Anna Netrebko, Warwick and the globalism of the early 2000s 

One of my favourite stories about my grandad was that he was a big fan of “La Traviata.”

A son of a relatively successful merchant in Nikšić, at some point between the two world wars, he accompanied his mother to Karlovy Vary spa, where he met a Czech girl and fell in love. Unfortunately, his paramour contracted tuberculosis and passed away, which set him off on a rakish path similar to that of Alfredo Germont, whose travails he must have at least partially identified.

As he passed away two decades before I was born and when my dad was only a pre-teen, few things gave me an idea of what sort of a guy he was beyond the list of his accomplishments and random stories about his character. In my teenage wish to ape my grand and absent ancestor, I had the choice between becoming an adventurous rake and becoming an opera enthusiast. I chose the latter, which led to my (then) obsession with all things “cultured” (meaning: pre-WWII European).

When I finally ventured to the UK in 2007 to become a student – something I very much looked forward to and thought would be the pinnacle of my life – my expectations of how that would look like were based equally on 19th and 20th century novels and films like the American pie and Rules of Attraction. Weirdly enough, my alma mater, the University of Warwick, based as it is in the most unglamorous part of the UK and in brutalist mid-century buildings – more than delivered.

 My fellow Warwickers was an ambitious, fun, and cool crowd from all around the world. This mix would not be out of place in books like “The Magic Mountain” or “The World of Yesteryear,” especially as we had the backdrop of the decaying Royal Leamington Spa for many of our social events. The provincial and often dreary backdrop probably even helped us to bring our home cultures to Warwick, which culminated in the yearly organisation of One World Week, “World’s Largest Student-run International Event.” Besides allowing us to boost our CVs and organise even more piss-ups, OWW encapsulated the heady spirit of 2000s globalism, which very much rhymed with that of the time when my grandad was going to Karlovy Vary to hang out with his ill-fated girlfriend.

Having grown up in Serbia while it was under sanctions and attacked by NATO, it was all very overwhelming.

During OWW, throughout the day, international students from all around the world were chaperoning global bureaucrats and major academics they invited to debate global issues in bare West Midlands lecture halls. Then, at night, they were hooking up with each other on the sticky dance floors smelling of blueberry syrup and cheap lager to “African music concerts.” After OWW, we planned summer backpacking trips in Mongolia to save local ponies or host debates between Palestinians and Israelis in the hope of resolving that tiny conflict.

Although our IR and Politics lectures were full of warnings about globalisation waxing and waning, and the global financial crisis made us all aware that comfortable lives and big banking and consulting careers are not a given, we were so immersed in the idea that the world was indeed unified and for us to take. Why not accept the first job in Moscow and use it as a springboard to move to New York HQ? Why not travel to Syria and Libya over the spring break, as the FT and Monocle mags were so full of great travel advice on where to get stylish, sustainable local leather goods? Why not have your two close friends, a Finn and a Russian, debate what went on in Karelia over drinks?

This care-free, cosmopolitan spirit seeped into my musical tastes, so the two performers I listened to the most during my Warwick days were Pink Martini, who covered popular music from Egypt to Japan, and Anna Netrebko, the operatic diva on the rise.

A Krasnodar native with a Cinderella-esque story, Netrebko caught my eye and ear with her performance as Violetta in the 2005 Salzburg production of La Traviata. I was immediately smitten as she looked a lot like a girl I fancied, and I listened to her constantly as I was going between parties in Leamington. Her magical voice and presence expanded my operatic tastes, so I also began drowning in her performance of Les Contes d’Hoffmann (incidentally a story of a guy with many failed affairs), listening to her “La Barcarolle” on repeat. Although the student-era miserliness barred me from often going to classical music concerts in London and especially going to the Royal Opera House, I envisioned a future in which I would travel between opera festivals with my cosmopolitan friends, discussing politics in a high-minded way I got used to at Warwick.

Things really did not turn out that way.

As I was finishing Warwick, traveling to Syria was no longer an option. Since 2014 having a job in Moscow did not make it easy to move to New York. The last One World Week seems to have been held in 2016, just before the Brexit referendum. The debates around “cultural appropriation” and various identity-related sensitivities would have probably made a lot of OWW events, like the fashion show, “problematic.” Then, the pandemic removed the certainty that my Warwick friends and I could meet whenever we wanted. In 2022,  Anna Netrebko was kicked out from the Met for alleged ties to Putin due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Much like my grandad and my literary heroes, we had the strange privilege of seeing the world change in front of our eyes: from what we thought was unlimited potential and connection to something much more complicated but probably more real. Thankfully, we will always have the music to remind us of the good times, no matter how tragically they ended. As catastrophic as it is for many, this turn of events eventually led to Anna Netrebko performing in Belgrade and me seeing her, so at least there is that. Maybe someone will be able to write a nice novel about how things unravelled.

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