Vishnevskaya was born in St Petersberg (Leningrad) 25 October 1926, and cast out by her parents at six weeks. She was raised in absolute poverty by her grandmother. As a ten year old Galina was presented with a gramophone and an album of Eugene Onegin. This was her passport from the harshness of reality to an “imaginary world of beauty, magical sounds and unearthly purity”, she said in her autobiography Galina – a Russian Story.
She made her professional stage début in 1944 singing operetta, then won a competition at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 1952 singing Rachmaninoff’s song “O, Do Not Grieve” and Verdi’s aria “O patria mia” from Aida. She joined the company soon after.
In Russia in 1955 she married the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and the couple had two daughters, Olga (1956) and Elena (1958). During the 1950s and 60s, Russia was undergoing some major cultural changes and liberalization known as “The Thaw”, initiated by Nikita Khrushchev. So in 1961, she made her Metropolitan Opera début as Aida and the following year she made her début at the Royal Opera House with the same role. In 1964 she made her La Scala début as Liù in Turandot (with Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli).
In 1969 Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya saved their friend, dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from prosecution: Solzhenitsyn needed a place to hide from the Soviet authorities and lived secretly at Rostropovich’s dacha outside Moscow. The Soviet Communists were so outraged that Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya were banned from performing and their musical activity was reduced to teaching. In 1974, after years of struggle with the Soviet dictatorship, Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya fled the Soviet Union. In exile, they were living the artistic freedom they had so longed for, and did not want to go back until the fall of the oppressive Soviet regime. They settled in the United States and Paris. In 1982, Vishnevskaya bade farewell to the opera stage, in Paris, as Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, the opera she had heard as a child.
In 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev restored their citizenship of Russia (then Soviet Union), allowing Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya to go back home. Their return happened during the most dramatic events of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Rostropovich died in 2007 ending not just a sentimental relationship, but a musical one.
Vishnevskaya made many recordings, including Eugene Onegin (1956 and 1970), Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death (1961 and 1976), Britten’s War Requiem (written by Britten for her, with Sir Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, conducted by the composer; 1963), The Poet’s Echo (1968), Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov (1970 and 1987), Puccini’s Tosca (1976), Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades (with Regina Resnik, 1976), Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1978; Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich were friends of Dmitri Shostakovich), Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta (with Nicolai Gedda, 1984), and Prokofiev’s War and Peace (1986)
In 2006, she was featured in Alexander Sokurov’s touching documentary Elegy of a life: Rostropovich, Vishnevskaya.
Photo: Galina Vishnevskaya in 2008 by Alexey Yushenkov