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Mezzo-soprano Elena Obraztsova, one of the Bolshoi’s great stars, dies at seventy-five; tenor Waldemar Kmentt; director Bodo Igesz; Canadian impresario Irving Guttman; Chris Nance, who conducted at New York City Opera and Houston Grand Opera; Mallory Elton Walker, an admired oratorio and concert singer.

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One of the great Met debuts: Obraztsova as Amneris, 1976
© Beth Bergman 2015
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Kmentt as Walther von Stolzing at Bayreuth, 1968
© Siegfried Lauterwasser 2015
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Conductor Chris Nance,  1940-2014

Leningrad, U.S.S.R., July 7, 1939 — Berlin, Germany, January 12, 2015 

One of the greatest opera singers to emerge from the Soviet Union in the 1960s, Elena Obraztsova won a level of international celebrity that few of her Russian contemporaries achieved. Obraztso­va’s talent and charisma were formidable, but it was her rare level of professional and personal shrewdness that enabled the mezzo to negotiate the Soviet system that defeated so many of her colleagues. Always careful to avoid political controversy at home and abroad, Obraztsova was regarded as a national treasure in Russia. For a brief, heady period, she enjoyed similar acclaim in the U.S.

Obraztsova began singing with the children’s chorus of the Leningrad Palace of Pioneers in 1948, when she was still a child. When her father’s engineering work took the family to the port city of Taganrog, and to Rostov-on-Don, Obraztsova studied at the music schools there. In 1958, she entered the Lenin­grad Conservatory, where she studied with Antonina Grigorieva. The mezzo struggled to align her voice for several years before surprising her teacher — and herself — with gold-medal wins in the World Festival of Youth and Students in Helsinki (1962) and the Glinka All-Union Competition in Moscow (1963). She made her debut at the Bolshoi as Marina in Boris Godunov in 1963 while still officially a student. In 1964, Obraztsova traveled with the Bolshoi to Milan, where she sang the Governess in The Queen of Spades and Maria Bolkonskaya in War and Peace with the company at La Scala, and joined the company in its engagement at Expo 67 in Montreal. 

During the next several seasons, Obraztsova established herself as one of the most valuable artists on the Bolshoi roster. Her repertoire included the Old Countess and Pauline in The Queen of Spades; Lyubasha in The Tsar’s Bride; Marfa in Khovanshchina; Hélène Bezukhova in War and Peace; Konchakovna in Prince Igor; Zhenka in The Dawns Are Quiet Here; and Frosya in Semyon Kotko, as well as non-Russian assignments such as Dalila, Amneris, Carmen, Princess Eboli and Azucena. Obraztsova also was an active recitalist; her collaborations with composer Georgy Sviridov, who wrote several pieces for her, were especially admired.

In 1975, the Bolshoi Opera visited the U.S. for the first time, with engagements at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Although the company’s name was legendary, few of its singers at that time were well-known outside of the Soviet Union, which rarely gave artists permission to accept engagements in the West. Obraztsova — then in her late thirties and at the zenith of her powers — made a sensation in New York. Tall, glamorous and energetic, the mezzo was an instant hit, the blazing, sharp-eyed authority of her Marina in Boris Godunov giving notice that a true diva had arrived. Her voice was sumptuously colored, her phrasing incisive and her range prodigious, extending from coruscating top notes to contralto-ish depths.

Obraztsova made her San Francisco Opera debut a few months later, as Azucena in a starry Il Trovatore with Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti, and began to make a series of important debuts in western Europe. But her New York fans still clamored for her return. Her success with the public was immediate and authentic, her appearances given a slight charge of mystery because she had arrived in Manhattan with so little advance publicity. When Obraztsova made her eagerly-awaited Met debut, on October 12, 1976, OPERA NEWS’s editor Robert Jacobson called Obraztsova’s Amneris “one of the great Met debuts in recent history.” Jacobson reported that the audience applauded rhythmically as the mezzo waited in the wings after the judgment scene on opening night: “Her resplendent voice has power, range and expressiveness…. It conveys a sense of theatrical excitement, womanliness and kaleidoscopic color, and she is electrifying.” Her personal ovation lasted some fifteen minutes. Obraztso­va returned to the company later in the season as Dalila, a role particularly well suited to her theatrical flair and generously scaled singing. After a season’s absence, the Met welcomed her in 1978–79 as Charlotte to Plácido Domingo’s Werther; as Carmen, in which The New York Post’s Harriet Johnson said that Obraztsova was “so naturally seductive … she seemed like a breeze enflamed by solar power”; and as Adalgisa in Norma. Obraztsova was scheduled to return to the Met in 1979–80 for Ulrica in Un Ballo in Maschera, Santuzza and Princess Eboli — all performances that were slated to be broadcast — but her appearances were canceled when Moscow withdrew permission for Soviet artists to appear in the U.S. after the American government’s protest against the entry of Soviet troops into Afghanistan. Obraztso­va did not criticize any of her government’s decisions publicly; for all of her career, she was a staunch supporter of the Soviet regime. In 1974, the mezzo was one of the signatories of a letter denouncing Mstislav Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya for their support of dissident author Alexander Solzhenitsyn — an act for which Vishnevskaya never forgave her. 

Obraztsova did not return to the New York stage until 1987, when she sang a Carnegie Hall recital with John Wustman and three performances as Azucena at the Met. Obraztsova’s subsequent Met appearances were all in what might be called character roles — Ulrica in a new production of Ballo (1990), Grammy in the company premiere of The Gambler (2001) and Madame Akhrosimova in the company premiere of War and Peace (2002).

In her years away from New York, Obraztsova remained extremely active in Europe, with engagements at Covent Garden, La Scala, Vienna State Opera, the Salzburg Festival, the Liceu in Barcelona, Bavarian State Opera, Hamburg State Opera and Arena di Verona, among other theaters. She also made notable late-career appearances at Los Angeles Opera (the Old Countess in The Queen of Spades, 2001) and Washington National Opera (the Old Countess, 2002, and Prince Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus, 2003). 

Obraztsova sang Carmen in the 1978 Wiener Staatsoper telecast of Franco Zeffirelli’s staging and was Santuzza in his 1982 film of Cavalleria Rusticana. She made studio recordings of her signature roles with a number of distinguished conductors, including Claudio Abbado (Amneris in Aida), Daniel Barenboim (Samson et Dalila), Valery Gergiev (The Gambler), Carlo Maria Giulini (Maddalena in Rigoletto), James Levine (Princesse de Bouillon in Adriana Lecouvreur), Riccardo Muti (Fenena in Nabucco) and Herbert von Karajan (Il Trovatore). Although the frequency of her opera performances inevitably diminished as the years passed, Obraztsova never officially retired from singing: she appeared several times in recent years as the Old Countess in The Queen of Spades at St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre, where she was the artistic advisor to the general director, and sang regularly in recital. She was also active as a teacher, coach and competition adjudicator.

Obraztsova’s many honors included the designation of People’s Artist of the U.S.S.R. (1973), the Lenin Prize (1976) and the title of Hero of Socialist Labor (1990). In 1995, she was named an honorary member of the Pushkin Academy.

On October 28, 2014, Obraztsova’s seventy-fifth birthday was celebrated with a gala at the Bolshoi. Among the starry cast of singers on the bill were Anna Netrebko, Dinara Alieva, José Cura, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Maria Guleghina, Olga Peretyako, Hibla Gerzmava — and Obraztsova herself. She sang the Old Countess in an excerpt from The Queen of Spades with all the authority of her great years — and received the tributes and ovations with the grandeur and glamour of a queen. F. PAUL DRISCOLL 

Vienna, Austria, February 2, 1929 — January 21, 2015 

An artist of elegance, spirit and wit, the tenor was especially beloved in his native Vienna, where he sang 1,480 performances during his decades-long career at the Wiener Staatsoper (1955–96). Kmentt’s signature roles included Tamino, Hans in The Bartered Bride, Hoffmann and Jaquino, which he sang at the performance of Fidelio that inaugurated the rebuilt Staatsoper in 1955. Kmentt was a regular artist at the Salzburg Festival, where he created Gabriel in Frank Martin’s Le Mystère de la Nativité and appeared as Dandini von Grosseto in Palestrina, Belmonte, Don Ottavio, Idamante, Ferrando and Tamino, among other roles. In 1968, Kmentt made his debuts at La Scala, as Idomeneo, and at Bayreuth, as Walther von Stolzing. He did not arrive at the Met until 2001, when he took on the speaking role of the Major-domo in Ariadne auf Naxos with dazzling panache at the age of seventy-two.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands, February 7, 1935 — New York, NY, December 25, 2014 

The director studied at the University of Amsterdam and Juilliard before the Met hired him as a stage director, responsible for assisting on and maintaining the company’s repertory productions, beginning in the 1963–64 season. Igesz remained on the staging staff of the Met for twenty-five years.

In July 1972, when the Met’s incoming general manager, Göran Gentele, was killed in a car accident, Igesz was asked — on just a week’s notice — to take over the staging for Gentele’s season-opening production of Carmen, starring Marilyn Horne and conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Basing his staging on Gentele’s notes and conversations he had had with him, Igesz delivered a production that served the company well; the Igesz staging was featured on the Met’s first tour of Japan, in 1975, and showcased the first Met Carmens of Régine Crespin (1975) and Elena Obraztsova (1978).

At Sante Fe Opera, Igesz staged the U.S. premieres of Cardillac (1967), Jacob’s Ladder (1968), The Bassarids (1968) and Melusine (1972); he also directed in Salzburg and a wide variety of theaters in North and South America and Europe.

Chatham, Ontario, Canada, October 27, 1928 — Vancouver, BC, Canada, December 7, 2014 

A visionary stage director who changed the arts landscape in Canada, Guttman was founding artistic director of Vancouver Opera (1960–74; 1982–84), the longtime artistic director of Manitoba Opera (1977–98) and cofounder of opera companies in Edmonton, Regina and Winnipeg. Guttman attracted international attention by presenting Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne in Vancouver Opera’s Norma in 1963; he was also responsible for the Canadian debuts of Plácido Domingo, Beverly Sills, Samuel Ramey and José Carreras. A top talent-spotter wherever he worked, Guttman gave early career opportunities to Maureen Forrester, Ben Heppner, Tracy Dahl, Judith Forst and other Canadian singers.

Charlottesville, VA, October 12, 1940 — New York, NY, October 27, 2014 

The conductor studied with Ingolf Dahl at the University of Southern California, where he received his bachelor of music degree in 1963, and with Walter Ducloux at the University of Texas at Austin, where he received his master’s degree in 1972.  Nance was on faculty at Louisiana State University (1963–69) before beginning a five-year stint as chorus master and conductor at New York City Opera (1969–74).  He made his NYCO conducting debut with Rigoletto in 1970 and subsequently led performances of Madama Butterfly, La Traviata, Carmen, Lucia di Lammermoor, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci for the company during his time on staff there.  He returned to NYCO as a freelancer in 1989, when he led the La Bohème that marked Renée Fleming’s company debut, and paced Street Scene (1990), The Mikado (1990), The Most Happy Fella (1991) and The Desert Song (1992) at the New York State Theater during the next few seasons.

Nance served as music administrator and conductor at Houston Grand Opera (1974–77), where he worked on the company’s historic production of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, and conducted national tour performances of Treemonisha and Porgy and Bess. Porgy became a career specialty for Nance, who led the Gershwin opera in performances in Paris, Tokyo, Vienna, Rome, Trieste, Reggio Emilia, Palermo, Munich, Cologne, Leipzig, Bremen, Zurich, Amsterdam and Calgary as well as in stagings for Florentine Opera, Tulsa Opera and other U. S. companies.

As a freelance conductor, Nance developed long and productive associations with Cincinnati Opera, New Orleans Opera Association, Hawaii Opera Theatre and Opera Grand Rapids. Nance conducted the U. S. premiere of Iain Hamilton’s Anna Karenina for Los Angeles Opera Theatre in March 1983, and conducted the world premiere of Hamilton’s Lancelot at the 1985 Arundel Festival. Nance made his ENO debut leading a 1985 revival of Anna Karenina. He also conducted at Pittsburgh Opera, the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and at the San Antonio Festival, among other companies.

New Orleans, LA, May 22, 1935 — Anaheim, CA, December 7, 2014 

The tenor attended Occidental College in Los Angeles on a vocal scholarship and sang with the U. S. Army Chorus.  He studied at the Metropolitan Opera Studio and with George Schick and Cornelius Reid. He began his professional opera career with the Opera Society of Washington (now Washington National Opera) in 1959, as Tom Rakewell in The Rake’s Progress and toured nationally with the Robert Shaw Chorale as the tenor soloist in Bach’s B Minor Mass, a work he recorded under Shaw’s direction in 1960.    That same year, Walker was Ferrando in a staging of Così Fan Tutte presented in New York City public schools as a joint production of the Student Program of Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera Guild.  Other early-career credits included appearances with Cincinnati Opera, Houston Grand Opera and San Francisco Opera’s Spring Opera Company, where he sang Belmonte (1962) and Tamino (1963).  He was a resident artist at Staatstheater Oldenburg (1963–64) and Cologne Opera (1964–66), and appeared as a guest in Stuttgart and Spoleto.  In 1971, Walker sang Jonathan Gilourin in the world premiere of Argento’s Colonel Jonathan the Saint at Denver Lyric Opera.  He made his Met debut in 1978, as Captain Vere in Billy Budd.

Wallker’s career was stalled by vocal trouble when he was in his late forties, and his engagements grew less high-profile.  In 1984, he attracted attention — and was the subject of a New York Times feature story — when he stepped out of the chorus of a Mostly Mozart presentation of Strauss’s adaptation of Idomeneo to sing the title role, substituting on less than a day’s notice for an indisposed Jerry Hadley.  The following summer, Walker created a leading role in the premiere of Minoru Miki’s Joruri at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

An admired oratorio and concert singer, Walker recorded Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis under Georg Solti and sang with the Chicago Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Buffalo Philharmonic and other major orchestras in the U. S. .  He taught at the Boston Conservatory of Music and later had a private vocal studio in the Los Angeles area.  He never retired from singing and remained active with church and chorus work until the end of his life. spacer 

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