Former janitor is now 'best lyric soprano on the planet'

Russian singer Anna Netrebko was a student who also worked as a janitor at the Mariinsky conservatory when her talent was discovered.
Russian singer Anna Netrebko was a student who also worked as a janitor at the Mariinsky conservatory when her talent was discovered.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

VIENNA • She is the most famous soprano in the world - the "new Maria Callas" who has enthralled audiences from the New York Met to Saint Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre, where she began her career mopping the stage.

But there is little of the distant, aloof diva in Russian singer Anna Netrebko, 47, who regularly shares pictures of her family with her near half-million Instagram followers.

Having had to pull out of her Bayreuth debut in Wagner's Lohengrin - which opened on Wednesday - because of exhaustion a month after axing a performance in Salzburg, she posted pictures of herself on holiday in Azerbaijan, herding sheep and hugging village women.

Her 10-year-old son Tiago also regularly stars in her feed.

The star is equally frank about his autism and her pride at his progress.

Nor is her husband, Azerbaijani tenor Yusif Eyvazov - with whom she is due to return to the stage at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin at the end of this month - ever far as the soprano shows off her impressive wardrobe of dresses and hats.

"I post what I see without any thoughts, any opinions," Netrebko said in Vienna, where she has been based for years.

"It is my life, it is what I am seeing around (me) and my life is wonderful," added the singer, who was discovered by conductor Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky, where Netrebko worked as a janitor to make ends meet while she was a student at the conservatory.

The woman who is now regarded as arguably the best lyric soprano on the planet, a master of both the Russian and bel canto styles as well as big dramatic roles like Puccini's Tosca, was born into a modest Cossack family in the north Caucasus city of Krasnodar.

"I always knew that I was going to be a performer no matter what - the voice appeared later," she said.

Gergiev quickly spotted her talent and became her mentor after taking over the Mariinsky.

Although Netrebko's acting was rather limited to begin with, it has deepened over time.

What was never in doubt was her stellar voice, which has got even richer and more powerful over the years.

That power is a rare commodity in opera and one that is getting even rarer now, she insisted.

"Now, it's more 'easy breezy', it is a bit about pleasing the public, showing off," she noted.

"Television microphones do not show the size of your voice. Not all of the young and beautiful singers can sing in big theatres."

Opera may now be "everywhere thanks to streaming", Netrebko said, "and you can do lots of interesting productions, but I think it's missing a little bit of the old-school, strong singing".

"It is a hard job, not everybody can do it. You have to have talent and lots of brains and lots of strength."

And the punishing schedule imposed on the top stars is infernal, Netrebko admitted just before she was forced to take a break herself.

Like many Russian stars, Netrebko has found herself in hot water politically as the chill between Moscow and the West has become frostier.

In 2014, she controversially gave a separatist leader in Ukraine's breakaway Donetsk region money to keep the city's opera going, after Kiev withdrew funding.

And two years ago she was caught in a blackface row over agreeing to wear dark make-up for Verdi's Aida at the Salzburg Festival - a practice that is being questioned more and more in opera.

"Even if I don't want to be political, they try to drag me into politics," Netrebko said.

Whatever the rights and wrongs, there is no doubting her genius, said the head of New York's Metropolitan Opera, Mr Peter Gelb.

"If she were living in the 1960s, she would be as big as Callas, she is that kind of singer.

"She is a miracle of an artist," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 16, 2019, with the headline 'Former janitor is now 'best lyric soprano on the planet''. Print Edition | Subscribe