Netrebko was born in a family of Ukrainian and Kuban Cossack background. While a student at the Saint Petersburg conservatoire, Netrebko worked as a janitor at Saint Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre. Later, she auditioned for the Mariinsky Theatre, where conductor Valery Gergiev recognized her from her prior work in the theater. He subsequently became her vocal mentor.
Under Gergiev's guidance, Netrebko made her operatic stage debut at the Mariinsky at age 22, as Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro. She went on to sing many prominent roles with the Kirov Opera, including Amina in La sonnambula, Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, and Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor.
In 1994, she sang the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte with the Riga Independent Opera Avangarda Akadēmija under conductor David Milnes.
In March 2006, Netrebko applied to become an Austrian citizen, receiving her citizenship in late July. She has said she will live in Vienna and Salzburg. This has led to some backlash in Russia. Netrebko cites the process of obtaining visas for her many performances abroad as the main reason for obtaining Austrian citizenship.
In March 2007, Netrebko announced that she would be an ambassador for SOS Children's Village in Austria, and be a sponsor for the Tomilino village in Russia.
In 1995, at the age of 24, Netrebko made her American debut as Lyudmila in Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila at the San Francisco Opera. Following this successful performance, she became a frequent guest singer in San Francisco.
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-----She is an acclaimed interpreter of other Russian operatic roles, such as Natasha in Prokofiev's War and Peace, Louisa in Betrothal in a Monastery and Marfa in The Tsar's Bride. Netrebko has also made successful forays into bel canto and romantic roles such as Gilda in Rigoletto, Mimi in La bohème, Giulietta in Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi, and Elvira in I puritani.
In 2002, Netrebko made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera as Natasha in the Met premiere of War and Peace. In the same year, she sang her first Donna Anna at the Salzburg Festival's production of Don Giovanni, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. She also performed at the Russian Children's Welfare Society's major fund raiser, the "Petroushka Ball." She returned to the Ball in 2003 and 2006 and is an honorary director of the charity.
In 2003, Netrebko performed as Violetta in Verdi's La traviata in Munich, the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor at the Los Angeles Opera, and Donna Anna at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Her second album, Sempre Libera, was released the following year.
She later appeared as Violetta Valéry in La traviata at the Salzburg Festival, conducted by Carlo Rizzi, and in 2008 she performed the same role at Covent Garden opposite Jonas Kaufmann and Dmitri Hvorostovsky in performances conducted by Maurizio Benini. However, she cancelled three subsequent performances due to a bronchial condition. This was the second time she had cancelled her performances at the Royal Opera House, having withdrawn from some performances of Don Giovanni the previous summer due to illness.
In May 2007, Netrebko made her Carnegie Hall debut with Dmitri Hvorostovsky and the Orchestra of St. Luke's. Originally scheduled for March 2, 2006, Netrebko postponed the recital because she did not feel artistically ready.
Netrebko appeared at the Last Night of the Proms on September 8, 2007 where she performed "Ah! Se una volta ... Ah! Non credea mirarti ... Ah! Non giunge" from La sonnambula, "Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß" (Giuditta) and the song "Morgen!" by Richard Strauss (with violinist Joshua Bell).
In the fall of 2007 she reprised her role as Juliette in Roméo et Juliette at the Metropolitan Opera. In December 2007, Netrebko performed for Martin Scorsese, a 2007 Honoree, at the Kennedy Center Honors, and in May 2008 she made her debut at the Paris Opera in I Capuleti e i Montecchi, with Joyce DiDonato as her Romeo.
Netrebko was scheduled to sing Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor in October 2008 at the Metropolitan Opera, but due to her pregnancy she declined the role.
In her first performance after her maternity leave, Netrebko sang Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor when it opened at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg on January 14, 2009, in a production from the Scottish Opera led by John Doyle.
She then sang the same role in January and February 2009 at the Metropolitan Opera. Netrebko appeared as Giulietta in I Capuleti e i Montecchi at the Royal Opera House in Spring 2009, and as Violetta in La traviata in June 2009 at the San Francisco Opera.
On November 13, 2010 in a matinee performance broadcast nationally by PBS, she sang the role of Norina in Don Pasquale at New York's Metropolitan Opera House under conductor James Levine. On April 2, 2011, she sang the title role of Gaetano Donizetti's Anna Bolena at the Vienna State Opera for a sold-out premiere there, and the repeat performance on April 5, 2011 was broadcast live to cinemas around the world.
In June 2011, a panel of experts at Limelight magazine named Netrebko as one of "Today's 12 Greatest Opera Singers." Her nickname is "La Bellissima."