Oda Slobodskaya

Slobadskaya’s press photo, a young woman is holding her left hand under her chin to pose with her head tilted to the side. She has dark hair which is tied back, she is wearing a lot of jewellery on her left wrist and hand.

Author: Sarah K. Whitfield

The name Oda Slobodskaya appears in concert programs throughout the 1930s and 1940s with many musical migrants who had left or escaped Germany or Nazi-occupied countries. Slobodskaya (1888-1970) was a Russian opera singer. Her remarkable musical journey took her many thousands of miles over a six-decade-long professional career with two professional personas.

She performed at many of the world’s most famous opera houses and on concert stages: from St. Petersburg to Berlin to Paris, and from New York to San Francisco, Buenos Aires, and the UK. In New York, she sang at Carnegie Hall and the Aeolian Hall; in London, at Wigmore Hall, the Royal Albert Hall, and the Royal Opera House. She performed in over forty Proms over as many years and became a vocal professor at the Royal College of Music.

She was not directly in exile from a Nazi-occupied country. She had already settled in the UK before such a move would have become necessary, but her career intersects with other migrant performers and demonstrates the enduring relationship between music-making and mobility. Digitised records reveal more of Slobodskaya’s story, pointing to the ways in which we can understand her unique contribution as a musical migrant in sharing a musical heritage and repertoire.

From Europe to New York: Early performances

In December 1921, the Musical Courier reported on ‘Soviet Refugees’, telling their American readers that the ‘Russian Musical Inundation Reaches Berlin’. Alexander Alexandrovitch (an exiled tenor) is reported as giving a series of concerts to share Russian musical culture and heritage. Slobodskaya, described as ‘a singer of extraordinary gifts’, performed at the concert to celebrate Balakireff, Borodin, César Antonovich Cui (Це́зарь Анто́нович Кюи́) and Rimsky-Korsakoff.1

She was living in Paris in June 1922, but her status is unclear and the precarity of her existence is revealed by what appears to have been a successful application for US citizenship in September 1922. Her naturalisation petition records show that she was living in the Hotel Alamac. There is no mention of this period in her biography.

Slobodskaya made her New York debut on October 6, 1922, as a soloist for the Ukrainian National Chorus at Carnegie Hall, led by Alexander Koshetz (Олександр Кошиць). The promotional advertisement for the Chorus’s US Tour clearly positioned her as one of their lead attractions. She is described as a ‘sensational success’ across concerts in Berlin and in Europe, noting: ‘she left the former Imperial Opera House of Petrograd only ten months ago, where for the past four years she had the leading dramatic soprano roles [...] She is at the present time singing the leading role in Stravinsky’s new opera at Monte Carlo.’2 This might be a stretch, or more charitably, a private event. She originated the role of Parasha in a private performance of Stravinsky’s Marva in Paris in June 1922.

After World War I, the Ukrainian’s People's Republic was briefly in existence as a separate independent country from 1917-1920. Many members of the chorus were stateless by the time the tour reached the US. Silent footage survives of their arrival in national dress, and they received a great deal of press attention. The Ukrainian National Chorus concert is particularly moving given today’s situation in Ukraine, exactly one hundred years later.

Ukranian National Chorus: a group of women in traditional Ukrainian attire disembarking a ship

Bain News Service, publisher. Ukraine Chorus [between ca. 1920 and ca. 1925]

The concert at Carnegie Hall was the first time the Ukrainian folk song ‘Щедрик’ (‘Shchedryk’) was performed in the US. The song is now better known in the US as the much loved ‘Carol of the Bells’. The Ukrainian National Chorus, who had already performed in Boston’s Symphony Hall in March 1923, went on to perform at Yale’s Woolsey Hall on October 9th. One review of the Yale concert noted: ‘Oda Slobodskaya sang an aria from Glinka’s opera, Ruslau and Ludmila, and a group of Russian songs [...] her voice displayed fine training and was used with skill and artistry.’3

The choir went on a South American tour which took them to Mexico, Chile, and Argentina: Slobodskaya toured with the company. Before she departed with the tour though, she gave a separate recital at the Town Hall concert venue in New York in late October 1922. The reviews of the concert are revealing: ‘an artist to the fingertips[...] her voice is not warm and rich, but of that clear coldness typically Russian, powerful and with infinite capacity for nuance.’4

Her next major performance took place on March 14, 1926, a solo recital at the Aeolian Hall, New York.5 She also performed at Madison Square Garden for a fundraising concert for Jewish charities in May 1926, conducted by Alexander Smallens. The next time she appears in US newspapers is in connection with a slightly different kind of performance, under the more Italian sounding name, Odali Careno.

Variety and vaudeville: Odali Careno the headliner

Her biography tracks her vaudeville performances elsewhere in the US, but the digitised records in archive.org reveal that in November 1927, Slobodskaya performed at one of the top vaudeville theatres in the US, the San Francisco Orpheum Theatre (the US term for what in the UK is usually referred to as variety theatre). Variety’s coverage made her dual name quite clear though: ‘Odali Careno, known throughout the musical and concert field as Oda Slobodskaya, the internationally famous grand opera dramatic soprano, [...] will offer a distinctive program of operatic selections.’6

Variety’s review reveals its success:

"Spotted as the headliner was Odali Careno (Oda Slobodskaya) dramatic soprano from grand opera. They did not know who she was from the billing and advertising. She meant nothing from the box office draw point. But when it came to delivering the goods, this tall, beautiful, black-haired doll came through. She sang arias from operas in foreign tongues and also a couple of English tunes, too. What a voice and what a riot for this type of act here. Just a natural showstopper, opening the second half of proceedings."7

Despite this success, she moved to the UK to pursue a vaudeville career shortly afterwards.

By October 1928, Odali Careno can be found in the British Newspaper Archive’s collection of theatrical newspaper’s published call sheets, which told variety theatre actors where and when they needed to rehearse. Her first week was at Brighton Hippodrome. Then she performed at London Palladium. This booking strategy of getting used to variety theatre’s audiences was also used for legendary blues singer Alberta Hunter’s early forays into British variety theatre. What is striking about Slobodskaya’s career is the sheer number of times she was booked into the Palladium. This was the pinnacle of the variety theatre circuit in the UK - she must have commanded a healthy weekly wage. It is little surprise that by May 1930 she appeared there in the Royal Variety Performance as Odali Careno.

In the UK, her performances were only listed under the more Italian sounding name. As befits her Palladium success, she became a star of British variety. Tracing British newspapers and theatrical newspapers like The Era and The Stage reveal how quickly she built up a successful reputation. In late October, the Era reported that her ‘fine voice awoke a storm of enthusiasm'8, by January 1929, they noted she 'won her customary triumph'9 and by February they print reports of her giving fourth encores at the Palladium because of ‘the public’s wild clamour for more’.10

She is described variously as ‘an International vocalist’11 and incorrectly as "a member of the famous New York Metropolitan Opera Company".12 By April 1929 even with her new name, she appeared as a ‘Russian prima donna’. She was performing popular classics including arias from Madame Butterfly, Gounod’s ‘Sérénade’ as well as Russian songs (these were less known to critics and their names rarely printed in reviews).13

Coverage of her performances reveal a tension between classical music and variety theatre, in what was seen as a condescending effort by Sir Henry Wood to ‘introduce’ classical music to variety stages. The response was clear - it was already there:

"Scarcely a week passes without the inclusion in the programmes of the principal West End variety theatres of instrumentalists and vocalists who base their appeal almost entirely on well rendered high-class music and are warmly welcomed on that score. [...] This week at the Coliseum, for instance, Miss Olive Gilbert is charming large audiences with her excerpts from the operas, while Madame Odali Careno, the Russian prima donna, is engaged in a similar task, and with similar acceptance, at the Alhambra."14

Unsurprisingly, there is a crossover period between Slobodskaya having the ability to use only her Russian name in performance and her slowly tapering off her variety career under the Odali Careno brand. The lure of variety, and pragmatically, its weekly salary, continued to draw her back to stages till as late as August 1947 - when she was aged almost sixty.

Life in London: opera performances and premieres

From 1930 onwards, Slobodskaya began performing again in classical settings, when she took part in the Northern Proms in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, and then the London Proms at Queen’s Hall singing in the Wagner proms (both were broadcast). She then became a regular feature of the Proms programming, and in time, of BBC radio. Her work as a broadcaster took in a great deal of Russian repertoire, but this was by no means exclusive.

She became a regular part of opera productions in London during the 1930s. She performed in the British premiere of Delius’s opera Koanga (1935) conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham at Covent Garden. The production toured across the country including to Delius’s hometown of Bradford. The production received mixed reviews - Beecham was reportedly incensed at one Liverpool journalist’s review of Slobodskaya which compared her costume to ‘a corner cupboard with a vase on top’!15 She performed in many important productions of Russian language operas: including as Khivrya in Modest Mussorgsky’s The Fair at Sorochyntsi (Сорочинская ярмарка).

After the war, like other musical migrants, she took part in the CEMA concerts, visiting music clubs across the country and in Ireland. In the late 1950s, she moved towards teaching and coaching. Musical Times records she was coaching Rimsky Korsakov’s Boris Godunov in 1958. She also wrote an article on Russian song, explaining: 'Of all the forms of Russian music it is perhaps in the Art-Song that we find the most comprehensive picture of this diverse and colourful people.'16

She sang at Wigmore Hall multiple times - but it was a concert in 1959, aged 71, that brought a renewed interest in her career. The Musical Times reported:

"If one had to name the quality above all others that gives this singer her power to charm (apart from possession of a fine voice and a commanding dramatic temperament), one might cite her unselfconsciousness, the gift of identification [but] it may be that Mme Slobodskaya’s most remarkable gift of all is her ability to convey simplicity - whether that of the peasant or the child - without every striking a false note of archness or condescension."17

Further reading

Wider Reading

Leonard, Maurice. Slobodskaya : A Biography of Oda Slobodskaya. (London: Gollancz, 1979).

Slobodskaya, Oda. “An Approach to the Russian Art-Song.” Tempo, no. 39 (1956): 6–8. http://www.jstor.org/stable/943415.


Wikipedia article



Nikolai Medtner, Oda Slobodskaya, and Nikolai Medtner. Sonata-Ballade, Songs. Мелодия, 1983.http://archive.org/details/lp_sonata-ballade-songs_nikolai-medtner-oda-slobodskaya-nikolai.

Oda Slobodskaya, Ivor Newton, and Modest Mussorgsky. Oda Slobodskaya Sings Mussorgsky. Saga, 1973.http://archive.org/details/lp_oda-slobodskaya-sings-mussorgsky_oda-slobodskaya-ivor-newton-modest-muss.

Oda Slobodskaya/Ivor Newton, and London Symphony Orchestra / Anatole Fistoulari Oda Slobodskaya. The Art of Oda Slobodskaya. Decca, 2011. http://archive.org/details/cd_the-art-of-oda-slobodskaya_oda-slobodskayaivor-newton-oda-slobodskaya.

Slobodskaya, Oda, and Ivor Newton. Water Nymphs; The Hebrew Melody. decca, 1945. http://archive.org/details/78_water-nymphs-the-hebrew-melody_slobodskaya-oda-newton-ivor.


1Musical Courier, 1 January 1921, 10.

2Musical Courier, 25 May 1922, 30-31.

3Musical Courier, 20 November 1922, 16.

4‘Mlle Oda Slobodskaya’, Musical Courier, 26 October 1922, 40.

5Oda Slobodskaya’, Musical America, 1926-03-20: 43. 22, 25.

6‘Odali Careno at Orpheum’, Pacific Coast Music Review, Nov 4 1927, 34.

7Los Angeles, Variety, 30 November 1927, 185. https://archive.org/details/variety89-1927-11/page/n185/mode/2up?q=%22oda+slobodskaya%22.

8'The Palladium', The Era, 24 October 1928, 13.

9‘London Variety Theatre’, The Era, 9 January 1929, 11.

10‘The Palladium’, The Era, 20 February 1929, 11.

11The Stage, 31 January 1929, 19.

12‘Next week’s amusements’, Northern Whig, 2 February 1929, 11.

13‘The London Coliseum’, The Stage, 2 May 1929, 11.

14The Scotsman, 11 October 1929, 8.

15Jenkins, Lyndon (2017). While Spring and Summer Sang: Thomas Beecham and the Music of Frederick Delius. London: Routledge, 2017, 78.

16Slobodskaya, Oda. “An Approach to the Russian Art-Song.” Tempo, no. 39 (1956): 6.

17“London Music.” The Musical Times 101, no. 1403 (1960): 31–36. https://doi.org/10.2307/948204.

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