That voice! That face! That cursing! It's Anna Netrebko

Rags-to-riches Russian soprano exudes stardom in her young career

Classical Music

September 12, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

It's awfully tempting to begin a story about Anna Netrebko with "Once upon a time," since there's such a fairy-tale quality to her life.

Today, the strikingly beautiful Russian soprano with the limpid sound and richly expressive phrasing is at the forefront of the international music scene, in demand at leading opera houses, lavishly praised for her recordings. She's quite a darling of the press, and not just the musically inclined; Vanity Fair and even Travel & Leisure have taken note.

She had a cameo in a summer movie, Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement. And her MTV-style DVD of video interpretations of opera arias, Anna Netrebko: The Woman, the Voice, was recently released in Europe; it started at No. 1 on the German charts, topping entries by Britney Spears and Beyonce.

"I had dreams as a student, of course," Netrebko says, "but they never went that far."

The taste of fame has to be even sweeter for someone who used to scrub floors at St. Petersburg's famed Mariinsky Theatre, where Netrebko is now a headliner. But the singer, whose just-out, second solo CD is bound to add to her sizable fan base, shrugs when reminded of those humble days. She is so past all that.

Besides, Netrebko, 32, is the first to point out that her charring in that gilded home of the Kirov Opera and Ballet during her conservatory student days was not out of purely penurious need. "There was almost no money in it anyway," she says. (About $10 a month.)

No, she had two much stronger incentives than pocket change back then: boys, and access to an enticing new world.

"The boss was always screaming at me because I was not working," Netrebko says. "My girlfriends and I were flirting with the ballet dancers instead of washing the floors. We would dress very beautifully, with earrings and everything, to hide from them what we were really doing in the theater, so they would not see us as cleaning women. I was pretty good at hiding it - I was very cute!"

When she wasn't focused on improving her social life, Netrebko was being drawn closer and closer to the spotlight. "I just wanted to be in the theater," she says, "to see all the rehearsals and the performances. I stayed there almost 24 hours a day."

All that exposure eventually convinced Netrebko that she was in the right place at the right time to make the right career choice.

That choice was different when this daughter of a geologist first arrived in St. Petersburg from her provincial hometown of Krasnodar in 1988. "I just wanted to be onstage," she says, "it didn't matter how."

Netrebko assumed the "how" would involve acting. "I didn't like to sing," she says. "And I never thought I had a voice, although I always had high notes. But when I got to St. Petersburg, everyone said the competition to be an actress was just too big. It would be easier to be a singer. After maybe a year, I discovered I liked to sing. And I knew then I wouldn't turn back. There is nothing as exciting."

As she talks in her lightly accented English, sitting at a little table in the lounge of a Washington hotel, the soprano absent-mindedly lights a match from a pack that had been left there. "Sorry," she says, smiling. It's a disarming smile, with Hollywood-level wattage.

Musical plaudits

Netrebko positively exudes stardom. The covers of her two CDs luxuriate in the dark-eyed, dark-haired singer's sex appeal. (Her couturiers are duly credited on them; Escada provided the rather Euro-trashy outfit adorning her latest disc of Italian arias.)

She is very conscious of the role that appearance plays in marketing classical music these days, and, as a standard practice, will agree to be photographed for an interview only if the requesting news outlet pays for a hair stylist and makeup technician.

But Netrebko hardly needs any beautifying assistance. Dressed rather simply in black and with a very modest touch of jewelry, she couldn't look much more glamorous.

"Anna Netrebko is called to be one of the stars of the operatic firmament, without any doubt," says Placido Domingo by phone from Mexico. "She has the beauty of the voice, she is a wonderful actress, and she has the personality that really appeals to the public. She's also a very beautiful woman."

But for Domingo, the superstar tenor and general director of both the Washington National and Los Angeles opera companies, the key to Netrebko's success lies beyond the visual appeal. (She has sung for both of his companies.)

"Her musicality is very, very strong," Domingo says. "If she sings the right repertoire and continues to be dedicated, to work as hard as she has, she has the qualities to be one of the greatest sopranos of the world for many years to come."

And certainly one of the most interesting.

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