Diva, unbridled

It takes a few moments to process what Anna Netrebko just said.

Here she is, the opera world's dark-eyed diva-in-waiting, sitting poolside at a Los Angeles apartment with a princess's posture. And she's talking about going to a strip club.

Ms. Netrebko liked to venture out in New York on nights during her run of performances earlier this year in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" - when more prudent singers might have been at home tending to frayed nerves and pampering their vocal cords. Her nights of reveling spilled into mornings, with dancing and - surely - no small amount of laughing.

Netrebko laughs at almost every opportunity, displaying a giddy grin and erupting in unrepentant appreciation of her own daring.

And when she lets loose, this much rings as clear as a high C: Netrebko has not become one of the most coveted names in opera just because her voice flows over audiences in a silken stream of pitch and melody, though it does. Netrebko has not been hailed as the next Beverly Sills or Maria Callas simply because her face and figure evoke Milan runway models rather than Viking horns and helmets, though they do. Anna Netrebko has reached this moment, on the edge of becoming the first great soprano of the new century, because she is fearless.

That fearlessness is as much a part of her repertory as any aria by Mozart or Mussorgsky. It guides the phrasings of her life both on the stage and off.

Here, in the stillness of a secluded courtyard massaged by the gurgle of a nearby fountain, it seems to take on a sort of endearing guilelessness. In front of an expectant audience it becomes the soul of her art, expressed in the utter abandon of her acting.

"It really isn't a stretch to use the word 'miracle,' " wrote a critic for Die Presse, a daily newspaper in Vienna, after Netreb-ko's debut as Violetta in the legendary Vienna Staatsoper's production of "La Traviata." "Here one singing actress brought together everything that opera fans could hitherto only dream of."

She is, in this way, the perfect product of her times - a unique package of voice and face, acting and attitude that satisfies often-divergent demands. For the old school, she is the golden voice. For a new generation of operagoers weaned on four-minute musical fusions of MTV, she is the hottie who doesn't trundle around on stage as if she were an animated armchair.

All of this is wrapped into the dark hair and playful accent of the Russian ingenue, and the mix is intoxicating. Opera companies the world over - from San Francisco to Salzburg, Austria - have fallen over each other in hopes of becoming the next stop for this musical debutante.

But there are dangers in that kind of demand. For a generation, opera has been waiting for the next Callas, the next Scotto, the next Sutherland. Others have come before Netrebko, and most have been ground up and spat out by opera houses and recording companies who push for too much, too soon. The rise of the jet plane - allowing singers to shuttle themselves around the world in hours instead of days - began the fall of opera, some say.

It is a crucial moment for Netrebko - and, to a lesser degree, for opera itself. Whether she can resist the pressure to cash in now on her rising profile and movie-star looks in favor of her vocal well-being could determine whether she becomes one of the transcendent singers of her time or little more than an operatic asterisk. In Netrebko lies the promise of all that could be great in modern opera - all that could go wrong.

"She is a huge talent," says Martin Bernheimer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning opera critic for the Financial Times. "She has the voice. She has the looks. She has the dramatic instincts. I just hope she has the [discipline]."

Netrebko herself confesses that she doesn't know where she will be in 10 to 20 years. At this instant, figuring out where she is now seems enough of a chore.

During an interview held one afternoon during her run of performances in the Los Angeles Opera's "Lucia di Lammermoor," Netrebko is attentive, polite, and even playful - confiding that the convoluted plot of "The Matrix: Reloaded" didn't make any sense to her, either, but watching Keanu Reeves was all that really mattered.

Yet there is the overwhelming sense that Netrebko wants nothing more than to take one deep breath. From the moment 15 years ago that she decided to abandon her hopes of acting and instead become a singer, her life has been gathering pace. Today, Netrebko is opera's "it girl," with a new CD on store shelves, a five-aria DVD on the way, and performances scheduled from Los Angeles to London to Matsumoto, Japan. This, she has quickly learned, is the life of an international opera sensation.

And it is nonstop. When she considers her schedule, a look of exasperation spreads across her face. In the past six months, she has sung in Salzburg, London, Los Angeles, and Munich, Germany, as well as her hometown, St. Petersburg.

"I am doing too much. Absolutely. I am trying to do better now. When people say, 'We are waiting for you, everybody wants to hear you,' it's so hard for me to say no. [This year] I did almost impossible things, and this is not good. I have to stop; otherwise I will lose my voice.

"[I'd like to take more time off], but for now I cannot," she says. "First, I don't have enough money for that. And second, I just cannot now, because it is an important time for me."

The next three years of her professional life are already booked solid. Yet she hopes this year will be better than last, mostly because she is finally beginning to understand what her voice - and mind - can take. In the past three months, she has dropped out of two performances - a Marriage of Figaro in Florence and a recital in San Francisco - citing exhaustion. The decision has resulted in bad press, particularly in Florence, but it is just the sort of tough choice she will have to make if she doesn't want to sing herself into an early retirement.

"Once you get in this circus, it is so demanding. Everybody wants you," says Lotfi Mansouri, the former general director of the San Francisco Opera, and the man who first brought Netrebko to America - on just 48 hours' notice - for his 1995 performance of "Ruslan and Lyudmila." "Conductors are users. [Her voice] is a gift she has to take care of."

And it takes a prodigious deal of care - from practice to diet to getting adequate rest. Amid tales of late-night carousing and the reality of long flights around the globe, it's a sacrifice that some critics wonder if she can make.

"I wasn't certain that she was willing to put up with the lifestyle needed to be a singer for a long period of time," says Brian Kellow, a writer for Opera News who also penned the liner notes for Netrebko's CD, "Opera Arias." "You've got to rest your voice. I'm not sure she has the patience."

The lifestyle, Netrebko acknowledges, sometimes wears thin. "A couple of years ago, I thought, 'I want to sing all the time.' But now, I'm thinking maybe I can do something else. There are so many interesting things around."

Perhaps, in 20 years, Netrebko says, her interests could turn to painting. But for now, she is an opera singer, and while that might occasionally put a crimp in her social life, her enthusiasm for her art is undiminished.

Considering that she had never intended to sing opera, that might come as a bit of a surprise. To hear her tell it, she first went to St. Petersburg in 1988 as the wide-eyed teen daughter of a geologist from Krasnodar - a provincial city best known for oil and agriculture - seeking Russia's version of the Hollywood dream.

"I wanted to be an actress, but the competition was so big, and everybody wants to be an actress," she says in broken but understandable English. "I thought, 'OK, I will study singing and after that I will change.' But I didn't change."

What followed was a story made for opera itself. Instead of opera becoming her bridge to an acting career on stage or screen, it became her obsession. "[I changed] when I went to the theater and saw it performed, and of course the first time I started to sing on the stage," she says. "Opera theater is much more interesting and complicated [than stage acting]. Everything is together. I will never go back.... Once you try it you will never forget it, because it is wonderful."

In those days, when she was still singing at the conservatory, that enthusiasm led her to take a job as a janitor at the Kirov in the early 1990s, scrubbing and sweeping the floors for some $10 a month just so she could steep herself in the music. "I saw thousands of performances, and I was happy," she beams.

In a recent National Public Radio interview, Netrebko dismissed as a "stupid Cinderella story" the oft-told account of director Valery Gergiev discovering her toiling as a janitor at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. In truth, her first audition for Mr. Gergiev wasn't until two years after she quit her janitor job, at which Gergiev quipped, "Oh, you can even sing?" Netrebko recalls.

Even now, so far removed from those days when she needed a government- issued card to buy bread, a hunger for performing remains the engine of her artistic career. During a performance of "Lucia" here in Los Angeles, Netrebko receives an exuberant ovation before she sings a note.

Each of her solos ends amid a crescendo of applause. But the most anticipated moment comes in the final act: the mad scene. It is one of those classic scenes in opera that can define a soprano's career. On this night, Netrebko's Lucia whirls in madness, collapses in despair, recoils in agony.

"Netrebko proved riveting from her first moments onstage," wrote a critic for the Los Angeles Times. "But it was in the famous mad scene, after Lucia loses her mind and kills that husband, that she most dazzled, both vocally and dramatically, working the action out to the last detail, yet appearing utterly spontaneous."

In this performance, the 32-year-old Russian singer has somehow tapped into the mind of an 18th-century Scottish noblewoman who has been tricked by her brother into marrying the wrong man. The plot is ludicrous. But then Netrebko energetically interprets it - and it all makes sense. The audience roars. "Bravas" hurtle toward the stage from neck-craning heights. And now in Los Angeles, as in Vienna and London and Munich earlier this year, a diva is born.

With singers today, "a lot of times it's a question of temperament," says Mr. Kellow. "They don't have the imagination and the fire. [Anna] has all that, and that's why she's taken off. I'm at the point where I would rather see someone go to the edge of what [he or she can do]. And with Anna, you don't get the sense that she is cheating you."

In some ways, that commitment is a throwback to the great divas, who strode onto the stage as if they were singing by divine decree. Yet in other ways, Netrebko has made a subtle but significant departure. When critics speak of Netrebko's appeal, the word that is repeated is "package." Yes, the singing is still the most important aspect of any opera star. But looks matter, too. And more than ever, so does drama.

The days when operagoers came to the theater familiar with a libretto are over. The trends of modern pop music have made opera and classical music increasingly arcane to the average ear, and supertitles - translations of the libretto projected onto theater walls - have sprung up to embrace a less well-informed audience. Today's operagoers have a different set of values from those of the past. Netrebko, say some, is someone who can connect the old and the new.

"In the 1960s and '70s, people didn't care about the dramatic performance as much, they came for the incredible voices. Now audiences demand more," says Mr. Mansouri. "Opera is no longer a concert in costumes. [Netrebko] is representative of the future of opera as musical theater. That's one of the reasons I treasure her. It's a balance."

Opera could use a new headliner. Though the genre held on well during the 1990s, the recent downturn has decimated all of classical music. San Francisco Opera recently announced a $3.9 million deficit for this year, and in an unprecedented cost-cutting measure, the Met will take three weeks off in January 2005. The recording industry is similarly choking on a glut of classical recordings with few that truly stand out - leading to the creation of crossover stars like Charlotte Church, Andrea Bocelli, and the Three Tenors.

No longer are world-class singers lining up six or seven deep to play major roles at the world's great opera houses. The fact is, Netrebko has less competition than she might have had even 20 years ago, and that has made her an even more precious commodity. Deutsche Grammophon signed Netrebko to a recording contract last year, and she's worked on a five-aria DVD of MTV-style videos. But don't expect her to form the Three Sopranos in an effort to create crossover fame.

"This is a good idea to bring more people to the opera world, but ... I am not particularly interested in this kind of concert," Netrebko says, "even if it's for the big money." Then, again, Netrebko's capriciousness shows through. "OK, I can do this once, have $300,000, and buy for myself a Lamborghini. But to do this always, it's just not interesting."

And that, it seems, is the essence of Anna. She does what she wants, and she doesn't much care if everyone knows it.

Mansouri says Lyudmila was the perfect role, "because she was very naughty and charming."

From another person, perhaps, it might sound petulant to refuse to ever again play Zerlina, the small role in "Don Giovanni" that enabled her to sample New York's nightlife, because the character is "boring." From another woman, it might sound snobby to declare that she cannot enter a Victoria's Secret without spending $200.

But then Netrebko extols the virtues of shopping at Marshalls, the bargain emporium. Later, she reprises the cross-eyed, tongue-wagging face she made during rehearsals of the Lucia mad scene.

Indeed, the contradictions are what make Netrebko so fascinating. Surely, no diva would go shopping for linens at a discount store. And yet, sitting in the verdant courtyard of an apartment complex with her high-heeled sandals; calf-length, ruffled green skirt; and dark hair pulled flawlessly into a knot; she exudes presence.

It's hardly the icy air of superiority. Nor is it the hauteur of a highbrow bad girl, as if Paris Hilton had suddenly mastered the canon of Mozart librettos. It's more the unadorned projection of the fact that Anna Netrebko simply likes to have fun. And for the moment, at least, she's having fun singing opera.

"It's another life, and I like to pretend - to lead different lives. Some of my friends told me many years ago that I am more real on the stage than I am in real life," she grins. "That's funny. I don't think so, but it's nice because you know it's fake. You can play, you can suffer, you can die. You're feeling this. All these feelings are real, but you know that it will be over in one hour. And you can share this with the audience."

Already, her career has taken her to a broader world than many of her Russian predecessors ever saw. For them, the freedom with which Netrebko flits about the globe, stopping one month in Germany, the next in England, would have been only a dream during Soviet times. As with other legendary Russian artists, itinerant opera singers were kept on a short leash - occasionally emerging from the behind the veil of Soviet censorship, only to disappear from the West again. Their style was distinctive, their repertory limited to the great Russian composers - Mikhail Glinka, Modest Mussorgsky, Dmitry Shostakovich.

Netrebko, by contrast, represents the increasing globalization of that once separate artistic strain. As the Kirov has increasingly incorporated more international opera - from Mozart to Massenet - into its repertory, Netrebko has made a name for herself, not through Russian opera, but in Italian. "She represents the emergence of an international star from an ambiance that used to be nationalistic," says Mr. Bernheimer. "The roles she wants to star in are not Russian roles."

Part of that is her natural curiosity. Yet a significant aspect is simple self- preservation. "There are not that many Russian operas for my voice," says Netrebko. It is an instinct that she is only now beginning to hone - and one that could be crucial to her future.

When choosing roles, quality has always been the first consideration: whether she thinks it suits her light, lyrical voice. In other words, she was never going to don a Viking helmet, no matter how sorely she was tempted. "I love Wagner, but I can never do it," she says.

For now, she simply must be on the stage, and her success seems bounded only by her own desire. Says opera writer Kellow: "I don't think we've seen her at her peak by any means."

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