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Russian soprano Anna Netrebko is what you might describe as an enigmatic diva. One of the biggest opera stars alive today, she’s a regular performer in the biggest opera theatres around the world. The first classical performer to be included in Time Magazine’s 100 list, she has featured on dozens of albums and is adored by countless fans around the world.
Music critics have called her “the reigning new diva of the early 21st century” (Associated Press), “the century’s most spectacular voice” (Vogue) and “a soprano with star power in the best sense” (The New York Times). Yet she’s remarkably modest, almost dismissive, about the evolution of her glittering career and curiously unwilling to discuss how she started out as a singer, which she declares “boring”.
Anna Netrebko. Photo © Ruven Afanador/Deutsche Grammophon
“I didn’t come from a musical family but this isn’t very interesting,” she says with a delicate pout. “It doesn’t matter if you’re from a musical family or not. Becoming a singer, it’s about other things, the way you feel inside and the way you project what you feel.”
Instead, Netrebko prefers to focus on the present, and on the daily effort and ongoing discipline that goes into maintaining what she calls her “big career”.
“If you have a good performance today, that doesn’t mean you can repeat it tomorrow even though you have to,” she says. “So you need to keep working on it all the time and you need to train and perform a lot and not have big breaks because your body and your muscles will be losing it. And you always have to be very healthy in your body and in your mind because you need them to control your emotions.”
Physical health is at the forefront of Netrebko’s mind on the day she meets me for Limelight. Nearing the end of her run as Tatiana in Willy Decker’s somewhat stripped back production of Eugene Onegin at the Opéra National de Paris, she has succumbed to a particularly bad case of bronchitis and is coughing frequently.
Yet she remains in a remarkably bright mood, considering the circumstances, and clearly has no intention of letting a pesky illness slow her down for long. When invited to postpone the interview, she waves away the very idea, stressing that when she makes a commitment to do something, she does her utmost to follow it through. It’s true, she might, grudgingly, agree to step down from the occasional performance due to illness, but she makes it clear that she is usually determined to push forward and maintain her almost breathtakingly full diary of commitments. “My schedule is so busy that I cannot get sick, because once you get sick, you’re out,” she says firmly. “I am strong and I cancel very rarely.”
Strength is certainly needed. This year alone she has taken on a wide range of projects. First there was Leonora in Il Trovatore at the Wiener Staatsoper, then Violetta in La Traviata at La Scala, Tatiana in Eugene Onegin in two separate productions (Deborah Warner’s rather lavish offering at the Met and the Decker version in Paris), and the title role in Adriana Lecouvreur, first at St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre and then later back in Austria. Plus she will tackle the title role in Aida at the Salzburg Festival and, finally, Maddalena in Andrea Chénier at both La Scala and the Hungarian State Opera. Add to this list almost 20 concert dates sprinkled in between, including appearances in Melbourne on October 18 and Sydney on October 24 alongside her husband Yusif Eyvazov, and it’s enough to make your head spin.
Anna Netrebko as Verdi's Lady Macbeth at the Met in 2014. Photo © Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera
But Anna Netrebko knows exactly what she’s doing and why she is doing it, and her extraordinary workload is a very deliberate choice. “These few years are very busy for me because they are probably my best years,” she explains. “My voice and technique and musicality are all together, I have finally learned a lot of things and I don’t want to waste this time.”
When asked if she has managed to schedule in any holiday time this year she merely laughs in response. “I want to perform now and maybe in a few years I will take a vacation,” she says with a wry smile. “The fact that I have so much work to do at the moment is my fault, my responsibility. Sometime you hear people saying that managers are killing singers [making them do certain roles] but it’s the singers killing themselves. I decide what I want to sing or what I don’t want to sing. No one can force me. I just have to be a bit careful not to work too much.”
It is hardly surprising that she is determined to make the most of the opportunities before her. Although she is reticent about looking backwards, she is clearly conscious of the more than two decades of work that have gone into making her an international star. Since she debuted as Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg at the tender age of 22, she has built a vast repertoire that spans Mimì in La Bohème to the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor and Elsa in Wagner’s Lohengrin.
She is a regular at opera houses throughout Europe, as well as at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, which she admits is currently one of her preferred companies, and where she has been given the honour of opening their annual season three years in a row. And the classical music world has not been alone in recognising her talent. She has featured in a handful of films (including Princess Diaries II), she has sung at major sporting events (including the 2006 soccer World Cup final and the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014) and she has performed at The Last Night of the Proms.
Anna Netrebko. Photo © Robert Balen/Deutsche Grammophon
It is an impressive career by anybody’s standards and, ever the enigma, she almost seems a little surprised by it. “I’ve been singing for 25 years,” she says, then giggles. “Shit, that’s a lot.”
One thing she is absolutely clear about, however, is the single-minded focus that she needs to bring to each role and to every single performance. “When you go on stage, nothing else matters,” she says. “You have to delete everything you don’t need and only take with you what you do need. It’s very important to learn how to do that.”
The stakes are high and she is acutely aware that the world is watching each time she takes on a new role. Sometimes this prompts her to make difficult choices, such as her controversial decision to drop out of the Royal Opera House’s production of Norma in 2016 just two years after pulling out of their production of Faust, but she is unapologetic. “Every appearance I make, good or bad, gets a lot of attention, which is hard because it means I can’t just try a role quietly somewhere,” she says. “So I take each choice very seriously and I have to be very selective about what roles I take and how I prepare them. This is why I sometimes have to cancel roles if I feel they are not right for me.”
Anna Netrebko with Piotr Beczała in Lucia di Lammermoor at the Met, 2009. Photo © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
It is this strength of opinion that has also seen Netrebko court controversy in various ways over the past few years, most notably when she posed for photos with the leader of the Ukrainian separatist movement while simultaneously insisting she is apolitical. But she remains tight-lipped about such matters and is more interested in analysing the evolution of her approach to choosing future work.
“One of the things I am learning is to ask the theatres to tell me about the productions before I agree to spend a month of my life working on something I don’t like,” she says. “There are so many bad productions and I feel pity for people who are spending 300 Euros to see a horrible, grey, ugly production. If I’m in the audience, I want to see a great, beautiful show. I don’t want stupid intellectual stuff. Of course, there are some directors who can do good, complex productions but sadly there are only a few of them.”
Despite her strong opinions about the sort of productions she is willing to perform in, her appetite for new opportunities is showing no sign of waning. “I like to have change and I couldn’t keep doing the same roles – I would get bored, it’s just my personality,” she says. “This is why I’m always trying something new.”
To make things even more challenging, she prefers to focus on a single role at a time and never starts working on a new role until she has finished performing the previous one. “When I’m performing one opera I cannot start to work on another one, it’s not possible,” she says. “If the role is new then it takes time for me to know how to move my muscles as I sing it, and learning it makes me all tight and sore. One hour of singing a new role and I have no voice so I need to give it time. This means I have to learn fast by listening to CDs or DVDs, although I don’t really start to learn a new role until I have the pianist with me and I start to sing it. Once I’m singing it, [the role] comes into my body and my mind. I start to find the character, which I very much enjoy, and this is important or my performances would be boring.”
To balance the long hours, she has also developed an appreciation for the simpler pleasures in life and is passionate about carving out little pockets of quiet in her hectic schedule. Although her down time is limited, and she admits that she often only spends a day or two at her home in Vienna to change clothes before heading off again for weeks on the road, she knows balance is crucial to keeping her big career afloat.
“Even if I wanted to have a big house and a garden, I can’t do this right now because I need to be able to travel a lot,” she says. “But when I turned 35, I suddenly understood very clearly that my profession is not everything. I have a good career and success, but I wanted family, I wanted something else. Now I am so happy. This is the life and what gives you true happiness. I try to keep the balance but it’s hard.”
Anna Netrebko with husband Yusif Eyvazov. Photo supplied.
Key to this balance is her eight-year-old son Tiago (from her former relationship with Uruguayan bass-baritone Erwin Schrott) and her current husband, tenor Yusif Eyvazov, who she met when they performed in Manon Lescaut at Rome Opera in 2014 and married the year after. “Maestro Muti [the production’s conductor] put our voices together and he was absolutely right because we match perfectly,” she says. “We can perform a lot of things together that many other people can’t do, and this means we can create a wonderful programme. We’re a very good team and our repertoire is always growing.”
Netrebko and Eyvazov, who is a relative newcomer to the professional opera scene compared to his highly successful wife, now perform concerts and operas together around the world. But don’t for a second suggest that she is his mentor. “He’s amazing and in the last three years he has grown up so much, but he won’t listen to me for advice,” she says with a twinkle in her eye. “Maybe because I’m his wife. But he’s very serious about studying it a lot.”
Instead, it seems, Eyvazov is focused on keeping his famous wife grounded and a glance at her Instagram account reveals that the pair manage to maintain a remarkably rich social life away from the spotlight. When they are off the stage, Netrebko says their home life is all about cooking, travelling and spending time with friends – and that’s just the way she likes it. “We don’t talk about work at all in our house,” she says. “When we’re at home, we’re at home. We live our lives. Singing is just part of it.”
Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov perform at Arts Centre Melbourne’s Hamer Hall on October 18 and at the Sydney Opera House on October 24.