to go through so much hardship and suffering?

People wanted an experiment and they got it. By experiment I mean “soviet power.” Now we don’t even know how to handle the “remainders” from that “experiment.” We are paying off for all our sins. I hope it will prevent people such experimentation in the future.

Galina Vishnevskaya with her two daughters: Olga (left) and Elena (right)

What do your family members do now?

My two daughters became the heads of our funds. My younger daughter, Elena, runs our Vishnevskaya-Rostropovich Fund that is engaged in various medical concerns, such as vaccination. Now we are refocusing on helping children in orphanages. My oldest daughter Olga is in charge of the Rostropovich Fund for young musicians. We pay 42 gifted students a stipend, approximately $150 every month.

My grandchildren rarely come to Moscow, and speak Russian with a strong accent. My youngest, Mstislav, is talented in music, singing in particular. He has been here and attended my master class. Later he told his mom, my daughter, that he didn’t like one of the student singers; as in his opinion: “she wasn’t prepared for the class with my grandmother.” My only granddaughter studies art in Paris.

What’s your recipe of success?

Always be on top – in everything that you do. That’s the only way – be the best. I don’t know any other way and wouldn’t recommend anything else.

I didn’t dare asking you more about Rostropovich.

And please do not. It’s still very hard to for me to talk about him.

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