Artist Profile: USSR Superstar Elena Obraztsova

By David Salazar

During the Cold War, it was rare to see an artist from the Soviet Union make a strong impression in the west.

But Elena Obraztsova proved to be a major difference.

Born on July 7, 1939, Obraztsova endured the siege in Leningrad during World War II and by the age of nine was singing at the Pioneers Palace in Leningrad. She studied music in Taganrog and Rostov on Don before enrolling in the Leningrad Conservatory. In 1963, she was invited to perform at the Bolshoi Theatre before heading to Paris for a recital that would change her life.

From there she would go on to perform at the greatest houses in the world including the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, and the Vienna State Opera, among others.

In 1990 she was awarded the title of Hero of Socialist Labor. She was also appointed artistic director at the Mikhaylovsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 2007. Other major accolades include the 1970 Tchaikovsky Prize, Order of Merit for the Fatherland, Order of the Holy Prince Daniel of Moscow, Order of Lenin, and People’s Artist of the USSR, among others.

She died at 75 in 2015.

Major Roles 

The mezzo was renowned for her incredible technique and especially her chest voice. She sang a wide range of dramatic roles in the operas of Verdi, for example. But she was a well-known interpreter of “Carmen,” being Carlos Kleiber’s choice for his famed performances at the Vienna State Opera alongside Plácido Domingo. Zeffirelli also picked her for his film version of “Carmen” in 1978.

Regarding her performances of the role in 1978-79 at the Met, The New York Post’s Harriet Johnson noted, that she was “so naturally seductive … she seemed like a breeze enflamed by solar power.”

Other major roles she dominated throughout her career include Amneris in “Aida,” Azucena in “Il Trovatore,” Dalila in “Samson et Dalila,” Marina in “Boris Godunov,” and Santuzza in “Cavalleria Rusticana.”

Watch and Listen

Here she is in the role of “Carmen,” which she was so well-known for.


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