The 2008 Honorees

By George Loomis

She is the very model of the modern opera star. A natural dramatic flair, striking voice, and interpretive savvy, combined with her dark Russian beauty, stunning figure, and uncommon sensual allure, have made her the hottest diva in the world.

A time comes in an opera superstar's career when he or she makes the transition from captivating talent on the rise to proven artist who can command universal acclaim. Sometimes the moment can be pinpointed to a particular event. For Anna Netrebko it was her Violetta at the 2005 Salzburg Festival. As Donna Anna in Don Giovanni three years earlier she mesmerized the Salzburg audience. Traviata would decide if she could maintain her hold on it. People literally put big money on her. For the hottest ticket since the Karajan years, offers of up to 5,000 euros popped up on the Internet, which only fueled the pressure for her to deliver.

But deliver she did. Willi Decker's cutting-edge production brilliantly showcased her attributes. Running across the Grosses Festspielhaus stage in a loose-fitting dress, she called attention not only to her iridescent beauty and stunning figure but also to her uncommon sensual allure, which Decker emphasized by surrounding her just with men in the party scenes. The naturalness of her emotional shifts between hard-edged survivor in a populated desert and touching neophyte to real love, en route to devastating heartache, testified to her charisma. And the lustrous voice soared, floated, purred, prodded, and flowed in Verdi's music, secure in all aspects of the many-faceted role.

Opera goers, especially older ones, regularly lament the lack of stars today. Yet new stars continue to emerge, even if they walk and talk differently from those of the past. The imperious attitude and grand manner associated with the traditional diva, while not extinct, is beginning to look passé. With her perky, unaffected personality, Netrebko is the model of a modern opera star, yet the Russian beauty has all the time-honored star qualities--a striking voice, good looks, interpretive savvy, and that special something that lifts the star above the rest. Go to her Web site and you will learn that she likes shopping, movies, and discothèques; that she listens to MTV, Justin Timberlake, Robbie Williams, and Christina Aguilera; that she likes to drink (perhaps more reassuring) red wine and champagne (Veuve Cliquot).

The media can't get enough of her, and it hasn't hurt that she embodies a Russian glamour that Westerners have only recently become aware of. She has had stints on network programs like
60 Minutes, The Tonight Show, and Good Morning America that increasingly shun classical musicians. Her love of haute couture puts her in Vogue, Elle, W magazine, and Cosmopolitan in photo shoots wearing Escada, Marc Jacobs, and Dolce & Gabbana fashions. Even The New York Times tagged along on one of her Manhattan shopping trips. The 60 Minutes piece highlighted a pair of jeans, complete with holes in the knees, for which she admitted to paying a four-figure price. But she is equally, if not more, enamored of sartorial elegance. Recently, she entered into an arrangement with Chopard. "I get diamonds from them," she explained last summer on the telephone from Baden-Baden, Germany, where she was preparing for a gala concert that was telecast and taped for DVD release. "I don't actually own them, but I get to wear them. It's very cool." Any obligations in return? "No, I'm just an ambassador for them." Her answers are crisp and to the point. Clearly, she does not regard interviews as a place for rumination.

Netrebko's rise to the top was unusually quick. Yet the West Coast of the United States got a glimpse of her talents well over a decade ago when the conductor Valery Gergiev brought the 24-year old member of his company at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg with him to star in a new production of Glinka's
Ruslan and Lyudmila at the San Francisco Opera in 1995. This puts her relatively early among the many Russian singers whose careers Gergiev helped to establish and, to a degree, manage in the West. When I moved to St. Petersburg in 1996, I received e-mails from a friend who heard her Lyudmila: "Have you heard Netrebko yet?" he kept asking. Finally, after seeing her in a new production of Prokofiev's Betrothal in a Monastery at the Mariinsky, I could answer with an enthusiastic yes. Her San Francisco triumph might well have set her career bandwagon briskly rolling much earlier. Fortunately, this did not happen, possibly because of Gergiev's control. Although she appeared successfully with the Mariinsky during its 1998 visit to the Metropolitan Opera, a few formative years remained for the orderly maturation of her voice and artistry. According to her manager, Jeffrey D. Vanderveen at IMG Artists, a conscious decision was madethat she would develop her repertory and artistry in St. Petersburg and San Francisco and wait to develop the career in other theaters, including the Met, Covent Garden, and Vienna.

When the media began to train their unrelenting sights on her, comparisons to Maria Callas started flying--the result more of journalistic groping for a parallel to Netrebko's sudden fame than of any real similarity between the singers. Netrebko dismisses it, but she does mention Callas along with Scotto and Freni as the sopranos she listens to most at home. "I listen to records when I start to study a role. But after I have learned the text, I stop listening, because I want the interpretation to be my own." At any rate, their onstage personalities are poles apart--where Callas showed severity and temperament, Netrebko is apt to be girlish and impetuous while in her own way responding fearlessly to an opera's dramatic challenges. She says she had no special training in acting. "From the study of ballet, I learned to use body language and gestures."

And Netrebko's sound is entirely different from that of Callas. Generalizations can be risky, but Russian sopranos do have a "Slavonic sound" that sets them apart from others, something that Netrebko recognizes. "Russian voices are big and deep." The tone is produced "very much in the back [of the throat] and chest." There may be a relationship to the speaking voice, but in any case the Russian soprano often has a concentrated tone and resonance that gives the sound greater body and richness, even in the case of lighter voices. Sometimes the tone is so focused it sounds shrill or overly metallic; in other cases heaviness comes with the richness. Simply put, Netrebko's voice has the positive Slavonic features without the downsides. It maintains a consistent roundness, luster, and purity, with overtones contributing to the gleam. She has said that it was once a matter of uncertainty whether she was really a lyric soprano or a coloratura. But the voice has grown appreciably in recent years and now has a distinct spinto quality as well.

Netrebko was born in Krasnodar, one of Russia's large, so-called regional cities, in the southwest part of the country. One rather expected her to praise her Soviet musical educa
tion--an element of Communist years that many Russians point to with pride--but in fact she says "it was not good training." She does, however, fondly recall her choral experience in "a big ensemble of kidsthe children's philharmonic." Still, there was enough in Krasnodar to nurture a love for singing, and at 15 she decided to become a professional singer. She also studied ballet, but when the time came, she enrolled as a voice student at the conservatory in St. Petersburg. One activity during her conservatory years that never ceases to be mentioned was a part-time job at the Mariinsky Theater washing floors, as if this were a necessary step for a singing assignment. "I don't want to talk about it," she said with a note of exasperation. Among other things, the story demeans Gergiev's knack for finding new talent. In 1993 she auditioned for him, and he immediately recognized her quickness, musicality, and vocal promise, and cast her as Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro for her Mariinsky debut in 1994. "Maestro Gergiev was the first one who really helped me. He is a fantastic musician and not afraid to take a risk on a young singer." The San Francisco Lyudmilas soon followed, and she also participated in the San Francisco Opera's Merola Opera Program for young singers. But she is strongly critical today of young artist programs in the West compared to the opportunities she had in St. Petersburg. "Young singers only get to cover roles or sing [bit parts in which they announce] 'La cena è pronta.' Some people are into their thirties and still haven't had any real experience."

After San Francisco she continued to sing regularly in St. Petersburg even as opportunities multiplied in the West. She returned to America in 1999 as Gilda with the Washington Opera and in other roles in San Francisco. When she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 2002 as Natasha Rostava in Prokofiev's
War and Peace, which she sang in Andrei Konchalovsky's production two years earlier when it bowed in St. Petersburg, no one mentioned Callas; instead the name Audrey Hepburn--who starred in the 1956 movie with Henry Fonda and Mel Ferrer--was on everybody's lips. "Audrey Hepburn with a voice," exclaimed one critic. The role of Tolstoy's impressionable young heroine proved ideal to heighten American audience's interest. The following summer, Netrebko took a leap from the lighter roles of her presumed Fach when she sang Donna Anna in Martin Kuvsej's new production of Don Giovanni at the Salzburg Festival. The role is "very difficult--she's kind of crazy." But Netrebko triumphed and became Salzburg's darling. She reverted to a soubrette role, Servilia in Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito, for her Covent Garden debut later in 2002 and fulfilled obligations to sing Zerlina at the Met in early 2003. But she viewed the latter experience as a step backward and declared, "No more Zerlinas!"

Soon after that there occurred an event destined to send ripples through the opera world when she sang a single performance of
Traviata at the Bavarian State Opera with the young Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón. It was immediately apparent that the two generated a special chemistry on stage--two fresh and compelling talents seemingly made for each other. Opera companies scrambled to find opportunities for their joint performances. Gounod's Roméo et Juliette, first seen with them in Los Angeles, became a favorite of the pair. By the time of the Salzburg Traviata, in which Villazón sang Alfredo, they were known as opera's "dream team," a partnership that rivaled--indeed replaced--the glittery team of Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna as opera's premier couple. A major difference here is that Netrebko and Villazón are not married to each other. The ever-rumormongering opera world loves to conjecture about Netrebko's romantic attachments, while Villazón is married to a psychologist. Future appearances together were unfortunately put on hold in summer 2007, when the tenor withdrew from all of his engagements for the rest of the year due to unspecified health problems. This included several performances of Roméo at the Met.

The year 2006 was her most challenging yet--four new roles, a feat she is unlikely to repeat: Mimì, which she first sang with Villazón in a single performance at the Mariinsky; Norina in
Don Pasquale at the Met, a character she called a "bitch" but played exuberantly; Manon in Los Angeles; and, back at the Met, Elvira in I Puritani. Fittingly enough, given her flair for fashion, Manon was produced by Vincent Paterson, who directed and choreographed Madonna's Blonde Ambition tour. "I like modern productions if they make senseI love to come home and keep thinking about it. But I hate productions that look disgusting. People have to look attractive on the stage, and some productions make them look ugly."

The Met Elviras were her first performances during the regime of Peter Gelb, who acted quickly to ensure that the Met would have a major place in Netrebko's future. "Almost every year I will do two productions--that's quite a lot." The voice travels beautifully in the big house even if many seats are too far away for optimal appreciation of her acting and looks. She also is tailor-made for the Met's transmissions to movie theaters. What is so special about the Met that makes her want to sing there so much? "Everything!" she answers, adding, "I like Peter Gelb and what he has done." Clearly, the feeling is mutual. She epitomizes the new image he wants to put on the old company.

At 36, Netrebko recognizes that her mix of repertory must change as she moves ahead. Don't expect her to follow the path of talented lyric sopranos whose careers end early because they couldn't move beyond soubrette roles. Currently, she has her sights trained on the bel canto repertory. "It is definitely good for my voice. Now I am working on Norma, and I feel great in it, but it's so difficult! I will do heavier bel canto roles and Verdi, but I don't want to rush this." Given the success of her "Willow Song" and "Ave Maria" on her arias disc conducted by Claudio Abbado, which the maestro suggested, Desdemona looks like a candidate, and she also mentions Leonora in Il Trovatore.

Sadly, one casualty of her shift in repertory will be her Russian roles, a loss underscored by the beauty of her latest solo disc, a collection of Russian arias and songs. "Natasha is one of my favorite roles. I have a few more years with it, but after I'm 40, I don't want to sing a 16-year old girl." One Russian opera she has her eyes on is Tchaikovsky's last,
Iolanta, which she hopes to sing with Villazón. Their performance of the opera's big duet in their new "Duets" disc on Deutsche Grammophon makes this a tantalizing prospect. Likewise, she has said that the day will come when she is ready for the emotional challenge of Tatyana in Yevgeny Onegin.

As with her scaling back of Russian roles, her work as a recitalist takes a back seat. "I schedule recitals and end up canceling them," she said. She was not "artistically ready" for her scheduled 2006 Carnegie Hall debut, she said in a statement. When she sang there the following year, it was in a program of arias and duets with Dmitri Hvorostovsky. "I am an opera singer. I like to sing on a big stage and with a big orchestra--to me it's more natural. Singing with piano is different and requires a different technique. Some singers can combine the two."

In a recent profile in
Opera magazine, she said, "When I am on stage, I give everything....I would prefer to sing ten or 15 years more but to give everything I can, so people will remember me and my voice. Maybe because of that I won't last long. But I don't care!" She confirmed that stance in our conversation. "I have to be who I am--that is what people want." In terms of giving of herself, perhaps there is a closer similarity to Callas than we might have thought.

George Loomis writes about classical music for the International Herald Tribune, Financial Times,, and numerous other publications.


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