Opera's 'New Callas' charts her life on Instagram

Vienna (AFP) - She is the most famous soprano in the world -- the "New Callas" who has spellbound audiences from the New York Met to Saint Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre, where she began her career mopping the stage.

But there is little of the distant, aloof diva about the Russian singer Anna Netrebko, who regularly shares pictures of herself and her family with her near half million Instagram followers.

Having had to pull out of her Bayreuth debut in Wagner's "Lohengrin" -- which opened Wednesday -- because of exhaustion a month after cancelling a performance in Salzburg, Netrebko posted pictures of herself on holiday in Azerbaijan, herding sheep and hugging village women.

Netrebko's 10-year-old son Tiago also regularly stars in her feed, mugging to the camera in a Steppe warrior's helmet or helping make pizzas in a restaurant.

The star is equally frank about Tiago's autism and her pride at his progress.

Nor is her husband, Azerbaijani tenor Yusif Eyvazov -- with whom she is due to return to the stage at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin at the end of August -- ever far as the soprano shows off her impressive wardrobe of dresses and hats.

- 'I post without any thoughts' -

There are sneak peeks too behind the scenes at rehearsals and she also shares her passion for food, with recipes for pork and black beans, radish risotto and her new favourite, Piti -- Azerbaijani slowed-cooked lamb with yellow plums.

"I post what I see without any thoughts, any opinions," Netrebko told AFP in Vienna, where she has based herself for years.

"It is my life, it is what I am seeing around (me) and my life is wonderful," said the singer, who was discovered by the conductor Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky, where Netrebko worked as a janitor to make ends meet while she was a student at the conservatory.

She insisted that her feed was "like a documentary for me, not for anyone else. I am not showing what I am thinking, my troubles, my dramas.

"I never show my actual life, what you see on Instagram is just photos," she added.

The woman who is now regarded as arguably the best lyric soprano on the planet, a master of both the Russian and bel canto styles as well as big dramatic roles like Puccini's Tosca, was born into a modest Cossack family in the North Caucasus city of Krasnodar.

- 'Strong old-school singing' -

"I always knew that I was going to be a performer no matter what -- the voice appeared later," she told AFP.

Conductor Gergiev, whose roots are also in the Caucasus region of southern Russia, quickly spotted her talent and became her mentor after taking over the Mariinsky, which was known as the Kirov during the Soviet era.

Although Netrebko's acting was rather limited to begin with, it has deepened over time. What was never in doubt was her stellar voice, which has got even richer and more powerful over the years.

That power is a rare commodity in opera that is getting even rarer now, she insisted.

"Now it's more 'easy breezy', it is a bit about pleasing the public, showing off," the 47-year-old said.

"Television microphones do not show the size of your voice. Not all of the young and beautiful singers can sing in big theatres."

Opera may now be "everywhere thanks to streaming", Netrebko told AFP, "and you can do lots of interesting productions, but I think it's missing a little bit the old-school strong singing.

"Very few remain," she said.

"It is a hard job, not everybody can do it... You have to have talent and lots of brains and lots of strength."

And the punishing schedule imposed on the top stars is infernal, Netrebko admitted just before she was forced to take a break herself.

- 'I will work until I can't' -

"I will work until I can't (do it) anymore," she told AFP as she prepared for a gala performance with Eyvazov at the Orange Festival in France last month, which was also cancelled.

Like many Russian stars Netrebko has found herself in hot water politically as the chill between Moscow and the West has become frostier.

In 2014 she controversially gave a separatist leader in Ukraine's breakaway Donetsk region a cheque for a million rubles (then $18,700) to keep the city's opera going after Kiev withdrew funding.

And two years ago she was caught in a blackface row over agreeing to wear dark makeup for Verdi's "Aida" at the Salzburg Festival -- a practice that is being questioned more and more in opera.

"Even if I don't want to be political, they try to drag me into politics," Netrebko said.

Whatever the rights and wrongs, there is no doubting her genius, said the head of New York's Metropolitan Opera, Peter Gelb.

"If she were living in the 1960s, she would be as big as Maria Callas, she is that kind of singer. She is a miracle of an artist," he told AFP.