Russian diva’s voice to die for

Anna Netrebko in Tokyo

by Benjamin Woodward

“Russians always need a little shit in our lives. If everything is good and we seem completely happy, then we become suspicious of that.” This is Russian opera star Anna Netrebko’s philosophy — slightly incongruous for one who, at a glance, seems to have it all and to be enjoying every bit of it.

She is booked out for years in advance and in demand in opera houses around the world. She has a contract with Deutsche Gramophone to add five solo recordings to the two that she has already released to great acclaim.

Audiences flock to her performances and critics have described her variously as “a miracle” and “the next Callas.” Her MTV-style DVD of opera arias even ousted the likes of Britney Spears and Beyonce from the top of the European charts.

Her striking movie-star looks no doubt play a part, propelling her to where few opera singers have gone before. With her love of fashion, she is a regular in the glossy magazines, such Vanity Fair, Elle and Vogue, and for her recent DVD — choreographed by Vincent Paterson who has worked with Madonna and Michael Jackson — she was filmed floating in a swimming pool in a white swimsuit on a pink and turquoise plastic swan singing Dvorak’s “Hymn to the Moon.” No doubt it was good for sales.

She readily acknowledges that image plays a part in her success. “But I don’t feel so much pressure about this,” she said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

“I want to sing beautifully and be a compelling performer on stage. If I can take some nice pictures in a photo shoot, that’s a lot of fun, but I don’t think it relates to my performances. If it brings more people to the opera house, then I’m happy.”

Time and again she has proved that she is more than a pretty face and a glamorous figure. She brings a gripping dramatic presence and emotional commitment to the stage as well as a beautiful and lucid voice not generally associated with Russian singers. Her repertoire is vast for so young a singer, proving herself in Mozart, Prokofiev, Rimsky-Korsakov and Massanet, but with her alluring lyric coloratura and rich Slavic lower register, she shines especially in the bel canto repertoire of Donizetti and Bellini.

She says she only chooses roles that challenge her emotionally. She once said she despised the role of Zerlina in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” because it was boring and she “didn’t do cute peasant girls.” She feels an affinity with Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata,” Lucia in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” because they have “meat” and “allow me, as an artist, to express so much — vocally and theatrically.”

Indeed, theater was her first ambition and she had originally wanted to be an actress, but switched “when my teachers said that I had a good voice and that acting was too competitive. Now I feel I get to act and sing, and this is a wonderful feeling for me. I may want to act one day, but I’m not sure what language it would be in.”

Though still in her 30s, her career story has already assumed larger-than-life proportions. Most notably, she is supposed to have been discovered by the head of the Kirov Opera, Valery Gergiev, while singing and scrubbing the floors of St. Petersburg’s renowned Mariinsky Theater — a Cinderella story, and one that is not entirely true. She once worked as a cleaner there during the day so she could hear the performances at night. But it was years later, after training at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, that Gergiev noticed her singing talent. It was at an audition for the Kirov Opera, and he recognized her from her mopping days. “Oh, you can sing too?” he said.

She counts the volatile conductor as her mentor, and certainly it was he who brought her into the international spotlight. He gave Netrebko her first major role as Susanna in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro,” and she traveled with his opera company, performing the Russian repertoire. Her turn as Lyudmilla in Glinka’s “Ruslan and Lyudmilla” — in San Francisco when she was only 23 — brought the house down.

2002 was a big year for her, with triumphs on both sides of her Atlantic. She performed Natasha in Prokofiev’s “War and Peace,” and was one of the youngest and most accomplished Donna Annas in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at the Salzburg Festival under Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

How do you go about choosing roles?

First of all, the character must have something interesting to say. There must be many emotions and ideas to express. Then — the role must fit me vocally — where I am now. Finally, I like to sing roles that I know I can repeat so that I can explore different ways to portray the character.

Which roles would you like to tackle next?

There are many roles I want to try, and some of these I am not ready for. Some of these roles, I may never be ready for — like Tosca [in Puccini's Tosca], Desdemona [in Verdi's Othello], Leonora [in Verdi's Trovatore]. You must choose your roles very carefully as a young artist. So far, I think I have been very lucky.

So far, most of your work has been in opera. Do you see yourself performing more recitals?

Yes, I will be performing much more often in concert and recitals in the future. At first I was nervous about this, but now I like it very much. My manager said to me, “When you sing Violetta, the audience loves Anna Netrebko as Violetta; when you sing in concert or recital they really learn who Anna Netrebko is as an artist — and hopefully they like this as well. I was nervous to show this at first, but I have had such wonderful audiences in Germany. It is a risk to show my soul as an artist, but I want to do this now.

In my recitals in Japan, there are several composers on the program, but there is a long set of Rachmaninoff songs. First of all, I feel that the songs fit my voice well and I love the texts. Most importantly, I want to share Russian music with audiences around the world. It is beautiful music, and everyone should know it.

What was it like working in Russia, compared to other parts of the world?

We have a long history of working very hard in Russia, and that has not changed. We have a rich and wonderful cultural history as well, and that is a big part of our music-making. It is in our blood and in our souls. This makes us unique since it is our history only. Of course, I love to work in many different places, and one of my favorite places is New York. I love the Metropolitan Opera. Concerning work there, I think it is safe to say that they are more organized than we Russians!

How have you found adjusting to all the fame and the attention?

This is very difficult for me. The hardest part is really feeling that I can meet the audience’s expectations! I never want to disappoint an audience. When I am not on the stage, it is always very difficult for the public to find me! I am a private person who does not always want to be in the spotlight!