Anna Netrebko: Living The Dream

At the peak of her powers, free to choose what she records, engaged to one of the world’s most exciting singers and expecting her first baby, Anna Netrebko tells Classic FM that life has never felt so good.

The chocolate-box architecture of Salzburg’s Baroque old town glistens under the midday sun, as if it’s been whisked by a giant feather duster and sprinkled with icing sugar. Tourists amble around local landmarks, having their pictures taken outside Mozart’s birthplace on the Getreidegasse before heading for the funicular railway up the mountain to the spectacular Fortress Hohensalzburg.

Russian super-soprano Anna Netrebko can now be numbered among Salzburg’s must-see attractions, where her performances in the likes of The Marriage Of Figaro and La Traviata have provoked stampedes of tearful fans begging for tickets. She has dual Russian and Austrian citizenship and an apartment in Vienna (to go with those in St Petersburg and New York), but today she’s keeping away from the public gaze in a discreet lounge at the Hotel Sacher. Salzburg’s musical heritage permeates the building and the lobby is lined with photos of Renée Fleming, Daniel Barenboim, Plácido Domingo… and Tom Hanks, for some reason.

Waiters glide silently across the carpet, ferrying tea and mineral water to the thirsty diva. Her baby is due in a few weeks and for the time being the iconic It-girl of international opera has had to hang up her killer frocks in favour, today at least, of a mid-length dress in shades of beige (though no doubt it’s the cutting-edge of maternity wear from Bergdorf Goodman). Netrebko has been compared to Audrey Hepburn, but today the idea makes the fuller-figured mother-to-be hoot with laughter.

“Oooh, 10 years ago maybe! Ten kilos less!” she exclaims. “No, I think when I had short hair and I was very skinny, maybe. It’s a nice compliment, thank you. Audrey Hepburn was very beautiful.”

Opera fans had been anticipating fireworks from the dream-team of Netrebko and tenor Rolando Villazón at this year’s Salzburg Festival, where the pair were scheduled to sing in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. They’ve become opera’s latest power-couple, dazzling audiences like a 21st-century update of Maria Callas and Giuseppe di Stefano.

“I love to sing with Rolando,” Netrebko enthuses. “Somehow it works; there’s lots of energy and we can make a really exciting performance. The tenor and the soprano are always lovers in the opera.”

Do people ever think they’re real-life lovers?

“They can think what they want,” she says mischievously. “That’s part of the magic. Let’s keep it as the magic.”

Unfortunately for fans, Netrebko’s pregnancy meant she had to pull out of Roméo et Juliette, so the magic was temporarily shelved. But it still gave people something to talk about. If gossip about Netrebko’s relationship with the bass-baritone Erwin Schrott (now her fiancé) had been buzzing around the opera websites, the announcement of her pregnancy was a full-scale Hello! moment.

“People were surprised because we’re both very crazy,” says Netrebko, laughing. “Suddenly these two crazy people came together and everyone said, ‘What?!’. But it’s worked. Erwin loves family and this is the most important thing for him. The way he plays on stage, you know, this sexy beast” – she pronounces this with a lascivious growl – “well, in real life he’s very different.”

Schrott has a daughter from his previous marriage and Netrebko stresses that, “he’s a very caring person; he adores his daughter.”

Beautiful, charismatic and possessing a gift for making audiences boil over in a ferment of emotion, Netrebko is blossoming into her peak years as an artist. But she’s 37, and not even superstars are immune to that ticking biological clock, nor to the stresses of a pressurised international career.

“I love to do what I’m doing, but I really want to have something else in my life besides the stage,” she reflects. “I think it’s very important, because those days when you are sitting alone in some unknown city, this sometimes make you feel a bit sad. Then you start to think, ‘Yes, I probably need something else in my life besides my career.’”

So pregnancy has made her think differently about her life?

“Yes, because I will have a baby, I won’t be alone any more. I have a responsibility and that’s good, it’s exciting,” she explains. “I’m happy to give life to another person and take care of them. Now I’m grown up!  I don’t think 10 years ago I would have been ready for that, or even five years ago. But now it’s OK, it’s time. It’s a natural thing.”

Since she was singled out by maestro Valery Gergiev to cut her teeth on Mozart and Donizetti at the Mariinsky Opera (formerly the Kirov) – she was a conservatoire student, not a cleaner at the Mariinsky Theatre as the anecdote would have it – Netrebko’s ascent has been spectacular. Yet having become renowned as a fast-living party girl, she has been surprised to find maturity creeping up on her.

“I think you have to live for yourself first to understand who you are and what you want before you start a family,” she says. “You have to be absolutely adult. Sometimes this happens when you’re 20, sometimes when you’re 36.”

How will she and Schrott cope with the prickly task of  balancing private life and career?

“We’re trying to organise our schedule and it’s not easy because he is as busy as I am,” she admits.

“But he’s not a freak about his career, which is fantastic. He wants to have a family. I didn’t see him much this month and everybody is asking, ‘Where is Erwin?’. I say, ‘He’s working! He cannot cancel his contracts which were signed two years ago.’” [A reference, perhaps, to Schrott’s much-publicised dispute with concert promoter Ian Rosenblatt over the baritone’s cancellation of a Cadogan Hall recital last June.]

“But,” continues the soprano, “we’ll try to make it work. My head has never been big from success and I don’t think Erwin’s is either. We’re kind of normal people, if we can say that.”

“Normal” doesn’t seem quite the right word – and Netrebko’s admirers wouldn’t want it to be. Apart from her thrilling stage performances, she is one of a handful of classical artists who can sell CDs on a pop star-like scale internationally, with all of her recordings going platinum in Germany and Austria.

 Following her discs of Italian and Russian arias and a set of duets with Villazón, she has given the goalposts a hefty shove with her new album, Souvenirs, in which she tackles operetta, salon songs and pieces by Grieg, Offenbach and Strauss. I admit to her I’m not familiar with a lot of these pieces.

“No, some of them have never been recorded or orchestrated before,” she says. “The idea of this project came years ago, but I needed to establish myself as a serious opera singer first. Now is the time to do something different. I love the music, the selection – it’s like a big bouquet of flowers with all the different smells and colours… and 10 different languages.”

The opening piece, Heia, Heia, In Den Bergen from Imre Kálmán’s The Gypsy Princess, immediately blows the doors off with its clashing Magyar rhythms and fiery melodies.

“It was my dream to sing this since I was a little kid,” enthuses Netrebko. “I heard it when we went to the operetta in Krasnodar [her hometown in southern Russia]. It’s the first entrance of the big diva with lots of costumes and flowers and feathers. I said, ‘Oh my God! That’s what I want to do, I want to be a singer.’ So the dream came true.”

Among the other songs on the disc, Charpentier’s Depuis le Jour from Louise gives Netrebko an excuse to wallow in the exquisiteness of her voice, while Im Chambre Separée’ from Heuberger’s Der Opernball is a lush duet with Polish tenor Piotr Beczala. For Offenbach’s Barcarolle from The Tales Of Hoffmann, the soprano teamed up with her close friend, the Latvian mezzo-soprano Elïna Garancˇa.

“The Barcarolle is tricky because it’s been heard so many times,” admits Netrebko. “But Elïna has a fantastic voice and I love to sing with her. It’s like the voices come together and become one. We wanted to give it a special sound, with an echo, maybe, to make it sound a little more magical.”

Lob in the searing coloratura of Arditi’s Il Bacio, the frantic Andalusian Spanish lyrics of La Tarantula and the sombre, modal drone of the Jewish lullaby Schlof Sche, Mein Vogele, and you have a collection that’s easier to listen to than to describe. Yet in its exuberance, melodiousness and theatricality,  it may be closer to Netrebko’s soul than some of the more hardcore repertoire she has recorded.

Having cut down on recordings and performances as her due-date approaches, Netrebko declares that she’ll only take six months off after her baby is born. After that, multiple options lie in store.

“Everybody wants me to sing Tosca, I have no idea why,” she muses. “There are so many Toscas around, so no, I don’t think so. I want to try Wagner’s Lohengrin because it’s beautiful and I want to sing it. I will see how I feel after a few years, where my voice will go. But as I develop and better my technique, there’s much more repertoire I will be able to sing.”

Much more repertoire? That’s music to our ears.

On Disc

Anna Netrebko Souvenirs Netrebko’s fourth solo disc for DG features 18 pieces each of which has a special meaning for her. Ranging from Viennese operetta to a Jewish lullaby, it’s a provocatively unconventional selection that shows how far Netrebko has advanced in musical maturity and inner confidence.
DG 477 7451