Pros: Well written narrative of real human survival. Great view of Soviet life.
Cons: Angry in tone and very direct. Not a happy read. A bitter medicine worth swallowing.
GALINA: A RUSSIAN STORY
Galina Pavlovna Vishnevskaya (1926 - ) is one of the most compelling dramatic soprano opera singer to hail from Russia. She is the wife of the celebrated cellist/ conductor Mstislav Rostropovich. This autobiography was first written in Russian in 1984 and translated into English by Guy Daniels in the same year. My copy is the 1st hardback edition (480 pages of actual biography plus an appendix of personal letters by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Benjamin Britten, and an index).
You dont have to even enjoy opera to enjoy this book. You just have to enjoy getting an insightful look into a life of a true survivor. This book was written by a woman who survived being abandoned by her own parents since age 4, who lived in utter poverty and nearly died of starvation in her adolescent years, who suffered and saw first hand many gruesome deaths of those she cared for, who survived the siege of Leningrad (now St Petersburg) during WW II, a near fatal postpartum infection that killed her 10 weeks old son, a near fatal bout with tuberculosis, ..., etc, in order to become an operatic superstar at the famed Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. She was denounced by her own ambitious protegee to the oppressive and paranoid KGB and forced to live in exile while her name was erased from all official records as if she had never existed. This woman really defied all odds to even out-live Stalin at all, let alone learning to sing and making it big not only in her homeland but internationally as well. And she did all that with her principles and sense of morality intact.
The book is a gold mine of information about what life inside the Soviet Union during and after the Stalin regime was like. And from many perspectives, too. Vishnevskaya saw it all through the eyes of a impoverished young girl raised by a poor grandmother, those of just-getting-by overworking operetta singer, and from the eyes of the prima donna of Russias most revered theater who is married to the world renown cellist, and wooed by the brutal Communist party boss Bulganin. The details are gruesome and presented in devastatingly direct manner. She tells it like it is, even when her own actions aren't so commendable (like how she threw temper fits to get things her own way even when performing as a guest at other theaters).
Anyone interested in Russia must have heard of how any artist who didnt conform to the party-line were suppressed (or sent to Siberia to rot). This book narrates how that actually happened and touched on the fates of the many prominent Russian artists like Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Maria Tsvetseyeva, Boris Pasternak, Sergei Prokofiev, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (who lived in Vishnevskaya's dasha for a time) et.al, who fell victim to the regime. It also tells of those who compromised their integrity in order to gain party standing. Many of the famous Russian artists whose works I have admired (and some I have reviewed on this site) are implicated. I must say... I believe Vishnevskaya. She probably isn't the nicest person I'll ever meet, but she is honest. And now I can't see many of those artists the same way again (O, I'll review their arts separately from their very questionable past deeds, of course... but there's more to a person than how well he can do his work).
Of most value to me as a classical music enthusiast, is the very insightful and detailed account of the life and works of the composer Dmitry D Shostakovich, who became Vishnevskayas and Rostropovichs close friend and mentor, and the account of how Solzhenitsyn lived as he was writing Cancer Ward, August of 1914, Gulag Archipelago and other books that earned him exile. The author's insights into Shostakovich's state of mind as he composed many of his most revered works and how battled with the authority to get them published is invaluable (she doesn't diagnose him, but after reading this I wonder if he was autistic).
Vishnevskaya also tells her views of the Western world when she first saw it. Very intriguing (to me, at least... and perhaps to anyone interested in opera and singing) insights into how this stage animal of a singer approaches the music and the story of her operatic characters. Some good black and white photos are included of her and her colleagues (including those of Britten, Shostakovich, and Solzhenitsyn).
The book is very well written and, barring a few sections where she gets a bit carried away in her tirades against some politicos, very engaging to read. It is also quite very angry in tone (justifiably, in my opinion). Vishnevskaya has a reputation for being very blunt and "difficult" to interviewers and some colleagues... and from her own writing I think she probably is all that. But I suspect a lot of the "difficult" part has to do with cultural differences, aside from her own undeniably devil-may-care nature. This is the kind of difficult a la Maria Callas, I think... the kind borned out of professional conviction. Both Callas and Vishnevskaya were known for being hard-workers themselves and always showing up on time and well prepared for their role. They were demanding of themselves at least as much as they were of others. The other kind of difficult got another diva fired from the Met in the 90's. That kind demands more of others than of oneself.
The book may read like a general dissing of the Soviets on the superficial level, but she backs up all her charges with great articulation and personal experiences. It makes me feel ashamed to ever complain about anything as trivial as not getting my new GI Joe doll for my 10th birthday or how I dislike having to eat everything on my dinner plate.
Also, for all her condemnation of all that was wrong with the Soviet and their petty tyrants party officials, Vishnevskaya also recounts the many small acts of kindness, defiance, and personal integrity offered by the little people (like her intelligentsia admirers who risked their own neck retrieving the photos and other records of her Bolshoi career from the dumpster and smuggling them to her in exile, or her kind old grandmother who went hungry to allow her granddaughter to eat, or how the revered conductor Melik-Pashayev refused to conduct her in La Traviata unless she could sing her arias as written instead of transposed down like many prominent singers do, etc). She also doesnt spare word in praising deserving colleagues and acquaintances (like the British composer Benjamin Britten, who wrote the soprano part of his War Requiem for her, and other singers whose artistry she admires).
All in all, this is not a happy read. It is an enlightening read; however, and will haunt you for all the real life atrocities this woman endured. It will shake your faith in human character, but I think the shaking is medicinal. After all, Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich survived and so did many of their compatriots. So there are monsters among us, but they dont stay on top of us forever. Their inhumanity get exposed in the end no matter how high they ranked. The truth will always come out. And while not many in the West can place who petty tyrants like Bulganin and other Soviet bureaucrats were, Pasternak, Akhmatova, Shostakovich, and others including Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich will live on forever through their art.
I had not heard any of this singers work before I read this book. I have since heard her in the video of Lady MacBeth of Mstensk (the music caught in it is probably the gold standard recording for that opera) and the cd of Mussorgskys Songs and Dances of Death, so I will attest that her fame is well earned indeed! We are ever so lucky that the few recordings of her Bolshoi years were made at all (they only produced an opera recording every 20+ yrs then) since she didn't leave the Soviet Union until she was 47 yrs old (that is where the book ends).
Vishnevskaya is still alive, though her husband, Mtislav Rostropovich, passed away earlier this year. She has retired from singing but is still busy running an opera theater of her own in Moscow and doing film acting on the side. If the Russian anti-war film Alexandra comes to the theater near you, be sure to check it out!
Catch a glimpse of this legend at:
www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ImUTmhdkJ4 (As Katerina in Shostakovich's Katerina Izmailova)
www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Rm_zM2Hk0s (As the title role in Sokurov's Alexandra)