San Francisco Opera | At the Height of the Cold War, a Soviet Star Wins American Admiration

At the Height of the Cold War, a Soviet Star Wins American Admiration

For its 50th anniversary in 1972, San Francisco Opera went big. General director Kurt Herbert Adler assembled an opera-lover’s dream season in which Birgit Nilsson headlining three cycles of the Ring was just one of many irresistible offerings. Festivities began on September 15 with a new production of Norma starring renowned Australian diva Joan Sutherland. The next night, Kiri Te Kanawa was introduced as the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro, the first of many happy returns for the Kiwi soprano.

Then there was a new staging of Lucia di Lammermoor, along with a fresh production of Tosca — the first new sets and costumes for Puccini’s opera since the Company’s inaugural season. Riding high on the recent release of his hit film The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola was on hand to direct the American premiere of Gottfried von Einem’s The Visit of the Old Lady. San Francisco Opera favorite Dorothy Kirsten, lovingly known as Dee Kay, returned after a two-year hiatus as Tosca, and the American star Shirley Verrett appeared as both Amneris in Aida and Selika in the Company premiere of Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine. Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, and Beverly Sills also adorned the casts. Every night was a highlight.

Relatively buried in the glitter of the golden anniversary was the debut of a Russian mezzo-soprano in the second cast of Aida. American audiences had little exposure to Irina Arkhipova as an operatic artist, but she had appeared locally in recital. The Soviet artist’s 1966 appearance at San Francisco’s Curran Theater prompted San Francisco Examiner critic Alexander Fried to say, “Next time she comes here I hope to find her in the ranks of the San Francisco Opera.”

Cultural exchanges between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were uncommon during the 1960s, especially as Cold War hostilities escalated. Through all the political tension, Arkhipova was that rare bird who was allowed to cross borders in the cause of advancing Soviet artistry. Beyond being a useful propaganda tool, she also happened to be one of the great singers of the past century.

Arkhipova’s vocal agility, richness in the middle register, dynamic control and ability do it all with apparent ease allowed her to dazzle audiences. But when power was called for, she was in a league of her own.

Listen to her riveting performance of the Act II aria from Tchaikovsky’s Orleanskaya Dyeva, or The Maid of Orleans:

Sometimes performed in French as “Adieu, Forêts,” this excerpt finds Joan of Arc saying goodbye to her simple, peaceful life as she embraces her divine calling. Many artists have sung this music to great effect, including Marian Anderson and Mirella Freni, but Arkhipova, singing in the original Russian, is unmatched for ecstatic fervor and ringing intensity. Beware: Tchaikovsky’s music combined with Arkhipova’s command in this aria can really get your heart racing!

A 1959 performance of Carmen at the Bolshoi Opera offers another direct, if linguistically eclectic, example of her art. The Russian diva sings in her native tongue (rather than the composer’s French) while her Don José, visiting tenor Mario Del Monaco, sings in Italian.

By the time Adler presented Arkhipova at San Francisco Opera, she had been the grand dame of Russian opera in Moscow for nearly two decades. Age never slowed this artist—she would make her overdue Metropolitan Opera debut in 1997 at the age of 72—but her stage deportment and grand style, which set the standard at the Bolshoi, was deemed too old fashioned for San Francisco. The local critics admired Arkhipova’s voice but put greater stake in the vivid theatricality of Shirley Verrett’s Amneris than in Arkhipova’s “semaphoric gesturing.”

Around the time of Arkhipova’s single season with San Francisco Opera, a series of Russian opera recordings on the Soviet label Melodiya began hitting American and European markets through a distribution deal with Angel Records. Consumers in the West were introduced to modern and classic Russian works featuring artists from the distant star systems of Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) including Galina Vishnevskaya, Elena Obraztsova, Vladimir Atlantov, Ivan Petrov and the incomparable Arkhipova.

The historic importance of Arkhipova’s San Francisco Opera debut may have gotten lost in the shuffle 50 years ago, but the Company’s early contact with her triggered a windfall of Russian talent on the San Francisco Opera stage. Vishnevskaya and Obraztsova both joined the Company in 1975; Atlantov in the 1990s. Russian conductor Valery Gergiev made his American debut with the Company in 1991 leading Prokofiev’s War and Peace, followed by other works not often heard outside Russia. During this period, the San Francisco Opera Chorus emerged as the versatile ensemble they are today, able to perform large-scale Russian works with the same authority as Aida. In 2006, American mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick scored a triumph with the San Francisco Opera premiere of The Maid of Orleans, an opera known almost exclusively in the West through Arkhipova’s authoritative recording.

Arkhipova kept on singing, but her focus turned to training young artists and judging talent. She was on the 1990 International Tchaikovsky Competition jury that awarded rising American soprano Deborah Voigt first prize. As far as honors and awards, Arkhipova became the most decorated Russian singer in history. She even appeared on a postage stamp. And fittingly for a star of her caliber, a celestial body now bears her name: the minor planet 4424. She died in 2010.


Jeffery McMillan is the senior communications manager at San Francisco Opera and the author of the book Delightfulee: The Life and Music of Lee Morgan. He has previously written for Opera News, Musical America and San Francisco Classical Voice.

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