Opera superstar Anna Netrebko is conquering the world, theater by theater

Soprano Anna Netrebko

Soprano Anna Netrebko (March 5, 2013)

Anna Netrebko seems genuinely unfazed by the stardom that has made her a charismatic figure to hundreds of thousands of opera lovers worldwide, not to mention even greater numbers of ordinary folks who devour articles about her in the popular press and no doubt care more about her taste for shopping and high-end fashion than her high C's. She's her generation's answer to Luciano Pavarotti, an impresario's dream come true.

And yet, for all the media attention she commands, the Russian superstar soprano remains disarmingly down-to-earth. A recent conversation over the phone from her New York apartment found her chatty and relaxed and forthcoming about such topics as her bold move into new operatic repertory, how she juggles celebrity and motherhood, her relationship with the press – even her formidable arsenal of Russian swear words.

"The Russian cursing language is very rich," the diva explained, in lilting English that retains its Russian inflections and syntax. "The English language has a few such words; the Russian vocabulary has hundreds. In Russia everybody curses – they have no problem with that. People over here are fine with that too. Everybody at the Metropolitan Opera knows all the bad Russian words already!"

Fair warning to Netrebko's newfound colleagues at Lyric Opera: The sweet Russian diva can talk salty.

It has taken an unconscionably long time for the singer to make her Lyric debut, but Netrebko, whose dark and lustrous voice and vivid stage presence have graced opera houses from St. Petersburg, Russia, to London and Los Angeles, will make her long-awaited first appearance here, as the consumptive seamstress Mimi, in six heavily-sold performances of Puccini's "La Boheme," beginning Saturday night at the Civic Opera House.

"I'm very excited about coming to Chicago," said the ebullient, 41-year-old singer. "Everybody has been telling me I'm going to love the city." Because she hails from Krasnodar, a city in southern Russia with a climate much like Chicago’s, coping with the cold and snow are no problem for her. "I'm bringing my young son and my sister and other members of my family, so that will make my time there even nicer."

The Lyric administration has tried repeatedly to engage the diva over the last decade. So why the delayed Chicago operatic debut?

"To be perfectly honest, I don't know," she replied. "It's not that I didn't want to sing in Chicago – it just turned out that way. Maybe it's because I was too many times committed to singing at the Met, maybe also in Europe."

Certainly the long delay has only increased local anticipation of hearing Netrebko in the flesh, following a succession of highly praised recordings and "Live in HD" transmissions from the Met, whose general director, Peter Gelb, has made her one of the brightest jewels in the company's crown.

Mimi is a role Netrebko has made her own in several important theaters, most notably at the Salzburg Festival where last summer she joined tenor Piotr Beczala in a contemporary updating of "Boheme" her record company, Deutsche Grammophon, has just issued on DVD and Blu-ray.

The March run of "Boheme" performances at Lyric will pair Netrebko's Mimi with the Rodolfo of Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, a frequent collaborator who has shared the Bohemians' garret with her in productions in Vienna and Munich.

"I really think that, in this role and in the full-blooded Puccini repertory, Anna is pretty much unrivalled nowadays," Calleja says. "She is, in my honest opinion, one of the most beautiful soprano voices of all time. I tell friends that Anna was born to be an opera singer – she's an absolute stage animal."

That "stage animal" has been gradually moving away from some of the Mozart and bel canto roles on which her fame resides and moving into uncharted territory. She will test-drive her first Tatiana, in "Eugene Onegin," at the Vienna State Opera in April before bringing the Tchaikovsky heroine to the Met, where she will open the season in September under the baton of her mentor, Russian maestro Valery Gergiev. "Onegin" will mark her ninth appearance in the Met's HD series the following month.

Also in her datebook – which is crammed with engagements extending well into 2017-18 – are two new and vocally challenging Verdi heroines – Leonora in "Il Trovatore" and Lady Macbeth in "Macbeth" – along with her first ("and probably the last," she said with a laugh) Wagner role -- Elsa in "Lohengrin." She is scheduled to sing the latter at the Semper Oper in Dresden, Germany, with Christian Thielemann conducting.

"This is the kind of repertory where I think my voice should be," Netrebko said. "I have just recorded an entire Verdi recital, and I feel great about it. Yes, I'm taking lots of risks, and I don't know what my voice will be like years down the road, especially with my repertory changing. But I have to try.

"The good thing about it," she continued, "is that it's motivating me to keep myself in good shape vocally. I am working with a very good vocal coach, Daniel Zarga, who listens very closely to my singing. We are talking a lot about keeping my vocal registers even, sustaining the sound with proper breath and using the chest voice, in a good way. The Verdi roles I will be taking on require lots of singing in the middle register, and I must make it sound very natural."

Netrebko's catwalk-model beauty adorns many a magazine cover, particularly in Europe, where she's as famous for modeling watches and couture and endorsing perfumes as she is for her opera and concert singing. Some in the media have charged that her commercial excursions demean her classical artistry.

When I asked her how she would reply to such critical carping, she laughed.

"I seldom read criticism, and when I do, I filter it. My private life and my photo shoots are my own business." What she does off the stage has no bearing on what she does on stage, she said. "Of course I like it when I get a good review for a performance, provided the review has some meaning. But if it's a 'mean' critique, I don't pay any attention to it."

Netrebko makes no secret of the fact that, as a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, she scrubbed floors at the Mariinsky Theatre in hopes someone would ask her to go on as an extra in one of the opera productions. She wound up with much, much more. A successful audition with Gergiev, the Mariinsky's powerful music director, landed her a berth on the roster. International doors soon began opening for her. She never looked back.

Lately her attention has been divided between fulfilling her many and far-flung musical engagements and her responsibilities as mom to Tiago, her 4-year-old son by her partner, Uruguayan bass-baritone Erwin Schrott. "It's very difficult but I'm managing," she said, when asked how the balancing act is working out. "My son is always traveling with me, but he will need to start pre-school soon, and then he won't be able to travel with me so much. I'm scared just to think about that time."

As our allotted phone time drew to a close, I remarked that Netrebko appears to have developed a remarkably level-headed sense of vocal self-preservation, given her choice of repertory and her approach to those roles. How long, I asked her, does she foresee her career flourishing?

"Oh my God!" she exclaimed, with another laugh. "I want to stop before people tell me to do so!"

jvonrhein@tribune.com

Twitter @jvonrhein

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