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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Poetry Prima Donna : Yelena Kamburova created her own style of

dramatic singing. Today she is cr

On stage -- her hands clasped over the microphone, her voice alternating between throaty whispers, passionate wails and joyful hymns - she is larger than life. Off stage it is almost disconcerting to find that she is a small, soft-spoken woman who keeps her head slightly bent when she talks to people.

Yelena Kamburova is a mythic figure among her small but diehard group of fans, who flock to her concerts to hear the poetry of Boris Pasternak, Novella Matveyeva, Bulat Okudzhava and others brought to life by the veteran actress-singer. Kamburova performs "poetry-based songs" in an engaging dramatic style and has united a talented group of young singers and songwriters in her Theater of Music and Poetry.

But Kamburova's concerts are not just about poetry. Her expressiveness, along with the musicianship of keyboardist Oleg Sinkin and guitarist and violinist Vyacheslav Golikov, draws you in, regardless of whether you understand the words. In many of her songs she develops a character, creating a miniature one-woman show. With her uncannily malleable voice, Kamburova can easily be convincing - and hilarious - as a youthful girl, a small child or a grumpy old man. Her repertoire includes songs in seven languages, including Slavic folk songs, French chansons and American show tunes.

As she sings "Yolka," her classic holiday song to a poem by Pasternak, her eyes glitter with a child's wonder as she stands on tiptoe to light the candles of an imaginary Christmas tree.

"I would call this the genre of magical songs," says Alexander Lushchik, who wrote the music to many of Kamburova's songs, including "Yolka," and is a member of her theater. "Sometimes a vocalist simply sings a song ... but if they also act the song, live it ... then it becomes a miniature show."

Though Kamburova is much more theatrical than any of Russia's famed bards who began singing unofficial, poetic music in the '60s, she is nevertheless a product of that generation.

"I was so lucky that my first appearances on stage coincided with this student movement," Kamburova says. "I saw an audience that was yearning to hear this stuff."

As it was for the bards, the struggle to keep singing in the face of Soviet censorship was a major theme in her career.

During the thaw under Khrushchev, Kamburova recorded many songs for radio, but when the period of liberalism ended with the invasion of Czechoslovakia, she was rarely heard on the air. "Out of the enormous number of my songs, they stopped playing all but one or two that had a civic message," Kamburova recalls.

She stops to laugh at the absurdity: "What anti-Soviet meaning can you find in the songs of Okudzhava? None at all."

Even as she was forced to lay low to avoid irking the authorities, Russians continued to hear her voice in more than 100 films in which she sang for non-singing actors.

Today things are different. Kamburova has been recognized with the official title of "people's artist" and has been granted a building and funding for her theater by the city government.

In the summer of 1997, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov granted Kamburova the former Sport Movie Theater near Novodevichy Convent. The building is currently being renovated, and the Theater of Music and Poetry is temporarily housed atthe Vernisazh Theater on Begovaya Ulitsa.

But despite the government support for Kamburova, Russia in the '90s is not the most hospitable place for her art form.

"Today there is freedom of speech, but unfortunately that freedom is used least of all by the intelligentsia," she says. "Every society has discotheques and dance halls where people come, not to think or philosophize, but just to dance, turn off and relax. Such places should exist, but when they take up the whole territory, that's scary."

Despite the trend toward purely feel-good entertainment, Kamburova continues to find what she calls "kindred spirits" to join her theater.

Lushchik, who before joining Kamburova's theater when it began in 1992 worked as a dramatic actor, primarily in the Hermitage Theater, says he kept most of his compositions to himself and did not perform them in public until Kamburova took an interest in the mid-1980s. Today, he and the other half-dozen people in the theater give solo performances, play in joint concerts and share material and ideas.

Unlike Kamburova, Lushchik sings mostly his own compositions in his masculine baritone and accompanies himself on guitar.

"All of us are authors," Lushchik says. "That is quite rare in the theater. Actors are basically performers. Lena Kamburova's attitude encourages creativity. Lena always invites us to search, to expand and to try."

Along with encouraging individual activity, Kamburova aims to stage musicals. She is also planning special concerts dedicated to a particular poet or theme. In April, the theater will mark what would have been the 70th birthday of French chansonnier Jacques Brel, one of Kamburova's major inspirations.

"This is a group of soloists," Kamburova says. "And in that there are certain wonderful things and certain difficulties. Because to get soloists to work on some kind of common project is not that easy. They want to act independently."

One of the main goals Kamburova sets for the theater is to foster young talent, and she is always on the lookout for new performers. Recently, puppeteer Yelena Treshchinskaya joined the theater and made a big splash in the city.

"We are always looking, listening and taking note of something," she says.

Kamburova's concerts, which take place at venues ranging from the fairly large Contemporary Play School to the intimate Vysotsky Center, are virtually always packed with devotees. Once you go to a few concerts, you begin to recognize faces, and to compete with these fans for tickets, requiring a bit of advanced planning.

Lushchik recalls how in the theater's early days, when it was wandering from venue to venue without a home base, the fans drew up a list of their telephone numbers and demanded that theater administrators call them before each concert. When work started on the Sport building, the theater held three subbotniki, at which many fans volunteered their time and helped clean the place up.

"From the very beginning, I always imagined that these are my potential friends," Kamburova says of her public.

At her solo concerts, older women make up the largest group in the audience. "When I began, they called me a young people's singer," Kamburova says.

Kamburova has given several performances abroad, including one at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1989 that met with rave reviews.

But, she says, in Moscow foreigners do not regularly come to her concerts, though she is confident she could reach them - even those who don't understand the words to her Russian songs.

"It always seemed to me that there cannot be boundaries as long as there is a language of intonation and feelings."

Yelena Kamburova's next concert is Jan. 29 at 7 p.m. at Central House of Architects, 9 Granatny Pereulok. Tel. 290-3880. Metro: Barrikadnaya. For tickets call 946-0806 or 945-3245.

The following concerts of the Theater of Music and Poetry take place at 7 p.m. in the White Hall of the Vernisazh Theater, 5 Begovaya Ulitsa. Tel. 946-0806. Metro: Begovaya. Alexander Lushchik plays Jan. 25. Irina Yevdokimova performs Rakhmaninov romances with prose and poetry by Ivan Bunin, as well as her "Pushkin and Co." program, on Jan. 27. Andrei Kramarenko performs songs by Yury Vizbor and Bulat Okudzhava on Jan. 28.