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Anna Netrebko happy to see snow for her Chicago opera debut

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When: Through March 28

Where: Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker

Tickets: $34-$259

Info: (312) 332-2244;

Updated: April 11, 2013 6:32AM

One of the opera world’s hottest stars is finally making her Chicago debut.

Soprano Anna Netrebko is stepping into the role of Mimi in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Puccini’s “La boheme,” which runs through March 28. She will appear in the remaining performances alongside tenor Joseph Calleja, who is also joining the cast as Rodolfo.

“I’m very excited,” said Netrebko, 41, regarded as the opera world’s reigning diva, who has opened the Metropolitan Opera season for two consecutive years and will make it a third this fall. “I’ve never been in the city, and I’ve heard so many amazing things. Whenever I say I’m going to Chicago, everybody says, ‘Oh, you’re going to love it. It’s so nice there.’ I don’t know why it happened this late, but at least it happened.”

She was especially happy Tuesday when it snowed on the second day of her whirlwind series of rehearsals.

“I love the weather,” said the native of Krasnodar, Russia. “It reminds me of home. Beautiful.”

Lyric Opera typically offers one extended production a season with 11 or 12 performances and switches out the artists in the two or three largest roles about halfway through. In 2011-12, it was “Aida,” and this season, it is “La boheme,” one of opera’s most popular love stories.

Anthony Freud, the company’s general director, said such a major cast change cannot help having a major effect on the production.

“I think the basic physical elements of the production will remain very much the same,” he said. “But there will be a change of dynamic, and that is for the good. It will be energizing for everyone.”

Often, opera companies put their biggest stars in their first casts. But in this case, the two singers stepping into “La boheme” are as big or bigger names than the performers they are replacing: soprano Ana Maria Martinez and tenor Dimitri Pittas.

“It was really just a matter of how the dates worked,” Freud said.

To Netrebko, it doesn’t matter whether she was in the first cast or the second.

“It’s important for me to have a good conductor and great partners,” she said. “That’s it, and I do have that, so I’m very, very happy.”

Stepping into the middle of a pre-existing production with tight rehearsal time would seem to be a challenge, but Netrebko brushed such concerns aside.

“Oh, no, no,” she said. “I’ve been working in Europe for so many years, and there, it’s like one day of rehearsals in the room, and then you go on the stage. No, it’s not hard. And, also, it’s ‘La boheme,’ which I know perfectly. And I actually did this exact production in San Francisco as Musetta [the opera’s second female lead]. It’s not difficult.”

If all that wasn’t enough to make her comfortable, she and Calleja have appeared together elsewhere in the same roles.

“We know what we are doing,” she said. “Of course, we can create little changes here and there. It’s all very welcome. But basically, it’s all the same, because you can’t go much outside the character.”

Inedeed, Netrebko, who is highly regarded for both her virtuosic singing and her passionate portrayals, has performed Mimi often enough that she has a strong, consistent idea of who the young Parisian seamstress is.

“Simplicity, that is what is important about this character,” she said. “I never play her coquettish. I never play her too naive or smiley. No, she knows perfectly [well] where she is and what she is doing. She is very wise. That’s the most amazing thing about her.”

So curious will some Lyric Opera fans be to experience Netrebko’s take on the role and eager to hear her for the first time on the Civic Opera House stage that Freud expects at least a few who already attended “La boheme” with the first cast to return.

“Several people have actually told me that they have already planned to come back a second time, because both casts are very popular,” Freud said. “Opera lovers tend to be very hooked on opera, and an opportunity to see two such outstanding casts in close proximity will be incredibly appealing.”

Kyle MacMillan is a locally based free-lance writer.

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