NINA  PAVLOVNA KOSHETZ (30 December 1891, Kiev - 14 May 1965, Laguna Beach, California)

Remembered By Charles Mintzer

(all photos and documents courtesy Charles Mintzer)

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(for full content of the youtube clip, click on the caption top left)

A singer who for me has always been a figure of deep fascination is the Russian soprano, Nina Koshetz. There is something larger-than-life about this artist, and I don’t only mean her late-in-life corpulence. Her biography, coming from an important musical family, her studies with the best teachers in her country, her numerous love affairs, her losing the Russia she loved due to the Revolution and its aftermath, her connections to the leading composers of her native land, her unusual but wonderful, multi-faceted career, having a talented daughter to follow in her footsteps and her final years in Hollywood all have elements of grandeur and ultimate sadness. The “larger than life” cliché used above refers to the way glamorous opera stars were treated in Czarist Russia; the wild adulation, the flowers, the carriages, the string of lovers, the dachas, a world difficult to comprehend with our twenty-first century sensibilities. 

She is one of those unfortunate singers whose career started on the cusp of the upheavals that led to the Bolshevik Revolution which changed the face of her native land. Her early successes in Russian and Western operas at the Imperial Mariinsky theatre and at the non-royal Zimin opera companies suggest that she was destined for a prominent place in the Russian operatic firmament, and also that she was also good enough to make successful guest appearances in Western Europe and the United States. However, as an exile, her road was much more difficult; small Russian opera companies cobbled together with emigré artists were often short-lived, unsuccessful affairs with limited financial reward. Yet, with all these elements stacked against her, Koshetz forged an estimable career, especially in the concert world. Thus, her operatic strengths were only exhibited in the arias she inserted in her concert programs. Being an evangelist for the works of Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Gretchaninov, and Medtner meant that she attracted audiences eager to hear the glories of Russian song, some on the cutting-edge of the world’s song repertoire.

I recently asked a knowledgable friend how he would rate the Koshetz career. He thought she was essentially a “cult” favorite of connoisseurs, somewhat in the same way as was Jennie Tourel a generation later. I thought about that concept and a bulb went off in my head; having pulled up The New York Times database, I found reviews or accounts of dozens of Koshetz concerts at New York’s Town Hall in the late Twenties and early Thirties featuring a very wide-ranging repertoire and reports of all the luminaries from the musical, literary and academic worlds in attendance. About her voice there was equivocation, some critics hearing a fabulous instrument of wide range and colors, others singling out either her soaring top voice or her sepulchral lows, and most only praising her mid range while questioning the adequacy of the extreme ends of her voice. She had studied singing and piano in Moscow and Saint Petersburg with top-level teachers (Umberto Masetti, Konstantin Igumnov, Vasily Safonov, and the composer Sergei Taneyev (a Tchaikovsky pupil himself) and acting with the great Konstantin Stanislavsky) and in the mid-1920s she resumed working in Paris with the retired Wagnerian soprano Felia Litvinne (1860-1936), essentially for coaching. Litvinne arranged the Chopin Etude in E Major, dubbed “Tristesse” as a “vocalise” for Koshetz, who made a memorable issued recording for Victor in 1930 (and an early test pressing, subsequently reissued, of it in 1928); Litvinne’s other star soprano pupil Germaine Lubin (1890-1979) also made a notable recording of this beautiful song. It seems Litvinne, near the end of her stage career, worked with Koshetz in Saint Petersburg around 1915. In the Prokofiev Diaries there is a 1918 reference and footnote re the Litvinne arrangement of the Chopin Etude. Sergei Levik, that most astute writer about the Saint Petersburg operatic scene in his Russian-language memoirs, notes that Litvinne had two important Russians working with her, tenor Ivan Alchevsky and soprano Nina Koshetz; in fact he calls Koshetz a “Litvinne creation.” And for some context for this statement, Levik rates Litvinne very high in his estimation of the great singers, almost worshipful.

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As an attractive young singer destined for greatness, and a very desirable woman, in those early days she had a five-year-long romantic attachment with Rachmaninov who composed and dedicated some of his important songs to her, and she had a more fleeting affair with the young Prokofiev. From Prokofiev’s diary: August 1917 referring to a meeting: “then took me into their carriage and we went to Koshetz’s house. Koshetz and I expressed our great mutual pleasure at seeing one another again, and she said she had been waiting impatiently for my arrival in Yessentuki [a city in the Caucauses]. She then said a few words about Rachmaninov, who had recently left having been there for some time, and who said of me that of course I was very talented but had not yet reached my full potential as a composer. By this last I was given to understand that I had not attained that sphere to which he, Rachmaninov, had, compositionally speaking, access. If some day I should chance to reach it, then Rachmaninov would be able to say that in those works I had fulfilled my potential.” Imagine it, these giants of Russian music confiding their deepest thoughts about each other to a twenty-seven year old soprano.

From the Prokofiev diary there is this very florid August 1917 account of his relationship with Koshetz: “In the evening we went together to Kislovodsk [a spa in the north Caucauses], where Koshetz was appearing in Halévy’s “La Juive.” Koshetz’s generous description of the opera, which I did know at all, was that it was a pseudo-classical opera. In fact it turned out to be technically speaking such a  hopelessly inept piece of work, so dramatically clumsy, so wooden in its character development, that when these defects were added a bad production and a feeble cast of principals (except Koshetz) it was all I could do not to rush from the theatre. I was restrained only by Sonya Avanova whispering in my ear every minute ‘Isn’t Nina Palna gorgeous? Look, I did look.’ I looked only because I was badgered into doing so.” Palna is clearly the familiar form of Pavlovna, her patronymic.

“Still and all, the return train journey to Yessentuki was a triumphant procession. Koshetz travelled with a whole entourage, and the bouquets she had been presented with turned our carriage into something like the garden from “Kitezh.” I did not go to supper with her as I was terribly tired. The next day I called on her intending to go riding as she said she was an excellent horsewoman. To my astonishment I discovered Nina Pavlovna in considerable “déshabille.” She was sitting surrounded by seven trunks into which she was packing her forty or so dresses, having this very morning taken even herself by surprise by conceiving the notion of going to Moscow. I sincerely regretted this precipitate move, and spent a couple of hours sitting on her balcony while she continued packing. I read verses by some of the poets she was proposing to me as song lyrics. Koshetz ran in and out, presented me with photographs, showed off her hats to me, threw a few words over her shoulder and buried herself anew in her cases. As I left to go home, promising to appear at the station, Koshetz took me by the arm and accompanied me to the door. She wanted to say something to me that would imprint itself on my heart, and murmured many endearments, asking me to pay no attention to her “frightful whirligig gyrations.” and as we parted, after a little hesitation, suddenly gave me a kiss.

At the station, where a great crowd of people had assembled to see her off, Koshetz asked me in a whisper to be a dear and accompany her as far as Mineralnye Vody [a gateway city to the spas in the Caucauses]. This coincided with my own wishes, and I got on the train to go with her, but in such a way that nobody in fact noticed that I was there or where I was going, At Mineralnye Vody she exclaimed ‘Ah, Mineral Vody! Not long ago I was myself seeing someone off here!’ and wrote on the photograph of herself she had presented to me “tout passe, tout casse, tout lasse.” When I observed that this was a strange sentiment to inscribe on her portrait, she replied that I had not understood: a month ago this was where she had said goodbye to Rachmaninov, but…everything passes…She wanted me to dedicate the “Akhmatova Songs” to her, to which I responded that in a sense she already had a certain right to them, since there had been composed the day after her concert, but ‘I had not wanted to create an unfavorable comparison with another set of songs dedicated to her.’ I was hinting at the very good songs Rachmaninov had dedicated to her. Koshetz said ‘You’re so cheeky, but I like that!’ It was indeed a piece of cheek to compare them to the best songs of the ineffably divine Rachmaninov! I love his songs very much, but as a matter of fact mine are better, they are among my most successful opuses.”


Koshetz, who was not Jewish, made outstanding recordings for Victor of “Kaddish (Ravel) and the Yiddish-Aramaic-language “Eili Eili.” These recordings were part of Victor’s project to record music representing the many ethnic groups of the Russian empire. Koshetz, as a great artist, is unusually fine in these recordings. The Koshetz ethnicity is somewhat complicated as she has at times been included in various, perhaps dubious Jewish ethnic lists. Both she and her father sang in the imperial theaters, she at the Mariinsky in Saint Petersburg and her father a generation earlier at the Moscow Bolshoi; in both venues proof of baptism was a precondition of employment. Her father came from an old Ukranian family. On the other hand, she often sang in America in benefits for Jewish charities and organizations while at the same time participating in Russian Orthodox religious events. Possibly she had some Jewish ancestry along the way, perhaps on her mother’s side, of which she would be very proud but in the Russia or Ukraine of her youth this was something not to talk about, but for all practical purposes it is difficult to consider her Jewish in any meaningful way. According to Nelly Kravetz in her on-line article "Prokofiev and Jewish music" the question of Jewishness has a connection to the very Orthodox Russian Prokoviev himself: “Digging deeper into the question of who actually initiated and stimulated Prokofiev's interest in musical Judaica suggests the answer, cherchez la femme (look for the woman). The dancer Ida Rubinstein, the singer Nina Koshetz, the harpist Eleonara Damskaya, the actresses Shoshana Avivit, Polina Podolskaya, Dagmar Godowsky, and especially his first love, Stella Adler. All of these women were of Russian-Jewish origins and, in various ways at different times, played a prominent role in the composer's life. Excluding Damskaya, all of them emigrated to the United States, where they did not have to hide their "undesirable" Jewishness.”

She only appeared at the Mariinsky a few times as Tatiana in “Eugene Onegin at the beginning of her career,” but was a mainstay of the private Zimin opera company in Moscow for four years. She sang in the operas “Sadko,” “Snow Maiden,” “Prince Igor,” “Queen of Spades,” “Don Giovanni” (both Donna Anna and Donna Elvira), “Tosca,” “The Demon,” “The Enchantress,” “The Czar’s Bride,” “La Juive” (Rachel), “Pagliacci,” “Otello,” and in several rare contemporary Russian operas.  I find no evidence that she sang at the Moscow Bolshoi, but her father Pavel Poray-Koshitz (yes, that’s the proper transliterated spelling) was an important heldentenor of that company and, for whatever his demons were, committed suicide 14 March 1901 at age forty-one. I have since found out, courtesy of Joseph Stremlin, that Levik sheds more light in his original Russian-language memoirs that “the real name of papa Koshitz (and Nina’s at her birth) was Poray-Koshitz.  After singing in the Bolshoi for 10 years, he lost his voice and being fired form the Bolshoi, committed suicide.”  Levik also says that Koshitz became a pauper and cut himself in the throat (p.314, Ibid).

Among Koshetz’s few other operatic stage performances after leaving Russia were her Fata Morgana in the world premiere of Prokofiev’s “The Love for Three Oranges” at the Chicago Opera (in French) on 30 December 1921, and brought to New York on a Chicago Opera tour on 15  February 1922. In 1918 the Chicago Opera director, Cleofonte Campanini, commissioned the rising composer to create an opera for his organization. Campanini died in 1919, and as the opera had not been completed and the new management was struggling to keep the company on a sound footing and lacked strong leadership, the project was shelved until the 1921-22 season when Mary Garden took over the directorship, and then the premiere took place with Prokofiev conducting. In the month-long rehearsals and preparations for the event, Koshetz and Prokofiev renewed their friendship. The opera was a “succès d’estime” but  it was not a success with the conservative Chicago and New York publics and critics, even though it received a world-class musical performance and an opulent Boris Anisfeld production.

Koshetz went to South America in 1924 for a season at the Teatro Cólon. Here she sang Marina in “Boris Godunov,” Lisa in “Pique Dame,” Elena in “Mefistofele,” one Tosca with Fleta, and Jaroslavna in “Prince Igor.” These operas were repeated in Montevideo, Saô Paulo and Rio di Janeiro. She also did some staged Russian operas in Paris in the mid-1920’s. As far as I can determine her staged operatic appearances after she left Russia could be counted as less than fifty; of course she sang hundreds of concerts, both solo and with orchestras in the United States and in Paris, the orchestral concerts often under the most prestigious conductors such as Leopold Stokowski, Serge Koussevitsky, and Ossip Gabrilowitz. Opera historian Charles Jahant located Koshetz European concerts in Paris, Vichy, Bordeaux, Barcelona, Berlin, London, Riga, Monte Carlo, Stockholm, Ostend, and Munich, Rome (Santa Cecilia), Cannes, Nice, San Remo, Cities in the Balkans, Antwerp, and Brussels, plus an open-air concert in Mexico City, all of these mostly in the Twenties.  

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Koshetz obviously had an effect on the great composers of Russia for many of them dedicated compositions to her. In her March 1921 New York Town Hall solo concert debut (She had sung in a choral program with the Schola Cantorum in Carnegie Hall weeks earlier) The New York Times listed the long program she gave, reporting “and Scriabin’s “Devotion,” as a note on the program announced, is the only song the composer ever wrote, is unpublished and was given to Mme. Koshetz for her sole use.” Of a Town Hall program in January 1930 with Gretchaninov at the piano, the Times reported: “With the assistance of Mme. Nina Koshetz, soprano, he offered a program of his works which included typical examples of his genius. It is as a writer for the piano and the voice that this composer is best known, and the works heard last night were happily chosen to reveal the characteristic traits of both his early and recent creative periods…Mme. Koshetz sang with her customary authority and vocal brilliancy two groups of the composer’s songs, the first in Russian and the second in German and French. One of the former, a “Serenade,” dedicated to the soprano, was sung for the first time.”

An unusual concert in New York took place in early October 1922 by the Ukranian National Chorus under the directorship of Alexandre Koshetz, her uncle. This has contemporary resonance as Nina was born in Kiev, the Ukraine, but is more widely thought of as an exemplary Russian soprano. In this concert, under her uncle’s directorship, she shared the platform with another Russian soprano, often thought of by many as the “other” great Russian soprano singing in the West, Oda Slobodskaya. Slobodskaya sang arias from Glinka’s “Ruslan and Ludmilla” and songs by Rimsky-Korsakov, César Cui, Glazunov, Rachmaninov, and Tchaikovsky. The Times reviewer felt “Her voice, cultured, yet flower-like in its most transparent, glossy, treble, had an appealing charm and dramatic potency.” Of Koshetz, “niece of the new conductor, and herself long admired here, sang airs of Glinka and Tchaikovsky with cello obligato by Modest Altschuler, an air from “The Czar’s Bride,” which she had given in the opera last spring, a manuscript by Scriabin and others of Moussorgsky.” The reference to “The Czar’s Bride,” is that it was given in a short Russian opera season at the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York months earlier, one of Koshetz’s rare staged opera appearances in the United States. 

In April 1931 Koshetz participated in Washington DC’s Library of Congress Chamber Music Festival. Olin Downes of The New York Times traveled to Washington and reported: “How exquisitely she shaped the phrases of Debussy, and breathed into them the antique flavor of the “Flute de Pan”! In the song of Migot she accomplished everything with her voice alone, without the aid of the piano. When she sang the song of Sadero, “Amuri-Amuri.” a song of sensuous, half primitive and poignant memory, the audience hung on every phrase. Mme. Koshetz’s own song, “Cloches de ma Patrie,” if not in the highest class of songs for its melodic inspiration, is admirable as a musical and dramatic structure, and she sang it with a breadth and power of climax which would have ennobled a much poorer composition.” In March 1941, after retirement from the concert stage, the 50-year old Koshetz recorded a program of songs for the Shirmer piano and sheet-music company, and her “Amuri-Amuri” in a rather dead acoustic is thus preserved. Among the legendary female singers who sang this song are the 73-year old Blanche Marchesi, 46-year old Toti Dal Monte, and 57-year old Rosa Ponselle; all lent their art and varying vocal values to this touching Sicilian cart-driver’s song. Marchesi and Ponselle use this song as a showcase for their formidable trills. (click on the names to listen to their versions)

Koshetz, like many worldly Russian women, was highly sexual and would talk openly about her affairs. From the Boris Goldovsky memoir, page 75, there is this delicious quote: “Parts of Paris’s Russian colony also drifted south, and among them were a number of “artistes”  — like singer Maria Kurenko, who had come down with her little boy, and the famous soprano Nina Koshetz, who presided over a menage à trois with her businessman husband, who provided the money, and a tenor, who provided the entertainment. To judge by her descriptions, the latter was something of a bedroom virtuoso, for Madame was not above boasting of his prowess and would even compare his amorous crescendo with her husband’s diminuendo performance.”


In her Hollywood period, in addition to “cameo” roles in eight films (click here for details) her obituary states that she “began teaching voice to young actresses. Among her students, who called her “Mama Koshetz” were Ann Blyth, Claudette Colbert and Marlene Dietrich.” It is difficult to imagine what she could pass on to the great Dietrich. Perhaps Dietrich just wanted to pick up some vocal pointers from a master singer.

In the late 1940’s, with the help of her second husband, she opened a Russian restaurant in Los Angeles. Like so many ventures of this type the restaurant went bankrupt and had to close. It is said that Rachmaninov, her old friend and lover, helped her financially in partially liquidating the bankruptcy debt. A local real estate agent, in a  recently penned “blog,” recounted about Nina “She lived just down the street, and notwithstanding her 300 pound physique, was often seen swimming at the beach below, then called Third Street beach, now known as Totuava.”

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Her only daughter Marina (1912-2001) from her second husband, artist Alexander von Schubert, had an even larger cinema career, mostly in smaller roles. (click here for details) See Marina’s Los Angeles Times 2001 obituary for a summary of her career. (click here)

Marina made her New York City Town Hall debut in February 1949. Noel Strauss in The New York Times reported that novelty “was lent to the event by the fact that the youthful artist was accompanied at the piano by her mother, Nina Koshetz, vividly remembered for her remarkable accomplishments as a vocalist at her frequent appearances on the concert stage of this city during the Twenties and early Thirties.” Strauss at the end of the review of Marina reported “Nina Koshetz, at the keyboard, provided expert support, her accompaniments being backed by the same unusual artistry evidenced in her singing in former years.” One can only imagine the pride of a mother participating with her own daughter at such a meaningful event in such an awesome setting, the very same stage she graced so often a generation earlier.