BRIAN KELLOW salutes the distinguished achievement of the OPERA NEWS Awards winner.
Photographed in Hamburg by Andrea Kueppers
Makeup and hair by Astrid Michel
© Andrea Kueppers 2012
There are performers you admire for their pretty singing. Then there are those you admire because they so fully inhabit their roles that it is difficult to pinpoint where the great singing ends and the great acting begins. Their performances make that rarest of transactions with the audience: they have fully captured your heart and mind and enlarged your experience of what is possible on the opera stage. For me, Anja Silja will always be one such artist.
Silja has from the start been impossible to predict or categorize, and for that reason, she was destined not to be a regular visitor to the well-oiled machine that is the Met. New York audiences were lucky to get to hear her there as Salome, Marie in Wozzeck, the Kostelnička in Jenůfa, a few others. As the Kostelnička, opposite Karita Mattila's Jenůfa in 2007, Silja created a quietly horrifying portrait of a woman held prisoner by her own ideas. It was a portrayal of both subtlety and power; there was no question here that the Kostelnička was the real author of the opera's tragedy.
But the most staggering performance I ever heard her give, and one of the genuine triumphs of her career, took place at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2001, in Nikolaus Lehnhoff's searching and incisive production of Janáček's Makropulos Case. The 337-year-old Emilia Marty, desperate to find the secret formula that will renew her life, but also facing the spiritual erosion that long life has cost her, was an ideal role for Silja. Although she had played it elsewhere, it was in Lehnhoff's production, which bowed at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1995, that she put her indelible stamp on it. At fifty-five, she had the gravitas demanded by the role. It was impossible to detect any mechanics at work in her performance; she seemed to be making it all up as she went along, with the visceral spontaneity that we so often long for in opera and so seldom get.
In Makropulos, Silja showed herself to be mistress of the beautiful and commanding gesture onstage. In Act II, when Emilia has finished with a stage performance, she removed her silver headdress to reveal her bejeweled skullcap. The way Silja tossed the headdress aside told us all we needed to know about her rejection of the earthly trappings of a life that has by now exhausted her. Silja captured not only Emilia's pathos but her cruelty: told of Janek's suicide, she says, "Lots of people kill themselves"; here, Silja swatted his letter with her comb — a moment that brilliantly telescoped the character's chilling self-absorption. At the end, as the formula went up in flames, Silja's Marty actually seemed to age before our eyes.
Silja's life — superficially, at least — looks like the kind of diva story that used to be concocted by popular novelists and Hollywood screenwriters. Early successes included the Queen of the Night at the Vienna State Opera in 1959; she did not give the role the murderous accuracy that we often hear today, but she was a compelling Queen, singing in a voice of ice and steel. In 1960, she bowed at the Bayreuth Festival, as Senta — performances that marked the beginning of a long relationship, personal and professional, with stage director Wieland Wagner. It was her work with Wieland in this rarefied atmosphere of theatrical exploration and innovation that established the footprint of her career. She was not interested in the routine; she wanted to dig deep, and accordingly, she was drawn to some of the great musical and theatrical talents of her time. After Wieland died in 1966, she began a relationship with conductor André Cluytens. Eventually she married another maestro, Christoph von Dohnányi, a union that lasted until the 1990s.
In 2001, Silja explained to The New York Times that she had long ago tired of the role of Turandot "because it's all singing and then what else do you do?… Singing is not only singing. Singing is my profession, but acting is my passion." Some complained that she put unreasonable pressure on a voice that was naturally built for the lyric repertoire, but the lyric repertoire would have bored her, and she wouldn't have suited it; hers was never a voice meant for easy listening. For decade after decade, only the most vocally and emotionally taxing roles have been complex and demanding enough for her — Salome, Leonore, Brünnhilde, Ariadne, Lady Macbeth, Jocasta, Klytämnestra, both Mother Marie and Madame de Croissy in Les Dialogues des Carmélites. She rose to meet those challenges while maintaining a reputation as someone with charming offstage style. I recall seeing her in January 2006, when she performed Erwartung with James Levine and the Met Orchestra, on an unseasonably muggy day. A few minutes before the performance was to begin, Silja breezed in the stage door, waving to those of us who were standing nearby. "This weather!" she laughed. "I don't know how well I'll be able to sing — ah well! We'll soon find out, won't we?"
The great Irish author Elizabeth Bowen once observed that she much preferred geniuses to mere "interesting people." Perhaps that helps to explain the spell Silja has continued to cast, year after year. Those of us who have been lucky enough to experience her in the theater know instinctively that this is no "mere" singer but a bona fide genius — a woman who works miracles onstage.