As she made her debuts in many of the world's major opera houses during 2002 and 2003, Russian soprano Anna Netrebko became, in the words of London's Mail on Sunday, "the biggest sensation to hit the opera world in years." The possessor of a luxuriously smooth, distinctive singing voice and fashion-model good looks, Netrebko has also attracted opera fans with her dramatic charisma and with the impulsive, wholehearted persona she has presented to the public. Netrebko is, in short, a true diva, who has brought to mind the great female opera singers of the past and has the potential to draw new, younger fans to the genre.
Netrebko was born on September 18, 1971, in the southwestern Russian city of Krasnodar. Although her father was a geologist and her mother a telecommunications engineer, she took to the performing arts right away. "Dancing, acrobatics, athletics, singing. I knew that I was going to be on stage," she told Mail on Sunday. "Everyone knew." In high school she devoted herself to gymnastics and ballet and sang in her school's choir. In 1988 she enrolled at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. However, the collapse of the Communist system the following year shook the teenaged Netrebko, and the subsequent period of economic upheaval was hardly favorable for the pursuit of a career in the arts.
Nevertheless, Netrebko hung on and looked for ways to make herself stand out from the crowd. Initially hoping to become an actress, she took vocal courses as a way of distinguishing herself from other young performers at the school. But what she had planned as a secondary skill quickly turned into her main interest. She changed, she told the Christian Science Monitor, "when I went to the theater and saw [opera] performed, and of course the first time I started to sing on the stage. Opera theater is much more interesting and complicated [than stage acting]. Everything is together." Eventually Netrebko would become known as a performer who returned the drama to opera, turning it into something more that just a static vehicle for beautiful singing.
Broke but entranced, Netrebko took a job in the early 1990s as a janitor at St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater, so that she could attend operatic performances there and see and hear Russia's leading singers in person. "I could see rehearsals and performances. … I was in the theater twenty-four hours a day," she told Opera News. A story circulating in the opera community held that Netrebko was discovered while scrubbing floors, by star Russian conductor Valery Gergiev. In a National Public Radio interview quoted in the Christian Science Monitor, Netrebko said that the legend was nothing more than a "Cinderella story." In the same article, she recalled that when she auditioned for Gergiev a few years later, he remembered her and greeted her with the quip, "Oh, you can even sing?" What propelled the young Netrebko's career foward was not a Cinderella story but her 1993 victory in the important Glinka Vocal Competition in Moscow. That led to an appearance at a Bolshoi Opera concert organized by the leading Russian mezzo-soprano Irina Arkhipova, and then to the Gergiev audition. This led to Netrebko's operatic debut at St. Petersburg's Kirov Opera in 1994, as Susanna in a performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro, conducted by Gergiev. From the start, Netrebko pursued operatic roles in Italian and German as well as in the Russian-language parts traditionally cultivated by Russian singers.
Continuing to appear frequently at the Kirov, Netrebko became known to American audiences well before she gained exposure in the rest of the operatic world. On 48 hours' notice, she was flown in to perform in a 1995 San Francisco Opera production of Mikhail Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila, once again conducted by Gergiev. The role perfectly fit Netrebko's sparkling, ebullient voice. Her performance marked the beginning of a love affair between Netrebko and San Francisco audiences and critics, and she made several return visits for opera performances and concerts in the following years. San Francisco Chronicle critic Joshua Kosman wrote of a Netrebko recital in early 1998, "Anyone fortunate enough to have been in attendance witnessed a historic event."
At the time, Netrebko was still largely unknown to international opera audiences, but over the next two years her profile was raised considerably. She made her New York debut in 1998, with starring roles in touring productions by the Kirov Opera at the Metropolitan Opera. In the 1999-2000 season she sang before the Prince of Wales at Britain's Royal Opera at Covent Garden, in the role of Natasha in Sergei Prokofiev's War and Peace. This was a part that seemed especially suited to her, given her physical resemblance to actress Audrey Hepburn, who had also played Natasha in the 1956 film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's classic novel. A DVD release of a live Kirov Opera performance of Ruslan and Lyudmila appeared on the Philips label and added to her fame.
After the year 2000, Netrebko's career rocketed upward. She worked almost without a break for four years, squeezing visits with her boyfriend, Italian bass-baritone Simone Alberghini, into odd corners of her schedule. She continued to take voice lessons, studying with renowned soprano Renata Scotto. Netrebko surmounted her biggest challenge—her official debut at New York's Metropolitan Opera in February of 2002—with flying colors. Of her performance as Natasha in War and Peace, Opera News writer David Shengold commented, "It was an experience operagoers crave—the awed feeling of being in the right place at just the right time." Observers speculated that Netrebko's biggest challenge in the years ahead might be to pace herself properly, an impression reinforced when the singer canceled a pair of performances in late 2003, citing exhaustion.
By that time much of the operatic world was in love with Netrebko. She intrigued critics with her tales of shopping trips and late-night partying in New York City nightclubs. Still in her early 30s—young for an opera star—and still developing vocally, she combined singing ability and dramatic presence in a way that drew comparisons to opera's greatest dramatic actress of the twentieth century, Maria Callas. "Opera is no longer a concert in costumes," San Francisco Opera general manager Lotfi Mansouri told the Christian Science Monitor. "[Netrebko] is representative of the future of opera as musical theater." A fan of pop music, Netrebko also seemed likely to appeal to younger opera fans.
For the Record …
Born on September 18, 1971, in Krasnodar, Russia; daughter of a geologist and a telecommunications engineer. Education: Studied voice at St. Petersburg Conservatory, St. Petersburg, Russia.
Made debut at Kirov Opera, St. Petersburg, Russia, 1994; made U.S. debut with San Francisco Opera, 1995; appeared at Metropolitan Opera, New York City, with touring Kirov Opera production, 1998; extensive touring, 1999–; made Metropolitan Opera debut as Natasha in Prokofiev's War and Peace, 2002; released CD Opera Arias, 2004.
Awards: Glinka Vocal Competition, Moscow, Russia, winner, 1993; Gramophone and Opera News, Editor's Choice awards.
Addresses: Agent—IMG Artists, 825 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019. Website—Anna Netrebko Official Website: http://www.annanetrebko.com.
Netrebko's recording debut, Anna Netrebko: Opera Arias, was released on the Deutsche Grammophon label in late 2003, and it propelled her burgeoning career even higher; she has solid bookings through the year 2006. Opera News raved about her performances on the disc, none of which were in Russian: "She applies her larger-than-life vocalism, dramatic sureness and finely detailed phrasing to just nine arias, but each one seems to undergo a personal spa treatment, resulting in a succession of gorgeous, richly finished, gleaming jewels." The sky appears to be the limit for the young diva from Krasnodar.
Opera Arias, Deutsche Grammophon, 2004.
Christian Science Monitor, December 17, 2003, p. Features-15.
Mail on Sunday (London, England), January 11, 2004, p. 37.
New York Times, November 16, 2003, Section 2, p. 31.
Opera News, March 2002, p. 10; November 2003, p. 20.
San Francisco Chronicle, February 3, 1998, p. E1; January 9, 2001, p. E1; December 15, 2003, p. D1.
WWD, March 7, 2002, p. 3.
Anna Netrebko Official Website, http://www.annanetrebko.com (April 12, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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