The Diva Gets Domesticated

woolfe1 The Diva Gets DomesticatedAnna Netrebko is a very good, very famous singer. It feels almost heretical to ask her about the way in which her dazzling career might, at some point, wind down. But at the pinnacle of success, still young at 38, she has already given the matter some thought.

“What would I like to do besides singing?” she asked herself aloud when reached on the telephone by The Observer. “I can tell you honestly, I’m not that passionate anymore about singing and all this stuff, you know? Once I have a family and a kid, I’m so happy to have a family, and I’m not that enthusiastic anymore.”

It might cause some concern among critics, audiences and opera company administrators—who have embraced Ms. Netrebko as one of the great artists of her generation—that her passion and enthusiasm for performing might be waning after her marriage to baritone Erwin Schrott and the birth of their son, Tiago, a year ago.

She’s not only one of opera’s biggest stars, but one of Playboy’s “sexiest babes of classical music.” She sells out theaters; she’s been profiled on 60 Minutes and Good Morning America. Even better, she has the talent—a big, flexible, dark-toned soprano—to back up her renowned looks and charisma. All in all, if you had to choose a poster girl for our HD Opera Era, it would be Ms. Netrebko. But she may no longer want it as badly.

“There is a lot, lot of singers,” she said, “who don’t have anything else but the theater. I have to say, I used to be like that. I was really—the theater was everything for me—the theater, partying, because I didn’t have anything else, you know? You come back home and there is nobody. It’s fine when you’re young, but when you’re a little bit older, you want something else.”

Ms. Netrebko’s career has certainly not come to a halt since motherhood. Indeed, in 2009, being a mom is part of the marketing strategy. “Ask Anna” videos on Ms. Netrebko’s Web site feature her holding up the grinning Tiago while she answers questions about lullabies and the baby’s favorite ice cream flavor.

And her engagements proliferate: She sings Antonia in the Met’s new production of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, which opens on Thursday, and then returns as Mimi in La Bohème in February and March. Through April and May, she is appearing in—gulp—four back-to-back roles at the Vienna State Opera, culminating in Massenet’s Manon, which she will bring to Covent Garden in June and July.

It is telling that Ms. Netrebko is spending so much time in the cities she calls home. Since 2006, the Russian-born singer has had Austrian citizenship and lived in Vienna, and she has recently added an apartment in New York. She is trying to be both a star and a mom, a jet-setter and a homebody. She is also trying, ever so slightly, to cut back.

“It’s difficult, but yeah,” she sighed, “I’m trying to slow down a little bit. Definitely now there will be less than it was last year. It was very crazy; I didn’t think too much.”

It’s hard to say whether these efforts to slow down are related to her decision to perform just Antonia in the Met Hoffmann, rather than the full trilogy of female leads, as she originally planned. Or her decision to pull out of next season’s planned version of the Willy Decker production of La Traviata, in which Ms. Netrebko caused a sensation at the Salzburg Festival. 

“I don’t like to repeat myself,” she said. “That production was pretty big a few years ago, and I don’t think it’s going to be the same after four or five years. I did it once, and I don’t want to go back to that, because it was very specific production, very specific time, and specific partners. I don’t think it’s going to be the same. I think better somebody else can do it if they can.”

Though Ms. Netrebko says she would still like to do the opera at the Met, it’s unclear whether Peter Gelb will choose to put her or the Decker production onstage. Mr. Gelb remains squarely in her corner, however. She will be opening the 2011-2012 Met season as Donizetti’s Anna Bolena.

“The other [Donizetti] queens, I don’t think I’m really interested for now,” she said. “With one [Maria Stuarda], it’s too late for me, and Roberto Devereaux, it’s too early. But Anna Bolena, it should be fine.”

The following season brings a new production of Eugene Onegin. “And probably I’m going to sing Trovatore, which I’m now learning,” she said. “That I haven’t signed yet, but it’s in the plans. I’m going to study now and see if I can sing it or not.”

She’s come a long way from her early servitude. Well, not really: Her Cinderella Story has been incorporated into her biography, but while she did, in fact, mop floors at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater, she did it to watch rehearsals and make ends meet while she studied singing; she was hardly a janitor. And conductor Valery Gergiev didn’t come upon her singing while she worked. She got discovered the old-fashioned way, winning a competition and then auditioning.

Her international breakthrough came in 2002, when she appeared as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni in Salzburg and, for her Met debut, as Natasha in Prokofiev’s War and Peace. In 2003, she had her first performances alongside Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón. Opera companies and record labels looking for a winning narrative marketed them as a dream team, a Sutherland and Pavarotti for the new millennium. But the plan took an unanticipated turn when Mr. Villazón announced in 2007 that, due to vocal problems, he would be taking time off. He has since sung only a few performances, tying Ms. Netrebko’s image to a partner whose future remains very much in doubt. But she is taking a “stand by your man” attitude toward the situation.

“This kind of thing can happen to all of us,” she said. “Sooner or later … we are all coming to this kind of problem. … But I think he’s going to be fine, and he’s going to be back and with even better glory in the voice. I wait for him.”

In fact, she doesn’t even have to really wait for him for their collaboration to recommence: Their film version of La Bohème, set to a recording of the opera made just before Mr. Villazón’s hiatus, comes out on Dec. 15. There are some overwrought Moulin Rouge–ish directorial touches, but Ms. Netrebko is quite affecting onscreen, and she does some of her best acting work—simple and true—in smaller moments, often while listening to others sing.

Watching her in La Bohème, or the Met’s new DVD of Lucia di Lammermoor, or any of dozens of YouTube clips, it’s hard to imagine her doing anything but singing onstage. And there’s a big part of her that loves it.

“I wish to have a little more free time, that’s all,” she said. “I would like to spend more time with the family and enjoy my life more. You know, even to go to dinner with my husband, to buy food and cook, put on nice music, watch a nice movie, walk in the park, do the things together. … I’m definitely not that singer who is like, ‘Ahh’”—drawing out the syllable—“‘my life is singing and nothing else.’ Definitely not. I have so many other wonderful things in my life.”

zwoolfe@observer.com