Elena Vasiliyevna Obraztsova was born in Leningrad, Russia, on July 7, 1939. As a small girl, she lived through Leningrad's blockade by the Germans. At a very young age, she saw several dead people at the door steps of the building she lived in who had died of hunger and cold. Near the end of the blockade, she was evacuated from the city across the frozen Lake Ladoga. Two trucks with other children in front of the truck Elena was in went under ice. Elena herself lost her grandmother, who was travelling with her and died from hunger on the road.
After the war, Elena began showing an interest in music and dreamed of becoming an opera star. Her father, an engineer who played several musical instruments, found her voice displeasing and attempted to enroll Elena in the Radio Technical Institute in Taganrog (where he worked at the time) to study electronics. She was not accepted, so she enrolled in the Musical School in Rostov and then the Leningrad Conservatory.
She began stenuous study with Antonina Grigorieva and began entering competitions as a mezzo-soprano. She got the Gold Medal at the Eighth World Youth and Students Festival in Helsinki in 1962, much to the surprise of her teacher. The following year she earned another first prize in the Glinka All-Union Competition in Moscow. Shortly after, she was invited to join the Bolshoi Opera Company in Moscow and she accepted.
In the 1964-65 season, Elena Obraztsova made her operatic debut at the Bolshoi as Marina in the Rimsky-Korsakov version of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. Soon after, she travelled with the Bolshoi to Milan, and made her debut at La Scala on October 28, 1964, as the Governess in Pique Dame. The following month she portrayed Maria in War and Peace at La Scala before leaving with the Bolshoi to Montreal's Expo 67.
During the Bolshoi's June-July 1975 United States tour, she appeared at the Metropolitan Opera as Marina in Boris Godunov, stopping the show to take five curtain calls at the end of her love duet with Grigori, sung by Vladimir Atlantov. During the remainder of the tour, she also appeared as the Old Countess in Pique Dame, Hélène Bezukhova in War and Peace, and Zhenka Komelkova in Molchanov's The Dawns Are Quiet Here, which she had appeared in at the opera's world premiere a few months earlier in Moscow.
In 1975, Elena was invited to open the San Francisco Opera's season as Azucena in Verdi's Il Trovatore with Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland. She appeared in Werther at La Scala in 1976 before returning to San Francisco to launch the 1977 season as the Princesse de Bouillon in Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur with Renata Scotto. Meanwhile, on October 12, 1976, she caused a sensation when she made her official debut as a regular member of the Metropolitan Opera as Amneris in Verdi's Aïda (a performance that was called "one of the great Met débuts in recent history"). That year, she also sang at Carnegie Hall for the Richard Tucker Memorial Gala.
In 1977, she scored a major triumph as Dalila in Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila at the Met. Of her performance, Thor Eckert Jr. wrote, "It is doubtful that there has been another Dalila in recent years for whom, vocally, the highs and lows - some two and a half octaves - held not the slightest terror. Nor does the voice reveal the slightest seam."
In 1978, she added the roles of Charlotte (in Werther) and Carmen to her Met repertoire, as well as making her Covent Garden debut as Azucena in Il Trovatore. She also returned to La Scala for performances of Un Ballo in Maschera and Don Carlos and, the following year, added Adalgisa in Bellini's Norma to her repertoire.
During her career, Elena Obraztsova has mastered more than twenty operatic roles. Her thrilling voice made her a favorite at the Met and at La Scala, mostly due to her theatrical flair and vocal intensity. She has also ventured into producing operas, making her debut as a producer in the Bolshoi's production of Werther during the 1986-87 season. She has received numerous awards and was named People's Artist of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic in 1973, as well as being awarded the Lenin Prize in 1976.
Today, Elena Obraztsova coaches other members of the Bolshoi. She continues to appear in opera performances around the world and recently established the Elena Obraztsova Competition for young singers. Obraztsova married Bolshoi conductor Algis Ziuraitis in 1983 and she has one daughter, Elena, who was born in 1966 from her previous marriage to Vyacheslav Makarov.