Some children of famous parents seem overshadowed by their legacy. Olga Rostropovich seems energized by it. Eight years ago, the daughter of the famous cellist-conductor Mtislav “Slava” Rostropovich established an annual festival to honor her father, who died in 2007, and she has fought like a tiger to keep it going and maintain, she says, standards worthy of her father — even in the face of the collapse of the ruble a couple of years ago, which meant that her budget from the city of Moscow, although unchanged, suddenly went a lot less far than it had. “I finance almost half of it myself,” she says. The Rostropovich Festival is currently the only major institution in Moscow that brings in foreign orchestras, and it was this festival that invited the National Symphony Orchestra — which Rostropovich led for 17 seasons — to perform in Moscow and St. Petersburg at the end of March.
But Olga runs two institutions in Moscow because she is the daughter of not one, but two powerhouse musicians. The offices of the Rostropovich Festival are housed in an opera center that was founded 15 years ago by Olga’s late mother, the star soprano Galina Vishnevskaya.
In a tiny theater with blue-and-white seats in downtown Moscow, in sight of the gilded domes of one of several cathedrals reconstructed after Soviet rule had obliterated them, a group of young singers is in full costume for a quick piano run-through of “Rigoletto.” The production features traditional costumes — apart from the sneakers the young Rigoletto is sporting in rehearsal — and a pared-down, stylized staging that limns the opening-party scene through small coordinated hand gestures and a series of tableaux that convey the restrictions felt by the members of the court. And the voices, in the fleeting vignettes a rehearsal affords, seem promising. The young singers mount two or three operas every month. The opera center has eleven productions in its repertoire, from canonical fare like “Rigoletto” and “Carmen” to Russian staples like “The Tsar’s Bride” and “Iolanta;” a twelfth, “La Boheme,” will be added later this year.
Singers come to the Vishnevskaya center for two years, after they’ve finished their conservatory training. (“They usually don’t have very good technique” when they arrive, Olga says, wrinkling her nose.) The center gives them an intense education, offering voice lessons, coaching, diction, and acting lessons while casting them in operas — they generally sing choral roles the first year, and move up into the leads. “Everybody does everything,” Olga explains. And when they’re done, they’re ready for prime time; some 70 percent of the center’s alumni are currently employed in opera houses around Russia, some internationally. For the students, there is no charge.
On a piano in Olga’s office is a photograph of Plácido Domingo kneeling at the feet of Vishnevskaya after he visited the center. “He said,” Olga says, “that he had never seen anything like this in the world.” Indeed, the only comparable programs in the U.S. that I know of — that is, programs solely focused on pre-professional training, and not affiliated with any opera company — are summer programs, not year-round.
Slava Rostropovich may have been more famous in the United States, but Galina was a big star in Russia, and became one of the few Soviet singers to sing abroad — at the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House, and La Scala, though such appearances were relatively rare. Because the Rostropoviches left Russia in 1974, and had their citizenship revoked by the government a few years later — a kind of reverse defection, sparked by their support of their friend Alexander Solzhenitsyn — Vishnevskaya, by then in her 50s and past the height of her vocal prime, never established herself as an artist in the West to the degree that she had in the Soviet Union. However, her 1984 autobiography “Galina” remains one of the best opera memoirs ever written, from its gripping account of surviving the siege of Leningrad to the narrative of escaping Russia.
Having read that book at an impressionable age, I have carried a fangirl’s love of Galina through my life. In 1996, the elderly French composer Marcel Landowski turned Galina’s autobiography into an opera that had its world premiere in Lyon, France, and I got to interview Galina before the premiere, which remains a highlight of my own career. Still a beautiful woman, she sat regally in the designated interview room, like a Russian Elizabeth Taylor, looking off into the distance while a translator explained to me that Madame did not speak English. “Please tell her,” I said, “that I’m a big fan and I’ve read her book three times.” Before the translator could speak, Madame swiveled her head toward me and purred out a silky “Ohhhh?” Evidently her English was only selectively bad.
There followed an agreeable conversation — in which she spoke only Russian, but often didn’t wait for the translator to convert my English — that followed outlines familiar from many interviews with retired singers: bemoaning the degradation of contemporary opera practice, the absence of decent acting and vocal training, and stating what had to be done to fix it. Galina spoke at some length of her vision for an opera center: plans which sounded as rosy as they seemed implausible. They seemed so implausible, in fact, that I never thought to follow up. Not until I was finally about to go to Russia myself, this March, did I learn that the city of Moscow had, in fact, built a building for Galina’s opera center in 2002, and has paid for its maintenance and staff ever since.
Maintaining both this and the festival must be a tremendous amount of work, and the staff is really too small for all that is required of them — though that’s hardly a unique problem in the opera world. (One of Olga’s right hands, Eliso Maisuradze, also does double duty as executive director of the Rostropovich festival and deputy director of the Vishnevskaya opera center.) Olga, however, appears to have inherited her father’s dynamism, her mother’s striking looks, and their shared persistence, and for the time being, both institutions continue apace. Like her father, the Rostropovich Festival is likely to be better known outside of Russia. Like her mother, the Vishnevskaya Center occupies a significant role at Russian opera’s heart.