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Anna Netrebko: A Happy Diva

Russian Opera Singer Breaks New Ground As Music Video Star

There isn't a musical instrument on earth that can produce sounds as varied, as beautiful, and as heart-rending as the voice of a woman.

That's why we worship our great sopranos, and call them divas. But many of the greatest musical divas are larger than life. And seeing them on stage can be jarring, particularly when, in operas such as "La Boheme" or "La Traviata," they're playing fragile, young beauties dying of consumption.

Correspondent Bob Simon reports on a new prima donna, a young, rising opera star with a Cinderella story.


Her name is Anna Netrebko, and she's from Russia.

Her recordings are selling very well -- unusually well for classical music. But more than that, Netrebko is doing something never done before: opera music videos.

Call it "MTV meets the Met," or "Opera Lite." But the videos are knocking some stuffiness out of the opera world. In Europe, her DVD soared to No. 1 on the charts ahead of Britney Spears and Beyonce.

Netrebko is a marketer's dream, and her record company is daring to hope that she might just bring young people to opera. When is the last time you saw a soprano who sings at the Metropolitan Opera, and graces the pages of glossy magazines?

And it's not just the singing. It's not just the looks. Music critics on both sides of the Atlantic are describing Netrebko as a perfect product of her times -- a unique package of acting, attitude, presence, voice, and of course, glamour.

Is it more important for her to be adored for her voice or her looks?

"When I just started my career, of course, I always try to look very good, and I changes the dress all the time on the performance. And people came to me and said, 'Oh, beautiful dress. Your dress is so beautiful, and you look so beautiful.' That's it. And I was so upset nobody saying anything about my singing," recalls Netrebko.

"But now, it's thank God, they start to speak a little bit about my voice and about my singing and this makes me happy."

There are rules to good singing, and they may be the only rules Netrebko respects. She not only ignores the protocols of the opera world, on the road, she ignores the seat belt laws of California.

Netrebko insists she will never cross over to popular music. But she loves it, and listens to the music of pop stars such as Justin Timberlake.

Another passionate love, as Simon noticed one morning in San Francisco, is shopping – and not just for gowns for opening night. It's no wonder Netrebko's always maxed out on her credit cards. She told Simon that she paid $1,200 for a pair of jeans with holes in the knees. "This is the style," she says.

The streets of San Francisco are long way from the small town of Krasnadar, in the South of the old Soviet Union where Netrebko grew up as a patriotic "Young Pioneer."

"It was lots of fun with this red tie, and I was very proud because I was one of the best, and I was one of the first from my class who was a pioneer," says Netrebko, who enjoyed performing in the communist pageants.

What kind of roles did you dream of performing?

"Princess, of course. All the girls wanted to be princesses, beautifully dressed of course, and with the tiara," says Netrebko.

She left home when she was 16 for the closest thing Russia had for a city fit for a princess – St. Petersburg. But did she ever expect that she'd end up at New York's Metropolitan Opera?

"No, not me, and nor the people who was around me," says Netrebko. "I heard so many times that I don't have voice and the best for me is the chorus or something."

But that didn't stop her from enrolling at the conservatory and taking a job at the city's famous Mariinksy Theatre – washing the floors. That was her day job, and it gave her a chance at night to soak up the music.

"I was surprised why such an attractive girl decided to do such a job," recalls maestro Valery Gergiev, the musical director of the Mariinksy Theatre.

He says he was even more surprised to see the cleaning lady turn up at one of his auditions – but he noticed her immediately. "After her first minute of audition, it was clear, of course, I immediately offered her to become a young member of our ensemble," says Gergiev. "A Cinderella story."

Gergiev turned his Cinderella into a princess. And Netrebko began touring the world with his company, singing mostly Russian repertoire. But two years ago, her big break came at the prestigious festival in Salzburg – the town where Mozart was born.

"I was scared. I was nervous, and I have no idea what I am doing here," recalls Netrebko, who claims that she sings better when she's nervous. "Adrenaline, the stress, everything."

But Netrebko says that there's good stress and bad stress. Good stress is what she feels before a performance. Not so good are the receptions, the chat shows, and the CD signings. Everyone wants a piece of Anna Netrebko. And the pressure is unrelenting.

When her mother died two years ago, on the other side of the world, Netrebko didn't cancel her engagements. She kept on singing. Was it difficult to continue performing? "No," says Netrebko.

"Aside from having a beautiful voice and a beautiful face, you've gotta be tough," says Simon. "It's a tough game, isn't it?"

"Of course. If you're not tough, you are out. And you have to have a very strong character, very strong," says Netrebko, who admits she's had to take care of herself. "Nobody else will take care of you."

And sopranos are notorious for taking care of themselves. They're always wrapped in scarves. Air conditioning is anathema. And most of them flee smoky rooms. But for Netrebko, where there's smoke, there's fire. And she loves fire.

In fact, if Netrebko had her way, she'd be partying every night.

"I'm living with the people, and the people are smoking, and the people live in air condition, so I just can't say, 'OK, I'm an opera singer. I have to stay with my own, whatever area around,'" says Netrebko.

Her specialty may be arias, but she has no airs. When you run into her in St. Petersburg, you'd never know that she is now up there, in the galaxy of the stars. There are no limos, and no paparazzi. And she always goes back to the Mariinksy Theatre, sees her old friends, and does a turn on stage.

"It's funny when we think about you starting washing floors in the Mariinksy Theatre, obviously it's a Cinderella story," says Simon. "So do you worry that at the stroke of midnight, you're going to find yourself one day washing floors again, and your jet plane will turn into a pumpkin?"

"Oh, it might happen. Absolutely. Not washing the floor but maybe I will change my profession," says Netrebko. "If I would really get tired from this, and if I will start to sing worst, I will just change it, but I will not disappear. I will do something else important. You will see me somewhere."

Anywhere would be just fine.