When the Russian diva launches the Met season on Sept. 23 in Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin," it will mark her third consecutive opening night—a milestone no soprano has ever reached before in leading roles.
The streak began in 2011 in Donizetti's tragic "Anna Bolena" and continued last year with a comedy by the same composer, "L'Elisir d'Amore." She scored in both operas, though the first stretched her vocal abilities to their limits and the second seemed like something she had outgrown.
In "Onegin," she will be returning to her Russian roots, singing in her native language at the Met for the first time since her 2002 debut in Prokofiev's "War and Peace." Tatiana, the heroine of the Tchaikovsky opera adapted from Pushkin, is a fascinating creation who grows from an impressionable young woman rejected by the man she adores to a sophisticated married noblewoman who rebuffs the same man's belated passion.
The role seems an ideal fit for Netrebko's large, luscious voice, glamorous looks and luminous stage presence (as critics agreed when she premiered the role in Vienna earlier this year).
Yet she said Tatiana has proved an acting challenge because she finds the heroine behaving very differently from the way a woman would in today's world.
"I'm a girl from the 21st century, and I would do everything opposite," Netrebko said in an interview during a break from rehearsals last week.
During the interview, Netrebko twice made a point of apologizing for having dropped the "F-bomb" in an Opera News interview. She was rather bluntly expressing her view that a modern-day Tatiana would surely have an affair with Onegin once he finally declares his love.
"I received angry letters about it," she said, blushing. "What I meant was that in our time it would be very hard to lose your love. Who would say no? If you have such strong feelings, there is a way to be together."
To get in touch with Tatiana's sensibility, Netrebko said she tries "to remember nobility, sincerity, honor, sacrifice—all those words which we are not using anymore much."
Beyond the usual excitement of opening night, there's a political controversy hanging over the occasion. Some activists had called for the company to dedicate the performance to a protest against laws in Russia restricting the rights of homosexuals. (Both Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev were public supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin's re-election last year.)
The Met issued a statement deploring "the suppression of equal rights here or abroad," but saying it would be inappropriate to use the performance for a political statement. Netrebko responded to the controversy on her Facebook page without mentioning Russia but declaring: "I have never and will never discriminate against anyone."
"Some people said I have to say more," Netrebko said, "but that is the maximum I can say right now." Then, leaning over in a conspiratorial whisper, she added: "In my next life, when I will be a politician, we talk!"
No matter how the opening goes, Netrebko's streak will come to an end at three, leaving her far short of tenor Enrico Caruso's 14 consecutive opening nights, from 1907 to 1920, or Placido Domingo's seven from 1989-1995.
The Met is starting its 2014-15 season with Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro," and though Netrebko at one point discussed the role of the Countess, she decided not to do it. "I don't like the character," she said, "plus I don't see myself as a Mozart singer."
What she does see herself as these days is a Verdi singer. She recently released (to mixed reviews but healthy sales) a CD of his arias on the Deutsche Grammophon label. She sang concert performances of "Giovanna d'Arco" at Salzburg this summer, and she's debuting two iconic Verdi roles this season: Leonora in "Il Trovatore" in Berlin this November and Lady Macbeth in Munich next summer.
Other new roles she's planning include Puccini's "Manon Lescaut" with Riccardo Muti in Rome next February and Elsa in Wagner's "Lohengrin" in a few years. One she would someday like to tackle is another Tchaikovsky heroine, Lisa in "Queen of Spades."
"I love this opera!" she said. "Tchaikovsky does something to all of us Russians, it just kills us.
"I don't really have the voice for it now, but maybe in 10 years." added Netrebko, who will turn 42 this week.
Netrebko isn't the only artist generating excitement for the Met's opening week. The night after "Onegin," James Levine, the company's music director, is set to return to the house after being sidelined by illness and injury for more than two years. He'll conduct one of his favorites, Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte." Also on the first-week schedule is the return of the wildly imaginative production of Shostakovich's "The Nose," by South African artist William Kentridge. All three of these operas will be among the 10 "live in HD" broadcasts shown in movie theaters around the world later in the season.