Raina Kabaivanska was born in the Black Sea resort of Burgas. Her father was the founder of Balkantourist, the Bulgarian Tourist Association, and her mother a professor of physics. Kabaivanska studied at the Sofia Conservatory, where for her graduation examination she sang Tatyana’s ‘Letter Scene’ from Eugene Onegin and the final scene of Un ballo in maschera. She also appeared as a soloist with the Workers’ Army Collective and as a member of the chorus of the National Opera.
Having been awarded a government scholarship in 1958, Kabaivanska used this to study with the verismo soprano Zita Fumagalli Riva in Italy and made her solo operatic stage debut in 1959 at Vercelli as Giorgetta / Il tabarro. She sang Mimì / La Bohème and Nedda / Pagliacci in a number of opera houses in Northern Italy before winning a competition to study at the School for Young Opera Singers at La Scala, Milan. Here she worked with Antonio Tonini and Gianandrea Gavazzeni, making her debut at the Piccola Scala in 1961 in Malipiero’s Torneo notturno and appearing at La Scala itself during the same year as Agnese / Beatrice di Tenda, opposite Joan Sutherland.
In 1962 Kabaivanska was invited to sing Desdemona / Otello at the Royal Opera House, London opposite Mario del Monaco, conducted by Georg Solti. The same year she also appeared at the San Francisco Opera and was then contracted by the Metropolitan Opera, New York, where she made her debut in the autumn of 1962 as Nedda. Later roles which she took at the Met included Mimì (1963), Elisabetta / Don Carlo (1963), Alice / Falstaff (1964), Leonora / La forza del destino (1964), Manon / Manon Lescaut (1965), Cio-Cio-San / Madama Butterfly (1967), Maddalena / Andrea Chénier (1970), Marguerite / Faust (1971), Lisa / The Queen of Spades (1972) and, her final role at the Met, Tatyana in 1979. In America Kabaivanska also sang in Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Washington and New Orleans, while continuing her association with La Scala. Here she appeared in a repertoire that included Falstaff, Busoni’s Turandot, Suor Angelica, Don Carlo, Mefistofele and Rienzi (conducted by Hermann Scherchen, 1964). As Elvira / Ernani she opened the 1969–1970 Scala season opposite Placido Domingo. At this time Kabaivanska also met her future husband, an assistant producer. Together they settled in Modena.
From 1971 a permanent guest at the Hamburg State Opera, Kabaivanska made her debut at the Paris Opera in 1975 as Leonora and during the 1970s became a noted interpreter of such heroines of the verismo repertoire as La Wally (Catalani), Francesca da Rimini (Zandonai), Adriana Lecouvreur (Cilea) and Tosca (Puccini). She sang Elena / I vespri siciliani in Maria Callas’s only stage production, at Turin in 1973, as well as Amelia / Simon Boccanegra with Abbado at La Scala in 1976 and Leonora / Il trovatore with Karajan at Salzburg and Vienna during 1978. Later she sang Alice with Karajan at Salzburg and on film in 1981 and 1982.
Following Tosca opposite Pavarotti at La Scala in 1980 Kabaivanska sued the theatre for breach of contract and her career was subsequently focused upon the other major Italian houses: Rome, Bologna, Naples, Turin and Palermo. In Rome she sang opposite Alfredo Kraus as Massenet’s Manon in 1981, going on to open the 1981–1982 season in Donizetti’s Fausta. This move into more Classical roles was followed by Spontini’s La vestale at Genoa and Gluck’s Armida at Bologna (both during 1984) and Elisabetta in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux in Rome (1988) and Genoa (1993). At the Verona Arena she sang Butterfly in 1978, 1983 and 1997.
Kabaivanska began to give master-classes in 1992 and was closely associated with the Accademia Chigiana at Siena. Still remarkably active in the opera house, from 1993 onwards she appeared in several major twentieth-century roles, such as the Countess / Capriccio, the Abandoned Woman / La voix humaine, the Governess / The Turn of the Screw, Emilia Marty / The Makropoulos Case and the Kostelnička / Jenůfa, as well as Lehár’s Die lustige Witwe and Weill’s Lady in the Dark.
The distinguished Italian writer and coach Rodolfo Celletti has aptly described Kabaivanska’s voice thus: ‘It is a voice that becomes different each time’, while she herself has credited her success, especially with the Italian public, to her power to ‘live’ on the stage.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).