Galina Pavolovna Vishnievskaya became the most exciting soprano to emerge in the Soviet Union after World War II. She had a major career on the Bolshoi stage, cruelly cut short due to the political beliefs of her and her husband.
She had a strong and attractive natural voice and was originally taken to be a mezzo-soprano. During World War II, she sang incessantly for the troops while studying privately with Vera Garina in Leningrad. She began singing in operetta in 1944 and was, in general, regarded as a light music specialist. When her true vocal range was discovered, however, she developed a powerful, highly dramatic voice with unique personal coloration and the capability of the most intense expression. She was appointed a soloist for the Leningrad Philharmonic and then joined Moscow's Bolshoi Theater in 1952. Her dramatic voice, strikingly beautiful appearance, and wide range as an actress made her the house's leading star in very short order. On a tour in Czechoslovakia, she was intensely wooed by the young cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, as recounted in her autobiography Galina: A Russian Story (New York, 1984).
She sang in all the major dramatic soprano parts of the standard Western repertoire (Butterfly, Tosca, Violetta, Aida, Leonore, and Liu), in addition to Russian roles like Tatyana (Yevgeny Onegin), Kupava (Snegurochka), Natasha (War and Peace), Sofiya (Semyon Kotko), and Marfa (Khovanshchina). Many of these were recorded by the Soviet state recording and broadcasting companies. Some of her roles were preserved on television and in films. She made international debuts (the Met, La Scala, Covent Garden, etc.) between 1961 and 1964. At the same time, English composer Benjamin Britten wrote the soprano part in his War Requiem specifically for her. However, Soviet authorities withheld permission for her to leave the country. She was permitted to go to London a few months later to participate in the classic composer-led performance of the work. Later, Britten wrote a Russian-language Pushkin song cycle, The Poet's Echo, for her and her husband in Rostropovich's largely unrecognized capacity as a recital pianist.
Meanwhile, she also showed herself as a great recitalist, particularly in the songs of the Russian masters, including Shostakovich, who wrote his Seven Romances for her. In 1966, she appeared on film in the title role of Shostakovich's opera Katerina Ismailova, one of her greatest performances. Shostakovich wrote the soprano part of his Symphony No. 14 for her, and she sang at its premiere in 1969. Her recording of it is a gramophone classic.
She and Rostropovich supported the Nobel Prize-winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his struggles with Soviet officialdom, even sheltering him in their summer house. Once again, official pressure against them tightened and ultimately, both musicians found their bookings canceled, and Vishnievskaya was expelled from the Bolshoi. Vishnievskaya lost valuable years of her artistic prime in this dispute before they left the U.S.S.R. in 1974. In 1978, the U.S.S.R. proclaimed them "ideological renegades" and stripped them of Soviet citizenship.
Vishnievskaya had a few years during which she successfully appeared as a guest artist in leading international opera houses. The highlight of her Western career was the recording she made with Rostropovich conducting the original version of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, a performance of breathtaking passion and intensity that is a treasure of the recording art.
In one of the last acts of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev restored the couple's citizenship in 1990. They made a triumphal return to Russia, documented in the television film Soldiers of Music. After that, they devoted much effort to improving the lot of musical life in their homeland.