The Russian mezzo who founded one of the great vocal competitions has passed at the age of 75.

The great Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Obraztsova has died at the age of 75. Her death in Germany was reported by the head of her influential cultural centre and foundation. She was abroad receiving medical treatment.

Elena Obraztsova was born in 1939 in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) during the famous World War II siege. Her father subsequently left for the front and the family remained in besieged Leningrad up to the end of the winter of 1942 when they were evacuated to the small town of Ustjuzhnu.

Obraztsova started singing at the age of five spending hours glued to the radio during opera transmissions. She received musical encouragement from her father, an engineer by profession, who was also an excellent baritone and played the violin. In 1954 she was sent to Rostov’s Tchaikovsky musical college in Taganrog where she studied with Anna Timofeevna Kulikova and from 1957 she studied at the Rostov on Don music school, becoming a student at the Leningrad Conservatory in 1958. In 1964 she  graduated with a “5  plus” – a mark which had not been given to any student for about 40 years.

Her solo breakthrough came in 1963 when, still a student, she was invited to perform in a Bolshoi production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov in Moscow. The role of the haughty, ambitious Princess Marina would become one of her signature roles, beautifully captured on Mark Ermler’s 1985 studio recording of the opera. In 1964 she toured with the Bolshoi to Milan where she made her debut as Marfa in Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina. The following month she played Maria in Prokofiev’s War and Peace at La Scala and from there she went on to play a wide range of roles all over the world throughout a long career. The Verdi mezzo roles (Amneris, Azucena, Eboli, Ulrica etc) were a speciality, many of which are preserved on a series of Deutsche Grammophon recordings where Claudio Abbado, Riccardo Muti, James Levine and Herbert von Karajan were among her champions.

In December 1977 she opened the 200th opera season at La Scala singing Eboli in Don Carlos for Abbado and in 1978 she reached a new audience playing the title role of Carmen opposite Plácido Domingo in Franco Zeffirelli’s television production of the opera. She also appeared as Santuzza in Zeffirelli’s film version of Cavalleria Rusticana in 1982. Other notable roles included Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther, the Princesse de Bouillon in Adriana Lecouvreur and Dalila in Saint-Saëns’ opera Samson et Dalila. As a mark of her popularity, in 1981 a small planet was named for her.

Not entirely an uncontroversial figure, Obraztsova was rumoured to have close links to the KGB and both the American Wagnerian soprano Astrid Varnay and the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya make mention of her connections within the Soviet echelons of power. In 1990 she was awarded the title of Hero of Socialist Labour and awarded the Order of Lenin and the Hammer and Sickle gold medal by Mikhail Gorbachov, the then President of Soviet Union, for her contribution to the development of Soviet Music.

In 2007 Obraztsova was appointed artistic director of opera at the Mikhaylovsky Theatre in St. Petersburg where she wound up her performing career with some notable outings as the redoutable Countess in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades.

In 2008, Obraztsova founded a competition in her name, which has gone on to become one of the best-respected in the world. Noted winners have included the popular coloratura Julia Lezhneva and most recently the soprano Eleanor Lyons. She also trained many young soloists at her own cultural centre in St. Petersburg.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed his condolences to the singer’s family and fans according to Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.