Elena Obraztsova and the KGB

Elena Obraztsova and the KGB


norman lebrecht

January 14, 2015

In Soviet times, it was widely whispered that the great mezzo-soprano was an agent of the secret police. There are two documented sources for this suspicion. One is an account by the American soprano Astrid Varnay that she had been warned by western opera managements to stay on the right side of the Russian mezzo as she had the power to call a Soviet boycott. KGB spies within the arts certainly helped to blight many careers.

The other report comes from Galina Vishnevskaya in her memoirs (pp. 452-7). Galina had been Elena’s teacher and mentor. When she and Slava Rostropovich fell foul of the Politburo for their support of the persecuted writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Obraztsova went to the Central Committee to denounce the pair and demand that Rostropovich be banned from conducting.

According to Galina, who called Obraztsova a Judas, even hardened apparatchiks were amazed at her eagerness to please the men in power.

The full facts cannot be ascertained and it is impossible to know whether the diva joined the secret state out of ambition, or (like many others) under duress. It is worth noting, however, that Putin’s ex-KGB apparat paid for the diva’s special medical treatment in Germany in her final weeks.


UPDATE: A reader adds:  I should like to tell you, as someone who was often in Moscow in the 1970s and 1980s, there was nothing ‘whispered’ in Moscow about the lady’s KGB connections. It was a well known, and oft stated, fact. Another fact was that her ability to come and go freely from the Soviet Union was entirely due to those connections.

There were often Soviet “minders” travelling with her too. I recall seeing her leaving La Scala the night of the famous Caballe-Anna Bolena cancellation, (1982), in what appeared to be full stage make up, accompanied by two thuggish looking men, who helped her into a car with the masses of bouquets she had received. The two men may as well have had K.G.B. stamped on their foreheads, so obvious did they look the part.

I would not presume to judge the actions of any Soviet citizen as I never had to live under such a regime, but I’ve seen much more circumspect behaviour from other Soviet artists of the opera and the ballet who managed to maintain their careers and their integrity without denouncing their colleagues.


  • Sing It Again says:

    No question, Obratsova was ruthless. Everyone wondered why she was singing so many roles at the Metropolitan Opera during the late 1970’s, but then it came to light that she was having an affair with the Met’s artistic administrator of that era.

    • erich says:

      She wasn’t the only one – a very well known russian baritone, still around and living in England, was also a major KGB informer…..

  • bobman says:

    A gentleman held that position in the late 70s. Ingpen came later.

    • Tristan says:

      don’t be so bourgeois here and who cares with whom she had affairs or not, have you been a witness? I wished we had one single mezzo like her nowadays or is anyone jealous as she also had fantastic looks? Elena was a fantatsic singer and artitst, basta.
      Even in Milan they gave her ovations and they know about singing and style.
      Bartoli doesn’t dare going there anymore with her mannerism.

  • MWnyc says:

    It is said that Obraztsova was in the audience for Vishnevskaya’s post-emigration Carnegie Hall recital, that she went backstage afterward to congratulate Vishnevskaya, and that the two got into a huge screaming match.

  • William says:

    I attended each Obraztsova event here in New York – the full spectrum
    of Bolshoi operas, including Molchanov’s the Dawns Here Are Quiet.
    ‘Amneris Comes to the Met’ – I was there. The recitals. The later Met
    Gambler, War and Peace, Pique Dame etc.

    Music blogs are taking time to celebrate this great artist,while here
    political hackery seems to be the order. So maybe up next some inside stuff on
    who funded fading stars Vishnevskaya and her husband, Rostropovich. Famous defectors in those days often benefited from CIA cash and connections. Tell all.

    Franco Zeffrelli said that Maria Callas, Silvana Mangano and Elena Obratzsova
    had the most intense affect on him. Elena had that affect on me, loved her presence and her work. Named my loving girl cat after her – the cat’s full name was, Elena
    Obraztsova. The audience cheers and whistles and clapping and bravuras constantly
    backed up my own feelings.

  • Opera fan says:

    It is obnoxious that people discuss such things on a day of burial of great artist as Elena Obraztsova. For those who don’t know what Soviet life was, let us check facts. Every prominent and event not so prominent artist was accompanied by KGB “guard” while touring in the West, and these “agents” were harmless, mainly preoccupied with artists’ contacts with immigrants and shopping. Yes, she was a favorite of Soviet regime because the Communist Party actually was able to recognize a great talent and turn its popularity (especially abroad) for benefit of its ideology. That doesn’t make Obraztsova a KGB agent, she wasn’t even a Party member. I remind you that great artists like Richter, Gilels, Oistrakh, Kondrashin, had a privilege to tour frequently in the West, and they were not KGB agents, quite opposite. Obraztsova only joined in signing a letter addressed to Central Committee, masterminded by baritone Voroshilo and group of “concerned” singers and only in support of her friend Milashkina who was a discriminated rival of Vishnevskaya and in better shape by that time. Vishnevskaya was far from “angel”, her book “Galina” is full of lies including that Obraztsova was her student. By the way, great cellist Rostropovich was quite a mediocre conductor, especially while in Bolshoi Theater. Yes, trying to help Obrzatsova in between rounds of National Glinka Competition Vishnevskaya consulted her once, and then favored her when Obrzatsova was accepted at Bolshoi Theater later (one of reasons was Vishnevskaya’s rivalry with mezzo Arkhipova mainly about men), but that doesn’t make her “mentor and teacher”. Obraztsova did try to ask forgiveness from Vishnevskaya twice in vain. Considering the scope of Obraztsova’s talent, she has performed quite little due to constant restrictions from Soviet regime for which she has earned a lot of currency while given in return a fraction in roubles. Go to Metropolitan now and see what kind of artist sing there now…Obraztsova didn’t defect or immigrate and confined to quite modest career. Her status is of legend and Russia’s symbol, enough for Russian government to pay for her final treatment. All of this wouldn’t be necessary to tell if you just listened to Obraztsova’s Eboli at 1978 La Scala Anniversary as well as her Amneris in Metropolitan, her Countess in Bolshoi 1982 (recognized as best since Tchaikovsky wrote it) and many other roles and concerts to acknowledge that her immense talent made her one of XX century’s greatest mezzo-sopranos.

    • tristan says:

      thanks you for such honest and correct comment! You said it all! Elena was indeed remarkable and we wished we would have one nowadays who would come close…

    • William says:

      Excellent, Opera Fan. You have cleaned the board with this account – I am still waiting for the New York Times to run Elena’s obit, where is that? Thanks for your imput!

    • Federico (Argentina) says:

      Thanks operafan for you clear and precise! It’s all said about the art of Elena.
      I had the opportunity to listen twice in Buenos Aires and his art was unmatched. Everything that is said about the KGB and she did not detract from her excellent and brilliant career. To me that just outside postmortem political issues. Best regards

  • Milka says:

    Her arrival and departure from this planet
    means absolutely nothing in the scheme of things
    except to opera fans whose musical
    tastes and acumen are always suspect
    as they shriek their bravas for the
    flavour of the season singer. To
    quote Zeffirelli as an arbiter of
    anything musical bolsters the observation .

  • una voce says:

    Dear Milka! I am amazed at your crude post about somebody who just lost their life and battle with leukemia. Elena was one of the greatest voices of the last century point. You may not liked her, to which opinion you are absolutely entitled, but using your own words your opinion “means absolutely nothing in the scheme of things”, or as Elena would replied to you in her grandeur with class if she saw your post : “Très vulgaire, n’est-ce pas?”.