Features

The Age of Anna

They don't call it electricity anymore. They call it Netrebko. SCOTT BARNES talks with the beautiful, outspoken and prodigiously gifted Russian soprano who has changed the world of opera.

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Photographed by Dario Acosta at the Consulate General of the Russian Federation in New York
Makeup and hair by Affan Malik / clotes styled by Carlton Jones / dress by Zac Posen; diamond bracelet: Chopard
© Dario Acosta 2013
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As Tatiana in Eugene Onegin at the Vienna State Opera, 2013
© Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Poehn 2013
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Portrait by Dario Acosta / Beaded jacket: Escada; gown: Tosca New York; jewelry: Chopard
© Dario Acosta 2013

"I'm sorry — at the end, I would fuck the guy! So I have nothing in common with Tatiana — only language!” With that summation of Eugene Onegin, in which she’ll open the Metropolitan Opera’s 129th season on September 23, Anna Netrebko explodes into the Met press office, wearing a bulky-knit neon acid-green sweater over a metallic black miniskirt. I have met plenty of dazzling people in my time, but Netrebko is more charismatic than any of them; at forty-one, she seems lit from within and animated by a charming, benign mania. If this is a put-on, it is masterful.

Netrebko seems overwhelmingly instinct-driven. She's definitely provocative, but more for her own delight, it seems, than for the purpose of causing trouble or creating drama — just a "self-panicker," one who delights in entertaining herself. Netrebko's kookiness is not studied: on the contrary, unlike the wild party-child that I was dreading, this stunning creature before me is open, accessible and fresh, despite the fact that she is at the end of a very long day of interviews.

She flashes a gigantic opal ring, surrounded by emeralds and diamonds. "You like it? How much you will pay for it? Tell me! Come on. Come on! Seventeen thousand?" She gives me the delightedly smug smile of a child who has one-upped an adult. "Six thousand! This guy, Joe, with a beard. You know Joe? Backstage? All the divas buying from him!" 

It makes sense for Netrebko to be wearing a diva ring: arguably, she is the biggest international star the opera world has had since Luciano Pavarotti. It's no accident that she and her partner, baritone Erwin Schrott, whom she consistently refers to as "my husband," have been compared to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Aside from being opera's sexiest couple, they, too, have used their stardom as a means to allay the suffering of the world's children. The organization's title is a mouthful, "Anna and Erwin Foundation — Anna Netrebko and Erwin Schrott for Kids," but the charter is quite simple. According to Netrebko, "We have wanted to help all our lives. At some point, we said to ourselves, 'Let's do something serious.'" The charity, which is seated near Munich, funds children's service organizations in Russia, Austria and Spain, with more to come. The pair will do concerts, as well as informational dinners. These are not lavish, big-ticket society dinners with enormous flower budgets. Netrebko is very clear that the idea is to keep overhead low, assuring that the greatest percentage of monies raised will go directly to the children they mean to help.

But these days, most of her time is taken up with work. Netrebko is deeply aware that these are her ideal years, the "window" when her development as a creative and interpretive artist and the beauty of her instrument and her appearance have converged. She is pickier about her choices, as there is little room for misstep. Anything and everything that she does is noticed and documented somewhere — whether in print, on numerous sites devoted to her professional and personal life, her own video blog, or, of course, the ubiquitous YouTube. Netrebko and her mate inspire a kind of fan worship that departs from the diva-dementia that followed Callas and Sutherland. The websites and blogs more closely resemble those for romantic TV and movie personalities. YouTube is rife with comments, but not the typical sniping about smeary coloratura or botched high notes. Instead, there is the video blog "Ask Anna," in which Netrebko answers inquiries about her taste in shoes, fashion icons and favorite movies, as well as what she eats before a performance, what she does during intermission, high notes and how to deal with criticism. ("It's very good… to put the thing in one ear and throw it away from the other. You keeping only the information you need for yourself. And that information which you don't need, which distracts you? You just throw away, and keep going.") The blog reveals a charming, enthusiastic, generous, honest and simple woman, answering each inquiry with great sincerity and no attitude.

While she no longer drives herself as she did during the building period of her career, she is adding several new (and meatier) roles to her repertoire and dropping most of the soubrettes and leggiero roles that made her a star. She sang excerpts from Lady Macbeth in a televised concert from the Mariinsky this past May in preparation for appearances in the complete role in Munich next summer. "I have so many things coming up! I have to study, and I don't like to. I'm so scared. Giovanna d'Arco, Trovatore, Faust, Manon Lescaut with Maestro Muti. I like to sing Puccini. It's very easy for me, but you have to be very careful. Manon Lescaut is huge for tenor, but not big singing for soprano, if you have great conductor who will not drown you out. It's a pleasure to sing Puccini, but then afterwards, I must have some time. I can't jump from one to another. The last two years I have already understood that my voice is very different, and I have got to change my repertoire. But while I am still singing '-ina's' and all those lighter roles, I cannot prepare Verdi and understand if I can sing it. 

"That was a huge reason for recording my new Verdi CD — to find out for myself, can I sing it? After that, theaters are waiting for me, whether I am ready or not. I do think that I am ready, but I can't even try anywhere, because everyone will come and listen! So I cannot do mistakes. And this has been quite tricky for me. If I try at a small house, the TV cameras will come, and bye-bye — so I do at the big houses. I was trying my first [Lady Macbeth] 'Ambizioso spirto' in Geneva, and I had to sing it before, because afterwards is a huge concert at Mariinsky II with TV, and it is too late to try out. So, therefore, I put it in a little concert, and it feels great. It was so easy. I don't know why I worry.

"I always had a middle voice, but I had to work on it, to put it in the right position — especially for Lady Macbeth, which must have the chest voice. I do have, absolutely natural, without any force, chest voice. From the Nature. I didn't do anything to get it. I have been working with a great guy in Vienna, Daniel Sarge, who has ears, especially for soprano. He was the one who said I should sing the Macbeth. He told me he would prove it to me. I was, of course, afraid. But it doesn't have such a big orchestra, like Abigaille. It's just there is so much middle. Most importantly, the character has to be there. When I was recording the sleepwalking scene, this was not coming. Everything sung perfect from note to note. I was not forcing. But it was not there. It took a couple of months to find out what was wrong.

"Juliette, Manon, Gilda — they are all excellent roles, but I've done them. It's fine. I have so many new roles that are amazing — like Tatiana. It's not difficult for me to sing at all — but to fulfill it! At first, there is not much melody, but so much orchestra competing with me! It's so much work to be able to fill that with the emotion and colors that I want. It may take years and years. By the way, I know the letter by heart since I was in school. I loved the book, so I learned so much of Onegin when I was a kid. It's in my blood, generally, of course. Iolanta was easy. The character and the music were just right there. For me, the research does not really work. Only there in the rehearsal process do I really learn. Only when I am singing with the full voice, then I can try to understand what works and what does not. And of course, with different partners you are acting differently, you are singing differently — that's why it's so great! And at this level, all the colleagues are very, very good."

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Netrebko as Mimì with Piotr Beczala as her Rodolfo in Salzburg, 2012
© Silvia Lelli 2013

Surprisingly, however, at "this level" not all direction or conception of a production is quite so consistent. The soprano has recently come off a run of Mimìs in Damiano Michieletto's production in Salzburg, opposite Polish tenor Piotr Beczala (with Rodolfo in horn-rims and scraggly long hair, Netrebko's Mimì with black leather jacket and miniskirt). Her voice dips to a conspiratorial sotto voce. "Good. So you liked what I did! Because the director didn't tell me. I make it up. He didn't have a strong point of view. He knew what he wanted it to look like. I say, 'Okay, if you're putting her in these type of clothes, everything has to change.' I imagined this kind of background story — everything she's saying to Rodolfo is a lie. She's coming running from there, totally breakdown — bullshit. Mimì knows a lot. She is wise. She came to his flat. She knows why.From the beginning to the end." It's entirely possible that Netrebko, who seems uninterested in technical mastery of acting, doesn't really need a director at all — that her instinctive connection with the audience makes her performance fresh and real each time out. 

Netrebko's next Mimì was completely different — a much more traditional production for her debut at Lyric Opera of Chicago. This time, there was no new concept to try to rationalize, only the Illica–Giacosa libretto and Puccini score that have kept operagoers delighted for generations. Although Netrebko started as a luxury Musetta, her "graduation" to Mimì puts her histrionic and vocal gifts to better use. It's well known among actors that real-life relationships contribute mightily to the layers of onstage ones. Aspects such as physical familiarity, bits of shtick and even physical shorthand excerpted from the real-life friendship of colleagues help to create a richness and multi­dimensionality that would be nearly impossible to fabricate out of a few weeks (or in many cases, several days) of rehearsal. In Chicago, the Café Momus scene showed Netrebko's skills as a team player at their best. While clearly focusing on Joseph Calleja's Rodolfo, she also demonstrated specific relationships with each of the bohemians, as well as welcoming the addition of another girl (Elizabeth Futral's Musetta) to the fun. This is the only opportunity the audience has to see them all together, and the believability of the emotionally fraught Act IV hangs on our caring for Mimì the way that each of them does. 

A look at Netrebko's opera colleagues over the past several years reveals a rolling repertory company of sorts. "These are my friends. I'm seeing all the time the same people. If I'm in a new production in a very important place, they will ask me if I like to perform with certain colleagues. There are some conductors and directors I wouldn't like. I have learned that I absolutely must now ask about the conductor and director and the whole conception before I even dare to do the big role that will be observed by everyone. This is not even being the diva. I was watching the premiere of the Met's new Parsifal — it was one of the most amazing opera experiences I've ever had. Everything came out together — the production, the conductor, the cast. It was so above everything. I was thinking, 'Why it cannot be like this all the time?' It's hard when we have everything go to HD right away. Do you think that I think I am young, beautiful and perfect? I have to put the worry aside while I'm doing it. I understand that I will never be back to that girl that I was. I was very skinny, I was acrobat and ballerina, and I didn't sing Verdi! I just have to change and adapt my style. I don't want to lose my weight. I like the way I look — and if I don't like, who cares? I'm forty-one, and no wrinkles, right?"

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As Anna Bolena at the Met, 2011
© Johan Elbers 2013

Netrebko's next HD production (and third consecutive opening night at the Met) will be the much-anticipated Deborah Warner production (shared with English National Opera) of Eugene Onegin, reuniting the soprano not only with conductor Valery Gergiev but with long-time colleagues Mariusz Kwiecien and Beczala. In a Met interview, Warner said, "What most matters here is the pursuit of truth. I have very great singers at the Met, and very great actors in those singers. It's absolutely fantastic to work with Anna on this piece. Here we have one of the greatest living singers of all time, plus we have a major actress."

Netrebko responds, "I know the novel and Russian history since I was very little. I know the opera very well. You must prepare yourself quite good before the character will emerge naturally. Music is the most important thing — you have to be very truthful to the vocal score. The less you do, the better it is. I try to be very precise. Once you learn it perfectly, then you can add something from yourself. Usually I am fine with directors. I tell them what I want, and they agree. I cannot imagine how it is possible to do like actors in a movie — to do what directors say, even if you hate it. Beczala is so smart! I don't know that I am smart. I know that I have intuition, and it brings me to the right thing. My coloratura is not perfect. It will never be perfect. Nobody sings perfect. It's missing something — like life. Life is a mess. In each character I'm trying to portray at first, I'm looking from the opposite side. Completely different from what you can see on the paper. I do think that Lady Macbeth was not strong at all. That's why she gets crazy. When murder came, she crack. This is a strong personality — can you step over a crime or not? She cannot.

"I don't know that people understands how hard it is to sing opera. Now, I ask for minimum two days between performances. Five is too much. I could make a lot of money doing concerts, but I don't want to. I just love to sing in opera on the stage. I want to live somebody else's life. I need to perform. Not always. To be a singer and onstage is not everything. It's just a part of it. I like attention, but I can stay without. I can act and love it, but otherwise, I'm a housewife, and I love it. I never, never, never ever fight for the light. And I will not. And I know when I am no longer that good, I will lose interest, by myself. I will not try to be somebody who I'm not anymore!

"I want to go to cinema, I want to read books, I want to experience something new, but I never have time for that! You know what I want? I want somebody in my life — a friend, or a mentor — to really teach me something totally new. Like, let me experience with my soul, my brain, my everything, but to open for me something very new. Make me interested. I think that's what I really need! I think the life is so short. I want to live another three hundred years!" spacer 

SCOTT BARNES is an audition and performance coach for professional opera and theater singers. He produces many recordings, most recently Janene Lovullo: This Moment. He also teaches a class, "Operatic Acting in the Age of HD."

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Current Issue: April 2014 — VOL. 78, NO. 10