In the autumn of 2021, neatly coinciding with the release of her latest album “Amata dalle Tenebre,” Russian soprano Anna Netrebko published her first (cook)book, the German-language Der Geschmack meines Lebens (“The Taste of My Life”). Upon discovering this a few weeks ago, our only course of action was to throw multiple-course Anna Netrebko-themed dinner parties.
Kevin Ng (KN): Let’s start with the title. “Der Geschmack meines Lebens” sounds like the Live Laugh Love sequel to Léhar’s “Schön ist die Welt.” Or perhaps the long-awaited sequel to Paul Abraham’s soccer operetta, “Roxy und ihr Wunderteam,” when Roxy and company go for a post-match dinner of blini, caviar, and vodka.
Aksel Tollåli (AT): Few things would delight me more than seeing Anna Netrebko as the mascot of the Hungarian national football team.
KN: The whole thing has the feel of a wannabe Taschen coffee table book, complete with glossy full-page spreads of the diva dripping in gold. I don’t speak German, so I don’t actually know what any of the text says. The titular “taste,” though, is certainly in question.
AT: It’s more an autobiographical fluff piece than an actual cookbook. Each chapter is devoted to a city she has performed extensively in, with a short introductory essay and a production photo, accompanied by never-less-than-glowing critiques. The book is low on recipes–29 in total, spread out over 159 pages–but high on self-praise. The Salzburg chapter is titled “Primadonna assoluta.”
KN: No Ethiopian recipes, notably.
AT: No, but more on that particular episode later. The recipe selection is, if nothing else, eclectic. It has everything from porridge (St. Petersburg) to a banana and egg smoothie with walnuts (San Francisco) to a blini torte with salmon and trout roe (Netrebko’s native Krasnodar). There’s also the terrifyingly-named Party Pork (New York).
KN: “Anna’s Fleischbällchen” (Anna’s Meatballs) is my new drag name. Remember her 2008 album, “Souvenirs”? It’s the same aesthetic, which the marketing copy described then as “a beautiful booklet, three postcards and one poster of Netrebko.” And a pink ostrich feather, because what is luxury if not eating meatballs, reclining on a divan, and fanning oneself while listening to Netrebko sing “Depuis le jour” in unintelligible French?
AT: They missed a trick not including the picture of her smooching a forkful of spaghetti and mussels as a postcard.
But let’s get back to the cover. As much as I do love a bold floral pattern—preferably several at once—there’s something just a little bit culty about the front cover. Not least the bowl of strawberries that just vanishes into the dress. A fruity Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.
KN: A missed opportunity for a lovely mushroom recipe.
AT: A solid portion of the recipes feature chanterelles, so if anything, the opportunity was missed by us.
We each picked four recipes from the cookbook for our Anna Netrebko-themed dinner parties. Certain recipes were impossible to ignore.
KN: A caviar blini torte: How could I not?
AT: There is something both horrifying and enticing about the name “Party Pork,” so of course that has to go on there.
KN: I’m also intrigued by the endives with gorgonzola and raspberry. It could either be glorious or horrific, we’ll see. My favorite thing is the imperious command to “serve with caviar and vodka.”
AT: The foundation of any balanced diet.
Having picked Anna’s most complicated recipes, it was a full day of preparation.
KN: Not speaking German was a bonus challenge.
AT: I did technically study German for a year at university, so I mostly managed to get through the recipes. My biggest challenge was the errors in some of them. The Party Pork is supposed to be cooked for five hours at 180 ℃ [350 F°], by which time I guess it will have evaporated in the oven?
KN: Assorted initial thoughts: Mascarpone with mint? How much sour cream?
AT: So. Much. Potato.
KN: I got extremely confused by the fact that the cake has no butter. I suppose it makes up for the blini torte, which starts off with about a cup each of butter, sour cream, and mascarpone.
AT: A completely reasonable amount, if you ask me. And the bread pudding also makes up for the cake. A casual 16 ounces of cream and a not inconsiderable amount of butter for a couple slices of brioche. It’s a lot.
KN: Glorious, indulgent excess. Much like Anna herself.
We reconvened the day after to discuss our respective dinner parties.
KN: Look, I came into this expecting the food to be outrageous, and she certainly delivered. I wasn’t necessarily expecting it to taste good, but I was very pleasantly surprised.
AT: It was all surprisingly good? Even the Party Pork, which has you marinate a piece of pork neck in vermouth and steak seasoning. It shouldn’t work, and yet it did.
KN: I would happily eat the blini torte again. I was terrified by the amount of sour cream and mascarpone, layered—of course—between stacks of carbs, but the combination of mint and spring onion added a lovely freshness.
AT: Nothing like a mountain of soured dairy to get an evening off to a good start. The biggest surprise for me was the salad from the Vienna chapter. Who knew dill and sesame oil would go so well together.
KN: Not a massive fan of the Scharlotka, which was a bit dry. I hadn’t heard of this cake before, and when I looked it up I learned that it was a classic Soviet recipe, which I suppose explains the lack of butter. Apparently Madagascar vanilla was fine, though.
KN: Were your guests aware of the concept behind the dinner party?
AT: They were aware of the concept, yes; but they didn’t really know who Netrebko was, or they just had a passing familiarity with her. My more operatically-inclined guests had to cancel, sadly.
KN: Mine had heard of her, but I think it’s difficult to articulate Netrebko’s status within the gay opera world. From her polarizing repertoire choices to her outrageous social media presence to her irredeemable defense of blackface, “problematic fave” doesn’t even begin to cover it.
AT: She was definitely easier to like before she went on her now-infamous tirade about “Black Face and Black Body for Ethiopien [sic] princess, for Verdi[‘s] greatest opera! YES!” But she wasn’t exactly unproblematic before that, either. She’s been cozying up to Russian oligarchs and Vladimir Putin for ages, and has—alongside such figures as Valery Gergiev—been outspoken in her support of Putin’s annexation of Crimea.
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KN: So why does she continue to attract such a cult following, especially among those who really should know better?
AT: It’s got to be the camp factor. She’s one of those singers who manage to seem unbothered by absolutely everything (although her comments on her Instagram show otherwise), swanning about in increasingly bizarre outfits.
KN: I suppose that’s it. It’s the sense of her utterly not giving a fuck that makes her so fascinating, even if that fascination is sometimes a bit of a flaming car crash. I mean, what other opera singer today would come out with a 150-page cookbook? ¶
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