Muslim Magomayev; Soviet Opera, Pop Star

Muslim Magomayev, an Azerbaijan-born baritone who was popular in the Soviet Union and Europe in the 1960s and '70s, sold millions of albums.
Muslim Magomayev, an Azerbaijan-born baritone who was popular in the Soviet Union and Europe in the 1960s and '70s, sold millions of albums. (Azerbaijan Embassy)
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By Alexander F. Remington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Muslim Magomayev, 66, Azerbaijan-born baritone who attracted millions of listeners in the Soviet Union and Europe as an operatic and pop star in the 1960s and 1970s, died of heart ailments Oct. 25 at his apartment in Moscow.

The grandson and namesake of a celebrated Azeri composer, Mr. Magomayev began his career as an opera singer and trained at La Scala in Milan at the age of 22.

Back in his home country, between Russia and Iran on the Caspian Sea, he became a soloist with the Azerbaijan State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre. His interpretation of Rossini's "Barber of Seville" was a popular favorite, and he rendered arias from Puccini's "Tosca" and his grandfather's opera "Shah Ismail."

Following the example set by Mr. Magomayev's idol, Mario Lanza -- the Philadelphia-born singer and movie star about whom he wrote a book -- the Azeri singer turned to orchestral pop music in the mid-1960s with a repertoire of romantic and patriotic songs.

He found immediate success, selling 4.5 million albums by the end of the 1960s and receiving the Soviet Union's highest artistic honors. But Mr. Magomayev was unable to sustain a career beyond Soviet borders despite occasional concerts in Europe.

At his peak, he was offered a contract by the owner of the prestigious Paris Olympia music hall, but the Soviet Ministry of Culture forced him to decline, citing the need for him to perform at government events.

"Magomayev was many things," Vadim Nikitin wrote in his Russia blog for the Foreign Policy Association, "a quintessential dandy who also happened to be a People's Artist of the U.S.S.R.; a trained opera singer with a Sinatra's showman touch; a brilliant scion of an family of artists and musicians in an ardently 'class-less' society."

Nikitin added that the singer was "a globe trotting cosmopolitan performing at La Scala and to sell out crowds at the Paris Olympia whilst remaining a steadfast Soviet patriot who always came back; a consumate gentleman and a sex symbol in the officially sex-less Soviet Union; a 'national treasure' moving in the poshest echelons of Moscow society, without giving up his deep ties to his native Baku."

Muslim Mahammad oglu Magomayev was born in the capital city of Baku on Aug. 17, 1942. His father was a painter, and his mother was an actress. In addition to singing, the younger Magomayev acted in films and wrote songs and film scores.

He was a pianist as a child and, in addition to vocal coaches, trained to sing by locking himself in his room and listening to recordings of Italian opera star Enrico Caruso.

By 19, Mr. Magomayev was singing at a youth festival in Helsinki, and he had his first solo concert in Moscow at 21.

He started a family quickly, marrying his first wife, Ofelia, a fellow opera student, while they were still in school. They had a daughter, Marina, before divorcing, in part because of his demanding work schedule.

He met his second wife and frequent duet collaborator, Tamara Sinyavskaya, in the Baku Philharmonic, and they married in 1974. She later joined the Bolshoi as a soloist and was named a People's Artist of the Soviet Union. She survives, along with his daughter.

In 1998, Mr. Magomayev largely retired from singing and wrote a memoir, "Melody, My Love."

To mark his death, several of Mr. Magomayev's best-known songs, including "Melody," "Nocturne" and "For Everything I Thank You," were played yesterday in every subway station in Moscow.

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