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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Stars to Shine on Russia's First Diva

Irina Arkhipova started out as an architect, but though the building she helped design - the Moscow Financial Academy - still stands, it's not the "frozen music" of architecture that she will be remembered for.

Arkhipova, who marked her 75th birthday Monday in a celebration at the Savoy Hotel, is better known as one of Russia's greatest living opera stars. The legendary mezzo-soprano, who last month received a medal for Service to the Fatherland from then-President Boris Yeltsin, has been dazzling audiences at home and abroad for nearly 45 years.

The first Russian diva to break through the Iron Curtain and dispel Western myths about stale Soviet culture, Arkhipova was the first non-Italian singer to sign a 10-year contract with the La Scala opera house in Milan, Italy.

According to art critic Svyatoslav Belza, Arkhipova - whose scheduled April 1 performance in Tchaikovsky's "Queen of Spades" at the Bolshoi Theater is rumored to be her last - played a crucial role in paving the way for Soviet and then Russian singers into the international opera arena.

"Every part should fit a singer as well as a dress by an excellent tailor, and Arkhipova has always sensed when it's the right time to change," Belza said. "She started performing spiritual music before it ever became fashionable. She showed the world that there are opera singers in Russia."

The cultural exchange between the Soviet Union and Italy was largely thanks to Arkhipova's efforts - and, perhaps, to her alleged romance with one of La Scala's greatest tenors, Mario Del Monaco.

The two met when Del Monaco braved a trip to the Soviet Union to perform the role of Jose in George Bizet's "Carmen," with Arkhipova in the female lead. Charmed by her beautiful voice, he invited her to Italy, where the pair enjoyed a successful artistic partnership. Although the singers' relationship may have been purely professional - Del Monaco's wife, who worked as his manager, was never far from his side - romantic rumors persisted.

In the end, it was army officer Vladislav Piavko who became Arkhipova's lover of 30 years. Enchanted by her duet with Del Monaco in their first Bolshoi performance, Piavko, himself a talented singer, was granted a special release from his service in the Far East in order to travel to Moscow and become one of the diva's first students.

Now a Bolshoi soloist, Piavko, a tenor, occasionally shares the stage with his paramour. "Their stage drama draws straight from their lives," said author Dmitry Minchyonok, who is writing a book about behind-the-stage intrigues in the Soviet opera world.

While Del Monaco is long dead, his favorite student, La Scala baritone Mauro Augustini, flew to Moscow this week to pay musical tribute to his mentor's friend in an evening of Italian music Wednesday at the Moscow Conservatory Great Hall. Augustini will perform together with Berlin State Opera soprano Lyudmila Magomedova and Bolshoi tenor Oleg Kulko.

Despite the recent "Three Tenors"-style popularization of opera, Arkhipova remains a traditionalist, saying she would never attempt a cross-genre experiment like Montserrat Caballe's 1987 duet with pop star Freddie Mercury.

"I don't like that. It's all boom and noise for me," she said. "I've dedicated my whole life to preserving the classical heritage. Why look for anything else?"

Arkhipova, who founded her own music school and has presided over 14 of the last 18 Glinka national singing competitions, shared some secrets of her success.

"Never drink or smoke, and don't love too much - or, rather, love according to the rehearsal schedule," the diva said, sitting next to Piavko on Monday. "Being a real singer is being a real martyr. You're often required to give up your private life."