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Galina Vishnevskaya

Russian soprano;

Born: October 25, 1926; Died: December 11, 2012.

Galina Vishnevskaya, who has died aged 86, was Russia's star soprano of half a century ago, whose husband Mstislav Rostropovich – as cellist, pianist and conductor – played a major part in her international success.

Though her principal platform was the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, where she sang Tatyana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, her favourite role, Scotland was lucky to see her as Lady Macbeth at the Edinburgh Festival in Scottish Opera's first production of Verdi's opera.

It was in Edinburgh, too, that she was at last permitted to sing Britten's War Requiem in an international context along with the two other soloists (Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) for whom the work was composed, after she had been forbidden by Russia's notorious culture secretary Ekaterina Furtseva to participate in the world premiere in the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in 1962.

Her Edinburgh performance, with Carlo Maria Giulini and Britten himself sharing the conducting and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus in full voice, went down in history six years later.

But the singer's relationship with her homeland was seldom easy, and she suffered just as much as her husband from the stand they took against political intimidation, particularly after they publicly supported the dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his battle with the authorities. By the time she appeared in Scottish Opera's Macbeth in 1976, when her exuberant hosting of the banqueting scene was described by one critic as "a bad night at the Macbeths," they had together been out of the Soviet Union for two years. Despite their fame, they were already "unpersons," banned from the history of the Bolshoi and, indeed, of Russian music in general.

Thereafter they lived in America and Europe, Rostropovich establishing himself as conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington (and on one occasion conducting the Scottish National Orchestra at the Edinburgh Festival), Vishnevskaya singing at the New York Metropolitan, La Scala, Milan, and elsewhere until, in the 1980s, her voice showed increasing signs of wear and tear.

By then she had sung Tosca at Covent Garden, rivalling Maria Callas's appearance in the same production a decade earlier, and she continued to champion the music of her friends Shostakovich (who, in Russia, had been her next-door neighbour) and Britten in memorable recitals around the world.

She gave her final appearance as Tchaikovsky's Tatyana at the Paris Opera, but was not welcomed back to Russia until 1990, when she began devoting herself to a variety of good causes.

In 2002 she founded the Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Centre in Moscow for the training of the best young Russian singers, and as recently as 2007 (the year of Rostropovich's death) she made her acting debut in Alexander Sokurov's film Alexandra, about an old woman visiting her soldier grandson in a remote army camp.

Born in Leningrad, where she studied, endured the Nazi siege and nearly died of tuberculosis, Galina Vishnevskaya found her way into music by singing operetta and, in 1952, winning a competition for the Bolshoi. Within two years she was singing Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio, a role in which she could be said to have been type-cast.

Her book, Galina: A Russian Story, dating from 1984, is the most vivid and satisfying of operatic autobiographies, recounting her many exploits, including her first marriage (disastrous) to a sailor, whose surname she retained for the rest of her life. Had the book been written earlier, Shostakovich could have made an opera out of it, but instead he wrote for her the searing soprano part in his Symphony No 14 and other works. Britten's Pushkin song cycle for her, The Poet's Echo, was performed by her and Rostropovich at the Edinburgh Festival soon after it was composed.

If her life gained any stability, it was through Rostropovich, her third and most dashing husband, who ousted the Soviet leader Nikolai Bulganin as his rival, and conducted her portrayals of Lisa in Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades, Natasha in Prokofiev's War and Peace and Marfa in Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride. As pianist he accompanied her in many of her recitals and, as the most famous cellist in the world, he led the octet of cellos which joined her in her performance of Villa-Lobos's haunting Bachiana Brasileira No 5.

Her other roles, not huge in quantity but fascinating in choice, included the voice in Poulenc's La Voix Humaine, Aida (one of her Covent Garden triumphs), Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, and Liu, opposite Birgit Nilsson's Turandot, at La Scala, Milan. Her portrayal of Shostakovich's Katerina Ismailova, otherwise known as Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, was famously filmed.

Rostropovich died in 2007. Galina Vishnevskaya is survived by her daughters with Rostropovich, Elena, a pianist, and Olga, a cellist.

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