“I’m so fat,” she said as she sat down. She explained that she had just come back from a few days’ rest in Italy. “My crazy friends,” she said, “They don’t think about nothing but food, food, food.” (Netrebko, who is a very quick study when it comes to languages, used to speak English with a noticeable Russian accent, but it’s almost gone now, her Russianness apparent only in certain vowels and infrequent lapses into Russian syntax.) She didn’t look the least bit fat to me, however, or apparently to anyone else. When we went out window-shopping afterward, she turned heads. While we were walking around she explained that she had recently started to work out, not to strengthen her abdominal muscles, which in a singer need to be supple, but to build up her back, which she uses to pump out her sound. She paused, threw back her shoulders and made an Arnold Schwarzenegger flexing motion, pumping her arms in front of her.
Netrebko’s videos and outdoor concert appearances, her contract with Chopard, the luxury jewelry company, and her commercials for Vöslauer, the Austrian mineral water, have made her a member of what the critic Alex Ross calls the Yo-Yo Club — classical musicians who, like the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, have attained such celebrity that their artistic credentials are deemed suspect by the purists. If you’re that popular, the logic seems to go, you can’t possibly be any good. Netrebko used to be a frequent target of some of the cattier opera blogs, where she is known as Trebs or Trebbie. “That pretty, ruthless girl from some Russian province,” one blogger called her last winter. Others complain about her trills, her coloratura, her poor Italian diction, which is “like some thick, gooey kvass,” according to another blogger.
But there are just as many knowledgeable fans who can’t get enough of her voice, which some critics think is still getting better, and to see her perform is to forgive almost anything. She has the stage presence, the charisma, that the old-fashioned divas used to command, and she adds to it both charm and sensuality. She seems pulsingly alive in a way that the grand, marmoreal singers sometimes did not. In that much-anticipated Salzburg “Traviata” (which is available on DVD), for example, she’s consumptive in the way that Verdi surely intended: not just sick but burning herself up. When she appears onstage in a form-fitting red cocktail dress, twirling around and flashing a lot of leg, she instantly explains away one of the creaky plot problems in this famous old opera: how Alfredo, who has never seen Violetta before, can fall for her in a second. She sings the opera’s signature piece, the Act I-ending aria “Sempre libera,” an anthem to pleasure and self-indulgence, with abandon and defiance, soaring effortlessly up to the high notes. In Act III, which can sometimes be a drag (Violetta takes forever to die, and at one point seems miraculously to bounce back), she is heartbreaking, with the natural richness of her voice adding a deeply felt layer of sadness and regret. She doesn’t die in Alfredo’s arms, as in most productions, but by herself in the middle of the stage, and that, too, seems exactly right.
Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, says that Netrebko is “the complete artistic package,” and she is one of the cornerstones of his plan to rejuvenate the Met — to make opera more popular and accessible — by insisting that the productions be more dramatic. “The Met is famous for being the house of great voices,” he explained recently. “My intention is to gain a new audience by raising our theatrical standards while at the same time holding on to our musical and artistic ones. Anna is the perfect embodiment of the new Met. She has a beautiful voice and a kind of stage presence that is very rare. Audiences just embrace her.” He added: “Her being great-looking doesn’t hurt. Great-looking is good. But I want to resist this notion that looks are all I’m looking for in a singer. Looks alone won’t cut it on the stage of the Met, which is so big that there’s no place for you to hide out there. Your talent is bare and exposed. Luckily, there’s a whole generation of singers, of whom Anna is one, who understand that opera is theater and can integrate singing and acting.”
Even before taking over at the Met, Gelb said, he knew who Netrebko was and had heard her several times. But she made a particularly strong impression on him in the spring of 2005, after he was appointed the next general manager but before he actually assumed the job, when he happened to see her and the Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón in a Viennese production of “L’Elisir d’Amore.” This particular production (also available on DVD) happens to be a 25-year-old wheezer, but as Gelb recalled, Netrebko and Villazón “just elevated their roles” and got a huge ovation at the end. After seeing her, Gelb immediately took steps, as he said, to “make sure Anna was going to be squarely in the center of the Met’s plans.” Netrebko, who made her Met debut in 2002, as Natasha in Prokofiev’s “War and Peace,” was already scheduled for further appearances there, but Gelb wanted to enlarge her role. One difficulty of running an opera house, he explained, is that plans often have to be made years in advance, and over the years the Met became slower and more inflexible than some other opera houses, like London’s Royal Opera House, for example. In the case of Netrebko, he has tried to command a chunk of her schedule, and the Met’s plans for her now extend into the 2012-13 season and even beyond, with a goal of showcasing her in at least two productions a year, one old and one new.
In the years to come, Gelb is particularly looking forward to seeing Netrebko in a new production of “La Bohème.” Netrebko, for her part, is looking forward to the 2012 production of “Manon.” This is an opera she loves (with reason, her detractors say: it’s about a materialistic airhead), and she delighted in a production that Vincent Paterson created for her in Los Angeles. It was set in Paris in the 1950s and showed Manon evolving from a Leslie Caron character to one modeled on Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. In one scene she even did a pole dance. “This production was so good,” she said, “because it understands that ‘Manon’ is not a deep story. She’s not a deep character. So it has to be funny, silly, charming, erotical — not dark. She’s not evil. She’s like, I screw up my life, but, well, too bad!”
For the 2007-8 season, Netrebko was scheduled to appear at the Met in 11 performances of the same opera, Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette,” five of them last month and in September, six more starting this month, including the live broadcast. Her Roméo for all was supposed to be Villazón, one of her favorite partners, with whom she has recorded an album of duets that came out here this fall. The two singers have a singular rapport, and some of their past performances of “Roméo,” as well as of “Traviata” and “Manon,” have been so steamy as to convince the paparazzi that they must be lovers in real life. (In fact, Villazón is married, with children, and Netrebko was until recently involved with the Italian bass-baritone Simone Alberghini.) In September, however, Villazón, who like Netrebko (and sometimes with her, to promote the new record) was carrying on a breakneck schedule of concert appearances, announced that on medical advice he was canceling everything, leaving the Met to hastily cobble together a revolving-door list of replacements. Roberto Alagna, who filled in for the opening performance in September, had to learn the staging of the production in a matter of days, and standing in her dressing room during a run-through at the Met one afternoon, Netrebko said that the rehearsals were “very stressful.” She had a bottle of fruit juice in one hand and a double latte in the other. “For my sex scene,” she explained. “I need energy.”
The sex scene in this particular production requires Roméo and Juliette to cavort in a bed suspended 12 feet above the stage. When the curtain came up, Netrebko, wearing a thin, low-cut nightgown, and Alagna, barelegged, in a nightshirt, slid around, trying to sing and caress each other simultaneously. The conductor, Plácido Domingo, interrupted them several times to work on tempo and phrasing and, at one point, to break the mood, Netrebko picked up the front of Roméo’s shirt and began flapping it, exposing his underpants. (For the opener, a few days later, he wisely kept his trousers on.)
Domingo, who began casting Netrebko in productions of his Washington National Opera soon after seeing her in 2002, said recently that “she is one of the great singers of her generation — or of any generation.” And he added: “I love to conduct her. She brings sometimes the right amount of humor into situations where maybe there is tension. But she is the right kind of diva — very professional, very hard-working, and brings the right attitude to rehearsals. And a great artist, able to create great feeling. For the poison aria in ‘Roméo,’ she kept refining, emphasizing just a quarter note to enlarge the pathos of the moment. This is what the great singers do all the time.”
“Look, I am normal,” Netrebko told me last summer. “Normal, normal, normal!” And she is, though at the animated, high-energy end of normality. She laughs easily and gestures broadly, waving her arms, rolling her eyes, sticking out her tongue. When a man suddenly materialized at our restaurant table bearing not one but five copies of her “Figaro” CD, which needed to be autographed on the spot, she sweetly complied and went out of her way to chat with him a bit. When I was trying to discuss her Carnegie Hall concert this past May with the Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and compliment the fine points of her performance of the Letter Scene from “Eugene Onegin,” she found it necessary to explain that I didn’t know what I was talking about. She did so gently, however, and added, “You are very nice.”
Netrebko’s friend and mentor, Renata Scotto, herself a diva in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, says that an important clue to Netrebko’s nature is her Russianness. “She’s very humble, very truthful,” she remarked of Netrebko. “And I think a lot of Russians are like this. She’s full of the joy of life and also a very hard worker.”
Netrebko concedes that there may be something to this, but also says that another Russian trait, which she clearly does not share, is melancholy, passivity and being unable to decide what you want from life. A phrase she uses a lot is “I try” or “I will try,” and you get the sense that she is very much the stage manager of her own story.
The younger of two sisters, Netrebko grew up in the southwestern Russian city of Krasnodar, along the Kuban River, north of the Black Sea. “It’s kind of a boring city, with not much culture,” she says now, and is notable chiefly for the richness of the surrounding agricultural land: “If you plant something there, in five minutes it will grow.” Her mother, who died five years ago, was a telecommunications engineer. Her father is a geologist. “He is still famous in Krasnodar,” Netrebko told me. “I am very proud.”
The family, she went on, was “let’s say not rich, but well-to-do: we always ate well and had nice clothes to wear.” The Netrebkos lived in a big house by Russian standards, with a grape arbor in back. Yuri Netrebko liked to make wine, and on weekends he would often give outdoor parties for 30 or 40 guests at a time. “It was a very happy family, and it was a wonderful childhood,” his daughter says. “Always there were friends and relatives around.”
Netrebko’s parents both loved music, but their taste didn’t extend much beyond operetta. They seldom listened to classical music, and for that matter, neither does Netrebko except when she’s rehearsing or performing. (She likes Green Day and the Black Eyed Peas, and this summer, she said, she listened to a lot of Amy Winehouse.) Netrebko started piano lessons when she was 6 but eventually grew bored and dropped them. At 7, she joined a children’s chorus, where she became a soloist, and in high school she was part of a traveling ensemble of singers, dancers and musicians.
Netrebko was not much of a student, and at 16 she moved to St. Petersburg with the idea of becoming an actress, until she discovered that lots of other young women had the same dream. “The competition was so great,” she said, “and I heard very bad rumors about how you had to sleep with the directors. So I decided to try to be an opera singer. People said I had a voice.”
She studied for two years at a musical college and then applied to the conservatory in St. Petersburg: “I said to myself: ‘O.K. I will try. Maybe they will take me, and if not the worst that can happen is I will go home and be in the operetta. That will be more than enough.’ ” The conservatory took her, but initially at least, some of her colleagues were not encouraging, telling her that her voice was so small that the best she could hope for was a place in the chorus. “But I thought maybe I’m better than they think,” Netrebko recalled. “I found something in my voice. It’s very clean and very recognizable. It wasn’t big, but it was always very pointed — it came to a whole. That’s why I continued to think I might be a singer.”
At the time, to make some pocket money and for the chance to watch rehearsals, Netrebko was also washing floors at the Mariinsky Theater, St. Petersburg’s famous opera and ballet house, and this has given rise to a myth that is the Russian version of “La Cenerentola,” the Cinderella opera, with Valéry Gergiev, general and artistic director of the Mariinsky, swooping in and rescuing her from the mop and bucket. In fact, by the time she auditioned for Gergiev she had already retired from scrubbing and had even won the Glinka, perhaps Russia’s most famous vocal competition. But Gergiev was an early and steadfast supporter. In 1994 he cast her as Barbarina in a Kirov Opera production of “Le Nozze di Figaro,” and then the director bumped her up to Susanna, the starring role. A year later Gergiev took an even bigger chance — an “insane risk,” he later called it — by casting Netrebko, only 23, as Lyudmila in a San Francisco Opera production of Glinka’s “Ruslan and Lyudmila.” It was her U.S. debut.
“Gergiev, he’s crazy, crazy!” Netrebko told me. “There are so many young singers he’s given opportunities to — big roles at a young age, which never happens in America. They have what they call the young artists’ programs, but what they’re really doing is putting singers in their graves. They’re sitting there in the big theaters wasting their best years, studying, covering, looking at the big stars. It’s so wrong. You can never learn to sing if you are just watching.”
The role that put Netrebko on the map and made her an international star was a 2002 Salzburg production of “Don Giovanni,” conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who took the unusual step of casting her as Donna Anna, the Commendatore’s daughter, who is forcibly seduced by the Don, setting the whole plot in motion. This is a part that, as Netrebko says, usually goes to “a big fat lady—angry, loud!” The role used to be a standby of Joan Sutherland and also of Birgit Nilsson (sometimes known, impolitely, as Beergut). Netrebko played Donna Anna as a sexy young woman in a slip, who kisses the Don in such a way as to make you wonder if she was forced into anything at all. By all accounts her version of “Crudele? Ah no, mio bene!” Anna’s signature aria, in which she apologizes to her betrothed for not marrying him just yet, was ravishing because she invested it with such longing and sensuousness.
Last year she appeared in an even more controversial Harnoncourt production, “Le Nozze” this time, directed (by Claus Guth) in such a way that it more nearly resembled a play by Ibsen or Strindberg than a comic opera. Just about everyone here is neurotic and oversexed, including Susanna (Netrebko), who has clearly been receptive to the Count’s advances even before the curtain comes up and is also turned on by Cherubino. To play the part Netrebko has to give up a lot of Susanna’s traditional charm, and yet she makes the character appealing, and even sympathetic, through the richness of her singing. Netrebko found this role hard, she told me, because Susanna has so few high notes and also because the character was so complicated. “This Susanna is a lost person,” she said. “Very lost. She doesn’t know what to do, and it’s sad.”
At the Met, where Netrebko has also starred in “Rigoletto” and “La Bohème,” Gelb says he feels she really came into her own two seasons ago, as Norina in “Don Pasquale.” But it was her role as Elvira in Bellini’s “I Puritani” that was a sort of watershed. Some people loved it; others began to question whether she was really suited to this kind of bel canto role.
“I Puritani” is seldom put on, and for good reason. Except for a scene in which the heroine goes mad for about half an hour, not a whole lot happens. Mad scenes are practically obligatory in bel canto opera, and they’re hard to pull off, because, typically, the more distraught the heroine becomes, the more high, tricky passages she has to sing. It used to be that sopranos would just stand there and sing the notes, without much attention to the madwoman aspect, but that hasn’t washed for years now, and it certainly won’t at Peter Gelb’s Met. Netrebko, who says that at first she was dismayed by the part, because she found the character a bore, eventually threw herself into it, but during some of the coloratura passage work she wound up snatching breaths in places that some listeners found sloppy and inappropriate.
“I thought her ‘Puritani’ was a real drag,” Peter G. Davis, a longtime critic on the New York classical music scene, said. “I don’t think she has the vocal technique for that kind of singing. It depends on what your expectations are, I guess, and in her case I have a lot. She has a lovely sound, a beautiful voice — so much talent, so much to offer, that I sometimes feel shortchanged. In ‘Puritani,’ the technique was really spotty, as if she didn’t have a sense of how the phrases should be shaped.”
But Netrebko says she felt very comfortable in the part, and she defends her technique. “The cantilena is also bel canto,” she said, referring to the smoother passages, “and this I think I do well. We’re losing the school of bel canto, because so many singers are doing it light, without the full body. Real legato is very important.” She paused and smiled. “If you ask me about vocal technique, I don’t know anything. I could never be a teacher. I just know what my teacher told me: Always sing with a full voice. When they tell you, less sound, more piano — no.” She added: “I know what I’m missing. I know what I have to work on. Coloratura. And I sing sharp sometimes,” meaning she sometimes hits a note on the high, screechy side. “It happens when I’m nervous. I get like this” — she tensed her stomach muscles and clenched her fists — “and the breath comes out forced and gives me the high intonation. I’m fighting it. I’m also looking for more color in the voice, but it only comes with experience. Singing experience and also life experience. I definitely know that I gained a lot in the last two years, during which I had a lot of storms in my personal life. After that I found something in my singing which was never there before. Interesting. This is the part that is coming from your soul.”
Netrebko’s performances in “Roméo” this fall appear to have won over even the cattiest of the bloggers. The worst they could say was that her French pronunciation was inexact. She was ravishing and heartbreaking, playing Juliette not as a besotted teenager but as a sensual young woman with a depth of feeling beyond her years.
In August, Netrebko caused a minor ruckus when at the last minute she canceled an appearance at the Salzburg Festival, where she was supposed to sing Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater.” The Austrians took offense, pointing out that she seemed in fine voice when a few days earlier she gave a concert in Baden-Baden. “I was sick,” she said. “I can sing when I’m sick if I have to, but the question is how long can you continue to do that? At Covent Garden last June I had such a fever that I couldn’t continue after the first act, and since then I’ve decided I have to be more careful.”
Peter Gelb told me: “The Salzburg thing was a little unfair. Anna has been unusually reliable and dependable. She’s so healthy, in fact, that it has probably been taken for granted.” But he went on to say that for singers of Netrebko’s caliber, burnout is always a concern, because so many demands are put upon them. “Managers of opera houses all worry about this,” he said. “Smart singers worry about it as well. If you’re going to have a long career, you have to take care of yourself.”
Even the multitasking Valéry Gergiev, of all people (besides running the Kirov Opera and Ballet, he is a guest conductor all over the world), has worried that Netrebko may be spreading herself too thin, especially by singing so many open-air concerts.
The concerts make money, however, and they also give a singer a different kind of exposure. “I hate them,” Netrebko said of her concert engagements, “because they’re so difficult.” But then she recalled with what seemed like genuine enthusiasm a concert she had just sung in Cologne. “I sang before 16,000 people, and most of these were people who never go to the opera. Many of them can’t afford it. So I am giving them something.” She sang with a microphone, she explained, but occasionally would step away from it so the audience could hear her true, unamplified voice. “They loved it!” she said.
Just as dangerous as singing too much is singing the wrong roles, and some critics have complained that Netrebko has learned too many parts too quickly and should be sticking to lighter roles. She insists, however, that it is important for her to strike a balance between light and heavy roles, and she also says she believes in taking on parts that are a little more demanding than she’s comfortable with. “Donna Anna, Traviata — people say, No, no, don’t do it, it’s too early,” she said. “But I think, No, I’d like to try, and now look, if I let them, they’d have me sing ‘Traviata’ all the time, and it would destroy my voice in three years!”
She added: “I have an intuition, and usually my intuition is right. I have a feeling for whether a role will be good or bad for me, and I almost never make a mistake. There were just a few that weren’t good. ‘Rigoletto’ — the first act is hell and the whole time I was shaking. Zerlina — horrible! But Mimi I knew would be good. I have to work extra to make the right sound in the low register. The high register is no problem, except you can’t make this sound all the time or your high notes begin to suffer.” She talked about someday wanting to sing Elettra in Mozart’s “Idomeneo” and Desdemona in Verdi’s “Othello,” and then suddenly said: “The role I really want to sing is Elisabetta from ‘Don Carlo.’ I really love this music, and I think that in five years I will be able to do it. I will try. If not, not. But I have a feeling it will be a good role.”
Every now and then, Netrebko worries about her biological timetable as well as her artistic one. “I do have a private life,” she told me, “and right now it’s very difficult.” As for marriage and a family, she said: “I don’t know. I’m not ready. Life is so crazy. There are just a few years left, and I have to think whether I want it or not. Probably I want it.” She paused, then said: “But it will change my life a lot. I really don’t want to sink with a family and close myself to life. Right now I’m not missing a family. I’m not missing it at all. I’m just a different person. If you don’t have all that when you’re 25, then at 35 it’s very difficult. But we’ll see. Maybe in one year I’ll be married and I’ll get bored of singing.” She laughed. “I can’t believe it!”
An article on Page 32 of The Times Magazine today, about the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, misstates the date of a concert she performed at Carnegie Hall. It was in May 2007, not June.
An article on Dec. 2 about the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko misidentified an opera in which she is scheduled to perform in 2012. It is “Manon,” by Massenet, not “Manon Lescaut,” by Puccini.
Я его выгнал. На лице Сьюзан на мгновение мелькнуло недоумение. Она побледнела и прошептала: - О Боже… Стратмор утвердительно кивнул, зная, что она догадалась. - Он целый год хвастался, что разрабатывает алгоритм, непробиваемый для грубой силы.
- Н-но… - Сьюзан запнулась, но тут же продолжила: - Я была уверена, что он блефует.