Friendly colleagues Netrebko and Calleja team up again in Lyric Opera’s “La Boheme”
Russian soprano Anna Netrebko is that increasingly rare beast: a genuine superstar whose appeal reaches far beyond the opera stage. Bursting onto the scene in 2002 at the Salzburg Festival, she has been a regular–and glamorous—fixture at the Metropolitan Opera since 2006. She opened the company’s two most recent seasons, singing the title role in Donizetti’s heavy-duty Anna Bolena in 2011 and Adina in the same composer’s comic L’elisir d’amore in 2012. She’s also a “Global Ambassador” for Chopard Jewelry and a favorite of fashion designers Zac Posen and Oscar de la Renta. Her voice offers a winning combination of rich luster and effortless power.
Joseph Calleja, a 35-year-old Malta-born tenor whose voice has prompted comparisons to Jussi Bjorling and Caruso, is quickly gaining wattage in the operatic stratosphere. He sings in the world’s leading opera houses and had a major success last September at the prestigious Last Night at the Proms concert in London.
Netrebko is making her long-delayed Lyric debut; Calleja appeared with the company in Verdi’s La Traviata opposite Elizabeth Futral in 2007.
So where is the diva-divo affectation, the demands, the haughtiness? Missing in action completely during a recent interview backstage at Lyric between rehearsals for their six performances of La Boheme that begin Saturday and continue through March 28.
True, there’s a lot of charisma on display. At 41, Netrebko has a kind of ripe, Kewpie-doll beauty. Tall in a pair of fashionable platform boots, she’s a study in curves—especially her round face, cheeks and merry eyes. Calleja has the open face and affable good cheer of your friendly neighborhood jock. Also tall, he’s compact and hefty. We don’t doubt for a minute the entries on his resume that list his youthful pursuits as a shot putter and javelin and discus thrower growing up in a sports-minded family.
But the pair, who have worked together several times in recent years, seem to have little interest in doing star turns offstage. They know each other well, having sung La Boheme together in Munich, Vienna and at the Met. In 2009 they starred in Offenbach’s demanding The Tales of Hoffmann. During their interviews, they joked and laughed, cut off each other’s sentences and happily but vehemently disagreed about a wide range of topics.
Calleja’s done his share of TV shows and concert appearances with pop artists including Michael Bolton. He passionately believes that opera can—and should try to–reach a wide audience. Netrebko just as passionately doesn’t think it should bother.
“Of course, opera will never be as big as Eminem or Michael Jackson,” said Calleja. “It’s much more complicated to put on than a normal concert.” But he pointed to the TV show “Britain’s Got Talent,” the British equivalent of “American Idol.” Paul Potts , a trained opera singer, won second place during the show’s first season in 2007. The YouTube video of his performance of Nessun dorma has reached nearly 110 million hits.
“He has a decent voice for sure,” said Calleja. “There were hundreds, if not thousands of acts from all over the UK, and he came in second. This is the proof that opera is so visceral, it’s so beautiful that it’s [appeal is] immediate.
“I think that the right stuff in opera can happen in an immediate, visceral way. And the proof of this is the lady standing to my right.”
“The lady standing to your right,” Netrebko cut in, “I absolutely don’t care whether people think about [opera].” She has been fidgeting and shaking her head as Calleja made his case.
“I do think that opera is amazing,” she said heatedly. “Any kind of classical music is amazing, but it’s not going to be popular. I just want to make it as great as it can be by my standards, which are very high. I put them very high and I try to reach them. I have to be satisfied with how it’s going, and I don’t care about the rest.”
Their difference of opinion may arise from how they discovered opera. Calleja was always singing as a child. He sang in a children’s choir and at age 14 also sang in a friend’s rock band. His uncle asked him to “stop listening to the devil’s music” and showed him a video of The Great Caruso starring Mario Lanza.
“The minute I heard it,” said Calleja, “I said ‘I have to do this. This I want to do.’ And what I heard wasn’t even a song. He was just vocalizing.”
The atmosphere was different in the Netrebko household in Krasnodar, a city in southwest Russia.
“I sang, but there was no opera around the house,” said Netrebko. “Everybody hated opera. They’d switch the channel when opera came on. Then, I don’t know how it happened. I went to St. Petersburg to study opera. I went to live performances, and I started to like it more and more and more and more.”
“Even though I’m doing this all the time, I still love to go to performances,” said Netrebko. “Even to see operas I would never sing, or symphony concerts or pianists– I just love it.”
“I’ll be honest,” said Calleja, “l go to symphonic concerts, I go to hear pianists, but I can’t go to the opera. I’ve tried it, but when I hear that music I imagine myself onstage. I want to do it.”
It’s something physical, he said, like a horse’s instinct to run faster when another horse races by. During one visit to the opera as a listener, he said, a friend poked him. Calleja was taking large breaths as if he were getting ready to sing the next aria.
Netrebko admitted that occasionally hearing another singer’s great performance can raise doubts about her own artistry.
“Sometimes the fear can appear, for everyone,” she said. “You might think, ‘Oh my god, maybe I’m not so good. Maybe these people who are singing are taking over and they’re much better. Everything is bad. My career is over, it’s done, it’s horrible. But only for one or two days. After that, you calm yourself down and start work again and everything is not so bad. We all can have these kinds of fears.”
Except Calleja, whose response made her laugh.
“In this case, I’ll be a typical tenor,” he with a broad smile. “I’ve never had that fear.”
Both singers have more offers than they can handle from opera houses around the world, and Netrebko is slowly moving into heavier repertoire. Netrebko and bass-baritone Erwin Schrott have a four-year-old son, Tiago, and her voice has taken on greater heft since she gave birth. She will sing Tatiana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin in Vienna in April and repeat the role in September for her third season-opener at the Met. Verdi’s Lady Macbeth and Leonora are on the horizon as well as Elsa in Wagner’s Lohengrin.
“It’s always time for change,” said Netrebko about her move into new repertoire. “We’ll see. I don’t want to talk much about this. First I have to prepare and then do it, and then we’ll talk.”
“It’s because your voice has become the size of a truck,” said Calleja, prompting a guffaw from Netrebko, “and I mean that in the best sense. That’s why you’re doing this.”
“I cannot hold it any more,” said Netrebko, turning serious. “I tried quite a long time to stay in my repertoire and hold it back. But I don’t see any reason to do that any more, especially since my personality changed as well. I want something else.”
But some roles she vows she will never sing, among them Verdi’s Desdemona and Puccini’s Butterfly.
“You won’t do Butterfly?” asked Calleja, incredulous.
“A crying Japanese woman who winds up killing herself and she has her kid? she retorted. “I don’t want to do Butterfly. These roles don’t speak to my heart–not the music, not the character.”
Some people might like their opera light, but Netrebko prefers a more potent brew.
“Some of the first operas I heard,” she said, “were Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, Wagner’s Parsifal. I didn’t know anything about [opera], but I was smashed. I could not move. It was fascinating. It wasn’t anything easy.
“I prefer that kind f opera. It’s complicated, it’s deep. It’s beyond our understanding. It’s just coming in from somewhere I don’t know.”
Anna Netrebko and Joseph Calleja star in Puccini’s La Boheme, which opens 7:30 p.m. Saturday and runs through March 28. lyricopera.org; 312-332-2244.