Though she was a minor performer, Russian-born operetta star Irra Petina sang in 444 performances in her nearly twenty years with the Metropolitan Opera. She is famous among opera lovers as the originator of the Old lady in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, “in which Petina’s gleeful performance as the uni-buttocked Old lady has never been equaled.”1
A vibrant comic performer and accomplished singer, Petina came from an important Russian family. Her father, General Stephen Petin, was a personal escort to Tsar Nicholas II during World War I. At the onset of the Russian Revolution, Petina’s family left Russia, moving to China, where she received her earliest training. Later, she studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
Coincidental to her own background, in 1965 Petina appeared on Broadway with Lillian Gish in Anya, the story of a young woman discovered after the war and thought to be Princess Anastasia, the daughter of Tsar Nicholas II. Petina, who played Katrina, was credited with giving the play its comic element—in this show, she lived up to her reputation as “no slouch as singer or comedienne.”2
Irra Petina was a valued member of the Metropolitan Opera and the international opera community for the length of her career. “Petina’s intelligence, vivacity and wit, allied with her accomplished vocalism and imaginative acting,” Paul F. Driscoll wrote in Opera News, "made her a unique and important personality, a worthy colleague of the great singers of her age.”3