Tenor moves out of Anna Netrebko's shadow

This Nov. 25, 2019 photo released by the Metropolitan Opera, tenor Yusif Eyvazov, right, appears with soprano Lise Davidsen in a scene from Tchaikovsky's "The Queen of Spades" at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (Ken HowardMetropolitan Opera via AP) (Ken Howard)

NEW YORK, NY – Married to a world-famous opera star, Yusif Eyvazov found in building his own career that “the most difficult thing was to prove” he was more than just Mr. Anna Netrebko.

The 42-year-old tenor from Azerbaijan had been singing professionally for less than five years when he and Netrebko co-starred in a production of Puccini's “Manon Lescaut” under conductor Riccardo Muti in Rome in 2014. They married the following year.

“It came up very often in the beginning of our relationship,” Eyvazov said in an interview backstage at the Metropolitan Opera, where he is singing the lead role in Tchaikovsky's “The Queen of Spades." “When I would perform, people would listen and say, 'OK, let's see, is he really good or does he have the job because he's the husband of Anna Netrebko.' I had to fight that."

“But I think I've gotten over that,” he added. “Today the critics say: 'Leave him alone. He's singing because he's himself.'”

The critics said more than that of his performance as Hermann, the young officer whose obsessions drive him to madness and death. Although much of their attention focused on the sensational debut of Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen, reviewers had plenty of praise for Eyvazov. Writing on the Observer website, James Jorden called him “impressive” and said “he demonstrated absolute security in the part’s heavy declamation and a smooth legato in the character’s love scenes.”

Eyvazov's career at the Met until now has consisted almost entirely of jumping in on short notice when other tenors canceled. For “The Queen of Spades” he was hired only in late summer to sing three performances — then given three more just a week before opening when Aleksandr Antonenko pulled out of the production, citing illness.

Hermann is a role few tenors are willing to take on. He is onstage almost throughout the entire opera, singing a melodic line that is centered in the middle and lower register of the voice but jumps repeatedly to full-throttle high notes. Beyond the singing challenges, the performer has to convey the character's psychological disintegration.

“It's a very huge role, it's endless work,” said Eyvazov, who had sung the part once before at Moscow's Bolshoi Opera. “I think today I've arrived at 25 to 30 percent of what I can do with it. I need maybe five or six more productions to learn everything.”

With characteristic modesty, Eyvazov acknowledges that his voice was uneven when he started his career, with a jarring disparity between his powerful high notes and a rough and unsteady middle and lower register.

“My voice is very complicated and I'm not really finished working on it,” he said. “But I think now the registers are very similar. You have to be careful. You can't do endless experimenting with your voice or you can destroy it.”

Count Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager, among those impressed with how far Eyvazov has come.

“When I first heard him he was like a diamond in the rough,” Gelb said in a telephone interview. “In the last year or so he's made great strides forward. ... His voice has become more refined. If he continues on this path he's going to be one of the major tenor voices.”

Eyvazov's goals for his future include more heroic tenor parts in the Italian repertoire but also his first Rodolfo in Puccini's “La Boheme,” a more lyrical role he hopes to sing at the Met.

And then there's Wagner. In particular, Tristan in “Tristan und Isolde” — considered one of the most difficult of all tenor roles.

“It's not a joke,” he said. “I think it will be great for me, because my voice is strong and you have to sing it for five hours. It won't be tomorrow. I need some years to prepare.”

Before he would undertake a complete performance, he said he would sing the second act by itself. Since he frequently performs in concert with Netrebko, might she partner him as Isolde? “Maybe, why not?” he said. “I think it's possible. We will see.”

If there's been one disappointment surrounding his success in “The Queen of Spades,” it's that his wife isn't here to witness it. The Russian diva is in Milan, Italy, where she opened La Scala's season in Puccini's “Tosca,” and their assignments both end just a few days before Christmas.

“Of course, I talk to her every day,” he said. “I mean, it's fine. You know, actually we have never been separated so long from each other.”

But they'll be reunited soon: They're singing together in a New Year's Eve gala at the Met that features three fully staged acts from different Puccini operas.