Soprano / Mezzo-Soprano  Anja  Silja
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


When preparing this interview for presentation on this website, I looked up many reviews and biographies of Anja Silja, and one name that was often used in comparison was Maria Callas.  Each possessed not just a unique voice, but an expressive sense that was used with intelligence and dramatic flair.  Silja herself brought up Callas
name when speaking about the essence of singing.

Silja has come to The Windy City several times and appeared with both Lyric Opera and the Chicago Symphony.  First, in 1969 she gave Lyric her Senta in The Flying Dutchman directed by Wolf Siegfried Wagner, and then in 1971 her Salome, both conducted by Dohnányi.  In between she was Fidelio with the Chicago Symphony conducted by Solti, and then in 1972 back at Lyric as Marie in Wozzeck.  Then we had to wait until 1996 for her return
which is when this interview was recorded — as Herodias at Lyric in the Luc Bondy production conducted by Antonio Pappano, and then another ten years later for Kostelnička in Act II of Jenůfa at the Symphony conducted by Daniel Harding. 

We met at her apartment between performances, and she was very willing to speak directly about all aspects of her life and career.  She was honest in her opinions and genuine in her thoughts.  Her English was very good, though I have corrected a few verb tenses and re-aligned a few thoughts which she had rendered in the German format. 

Here is what was discussed that afternoon . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    In your career, you have sung a huge variety of old roles and new roles.  How did you decide which ones you would accept and which ones you would turn down?

Anja Silja:    When I started I was six years old.  I always wanted to become a Wagnerian singer, which I finally became, and as long as Wieland was around I only wanted to sing that repertoire, and everything he wanted to do with me I did.  When he died I gave up Wagner totally, and I’ve never sung Wagner until five years ago.  I did Ortrud for Robert Wilson, which I have never done with Wieland.  But I changed after Wieland’s death.  My repertoire drastically turned more into the Russian/Czech repertoire, which I really adore to sing

siljaBD:    And the Strauss?

AS:    And Strauss.  Of course I sang Elektra and Salome with Wieland already, so I didn’t do those again.

    [Photo at right - Silja with Wieland Wagner]

BD:    Was this change out of respect for him, or out of respect for your voice?

AS:    No, for sentimental reasons.  I just couldn’t do anything which I have done with Wieland with somebody else.  I just couldn’t.  So I had to change that, but now I’m not going for the repertoire, I’m going for the stage directors.  If I find some interesting stage director, I always try to create new roles.  I think that is fun.  This is the major interest of mine, to do something with interesting stage director.

BD:    When you actually get the performance all put together, is the drama first over the music?

AS:    Always.  It always was.  Singing is Selbstverständlich, it is natural.  It is taken for granted.  This is what I learned, but I think the drama is the major thing in opera.  Otherwise it is very boring if you cannot portray the story and the drama about what’s going on in that opera.  Just simply singing, you can listen to a recording, and this is maybe even better than.  But if you are on stage, you should really portray what you have to portray.

BD:    You’ve done some concerts where there is no visual or very little visual.

AS:    But even then if you watch some interesting singers like Callas only singing an aria, there was always drama with it.  I think this is absolutely essential.  You cannot just sing an aria; it is really boring.

BD:    It becomes boring for you, so then it becomes boring for the audience?

AS:    I think so.  I don’t like the audience who is only going there for the bel canto reason and just for the beauty and the sound.  This is not my audience.  I’m always interested to make the people curious about the story, and really interested in the story and understanding the story.

BD:    Then how do you justify orchestral concerts with no soloists, just purely orchestral sound?

AS:    That’s something else.  It is composed for that reason.  This is what it is, and so a concert is left to your imagination.  But opera is meant to be acted, also.  Granted, you have to have a good voice, otherwise you cannot be a singer, but this is what it is.  You cannot be Salome without acting Salome.

siljaBD:    But Strauss wanted the voice of an Isolde in that role!

AS:    Absolutely, but he wanted a sixteen year-old child, and that is, of course, ridiculous.  There is no sixteen year-old mature singer in the world.  I was the youngest.  I was already twenty then, which was still very, very young when I sang Salome, [photo at left] but this is, I think, the most you can get.

BD:    If you were singing Salome today, would your direction be a little bit different than it was twenty or thirty years ago?

AS:    It depends.  Of course Salome hasn’t changed.  Salome can only be portrayed in one way for a person.  Each person has a different approach to it, but I couldn’t change it now in a different way.  This is the way I found when I did it.  But I did Emilia Marty when I was twenty-five and I did it now five years ago, and I’m still doing it.  This is a totally different view, and I think now it is so much better.  [Laughs]

BD:    You have more sympathy for the older part of the character.

AS:    Yes, absolutely.  One can only later understand her struggle with life.  You cannot understand that at the age of twenty-five when there is no struggle with life.  You come to fifty and so you know that there is only a limited time, and you can still sympathize with the person who feels that there is not so much left, and if you’re wanted or not wanted and so on.

BD:    Is the life of a singer a struggle?

AS:    Normally it is, yes.  Actually, it should be because you cannot relax.  You really have to watch your voice, you have to watch your physical strength, and you have to do a lot to keep in shape.  You have to stay mainly in the hotel rooms, do your rehearsals and go to the performance.  Now I have a repertoire where I can finally kind of enjoy my life, which is nice.  This part is a very important one, but not so demanding, so I really can enjoy what I’m doing.

BD:    Is this the only opera where you’ve sung a second part in the same opera?

AS:    I think so, but I have to think about it.

BD:    Maybe Ortrud and Elsa?

AS:    Exactly, that’s true.  I just thought about Frau ohne Schatten but I always only sang the nurse.

BD:    That’s the more interesting part.

AS:    Yes, absolutely.  [Laughs]  This is the interesting part, yes.

BD:    Here you are singing Herodias.  Do you have more sympathy for Salome, or more understanding for Herodias having done the other part?

AS:    No, on the contrary.  I think one can understand Salome better if one sees Herodias in the way Luc Bondy portrayed her.  That understanding of Salome’s behavior is then so much easier.  Salome behaves childishly and is rather spoiled, but nothing else.  She is not an evil person, for sure.  But Herodias goes only for power and she doesn’t care for anybody else, not even for her daughter.  She’s really only interested in power, and shows that Salome had no chance to develop differently.  I never thought about Herodias’ character before.  I always thought, ‘Okay this is interesting, but not really.’  There is no development in her character in that opera.  It is short and it doesn’t show anything of her back story.

siljaBD:    So, you have to come out and be the character instantly?

AS:    Instantly, and that is the problem.  This is what makes it so hard to portray a special character.  This is really hard.

BD:    When you’re on stage, are you becoming the character or do you portray the character?

AS:    I never become the character.  I never do.  That is not what we are supposed to do.  There are famous stories about actors who cry in front of the public but with their back to the public.  They pretend to cry and instead they are laughing.  You have the feeling and you give the impression and the whole public is crying, and he’s laughing, making fun of somebody or himself.  This is not what we are supposed to do.  We just have to make the people believe in what we believe we are doing.

BD:    But you have to believe it in your heart, even you’re not actually caught up in it?

AS:    Yes, but you can only believe it if you are outside of yourself.  Otherwise you cannot control yourself.  You really have to control yourself, and that is only possible if you’re controlling yourself.

BD:    Is it good now that all the operas are done in the original language, with the text above so the people can follow exactly?

AS:    No.  [Laughs]

BD:    [Genuinely surprised]  No???

AS:    No.  I don’t like it.  It’s important for so many opera-goers who never saw that opera, but I believe that they should come prepared, which is obviously not possible.  They should come prepared, and if not, they should just have first the feeling and the idea about what’s going on.  Then later on they can learn and go again, which is also a problem.  I know that, but looking up all the time takes so much of their attention.  Also for us, especially for me.  I’m very far-sighted, and if the lights are not directly in my face then I see very far, and I see the public looking up, and that distracts me terribly.  So it also takes my concentration a little bit away because I always think they are not interested.  But of course they are.  They’re just looking and reading.

BD:    You don’t feel that they are closer and more interested because they are getting the text as you sing?

AS:    Yes, but they will always lose something that’s going on on stage then, and I don’t like that very much.  Of course there are some complicated operas like The Makropoulos Case which you really have to understand.  If not, then you lose interest in the story.  But Trovatore or even Salome, I think, don’t need the sur-titles.  It is so obvious what’s going on.

BD:    It seems like you’re putting more burden on yourself as a singing actress to make sure that everything projects to the audience.

AS:    Exactly, but that’s what we should do and that should be more developed.  Singing just in the front of the ramp and singing just nicely is not what opera is about.

BD:    Then let me ask the big question.  What is opera about?

AS:    Opera is drama, and opera is theater with music.

BD:    Theater first, with music?

AS:    No.  Maybe you can also do it the opposite way.  That doesn’t matter.  There is no difference, but it is theater.  Nowadays especially with movies and with that sound you can create in movie theaters and everywhere — even in shopping centers — everywhere you have this background music and so much is going on.  You really have to cope with that and do something special in opera.  Otherwise we will lose the audience very soon.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

AS:    [Sighs]  In Europe it’s a problem, especially in Germany since we have now the Eastern part also.  We have so many opera houses.  We have five or six of them within an area comparable to the suburbs and city of Chicago.  Within a half an hour away we have ten opera houses.  This is impossible.  Absolutely impossible!  And we play all year around.  It’s not that we only play only fifty performances a year or so.  We play all year around, and that cannot work on the long run.

BD:    Is there an answer?

AS:    Yes.  We have to close them!  [Both laugh]  And concentrate on the major cities and some small theaters with tradition.  But the best answer is to have really good opera, good theater, so that people are interested and they are coming.  If it’s sold out they can keep the house open, of course.

BD:    Have we thrown a joker into this whole thing by introducing opera on television?

AS:    No.  This is not a good media for it.

BD:    Not at all?

AS:    No, not at all.  All those open mouths!  Either it’s too far away, which is boring, or you see only open mouths and this is really ugly.

BD:    I wish they could concentrate on the medium shot rather than the long or close ones.

AS:    Yes.  But there are very few operas you can do that with.  Perhaps the operas which have only four or five people on stage, like Jenůfa or Salome could maybe work because you can concentrate on the story and can make the relationships much easier.  But Aïda, with the big chorus and so many people on stage, that cannot work.

BD:    Of course that’s one of the glories of the grand theater is the mass chorus and the spectacle.

AS:    Absolutely, absolutely.  It’s like putting Cecil de Mille in the theater.  That cannot work on television.  That’s the problem.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve sung old roles and new roles.  Is there a joy of creating a world premiere, something that no one has sung before?

AS:    That is a difficult question.  The composers nowadays are maybe interesting, but they are not really composing for voices.  You have to be kind of a multi-talent, or you can be ruthless to your voice by speaking high, speaking low, screaming or I don’t know what.  They ask for so many things, and the intervals are so big.  That is really not what most of us really enjoy doing.  Unfortunately there is very, very little you really can enjoy.  With the drama sometimes it’s interesting, but like the more interesting films nowadays they are based on a good book or on a good Shakespearean play.  Then I would rather see the play instead of a newly composed opera on the same theme.

BD:    Do you have any advice for composers who want to write operas these days?

siljaAS:    No, because we are going more into the musical world and into the film world, and this is our future.  Maybe we have to combine it a little bit more, and maybe ask better composers than Andrew Lloyd Weber.  [Note: She started to say Frank Lloyd Wright, but corrected it.  We both laughed and agreed it was because she was sitting in Chicago.]  It’s the same kind of rhythm in that name.  [Coming back to the subject]  Sunset Boulevard would have been a great subject for an opera, but this is obviously wasted, and that’s a pity.  That would have been a role I would really have wanted to do, but not with this kind of music.  It’s not possible.

BD:    So his dramatic ideas are right, but the musical ideas are not?

AS:    Yes!  This is just too little.  There is almost nothing in it.  Like in Cats you have that song at the end, the last five minutes.  I always waited when I went to Cats, and couldn’t believe it!  It took two and a half hours when we finally came to that song.  Everybody knows it, but the rest was a little bit of a silly story.

BD:    But in Salome, don’t some people come just for the dance in the final scene?

AS:    Yes, but how can you compare a genius with this kind of composing?  That would be really a little far-fetched.

BD:    Let me ask the balance question then.  In opera, where is the balance between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value, and does the balance change from opera to opera?

AS:    This is a little bit difficult for me in English.  Yes, it does change, certainly.  The earlier musicals by Gershwin and even by Bernstein had great values.  These are pieces which will stay there forever.  Cole Porter works are wonderful pieces.  We all enjoy always listening to it, and also some of the operettas we had in the teens, twenties, and the thirties.  They come back to life again, and they are really worth doing again.  Fledermaus is a masterpiece.  There are some operas which are not good, but still because there is so little we can find of interest, and we all want to do something new, so we just dig for something which actually is not worth being dug out!

BD:    There are no masterpieces lying around unperformed?

AS:    No, for sure not.  Maybe a couple of bars somewhere, but not a whole masterpiece, no.  There is not such a thing.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Maybe we should make a pastiche
the good bars from this piece, and the great number from that piece... call it The Master Pieces.  [Both laugh]

AS:    That would be great, yes.  That would be fun.

BD:    Is it right for the public to expect every opera they go attend to be a masterpiece?

AS:    No.  But again, if you really perform it well, it is always interesting.  You go to some mediocre or not-so-good movies and you still can enjoy it if the actors are very good.  We saw that very often especially in the older times of movies, but this is a question of performing and stage directors and conductors and also acting.  It’s not only the singing.  The singing is, as I say, taken for granted... or I think it should be.  Singing doesn’t mean it only has to sound beautiful.  Singing means also to portray what you are saying.  If you are talking about death and hate and revenge and love, the voice has to sound differently, and I think it doesn’t always.  You just create a beautiful sound because of the sake of the recording companies, and the people think this belongs, that it always has to sound beautiful.  But it doesn’t.  For instance, there is a word like
hate.  This is a very strong word.  You cannot pronounce it in a beautiful way.  It doesn’t make any sense.

BD:    It has to come out with venom?

AS:    Absolutely, and therefore you have to change your voice so it is a little bit more ugly than the word ‘love.’  That’s what instrumental musicians do nowadays.  They scratch their violins and it sounds sometimes awful.  But people get used to this sound and then it blooms again.  This is how it also should be with the voice.

BD:    But on a violin you can replace the string if necessary.  Is it right for the composer to ask the voice
which you cannot replaceto make it sound ugly on occasion?

AS:    It’s a matter of practice.  It’s like stretching your body.  If you stretch it the first time it will maybe crack a little bit, but if you do it more often it goes easily.  This is the same with a so-called
ugly sound.  I don’t mean that you have to sound like a bird, but it’s similar.  You can easily make a kind of strange sound with the voice if you practice.

BD:    Strange, but not painful for the performer?

AS:    No, no.  It shouldn’t be painful.  Nothing should be painful, either for the public or for us, but it should portray the word you are saying.  Therefore, in my opinion you don’t need sur-titles because you can really portray and put the sound and the variations of the sound in the pronunciation so everybody knows you are talking about something great, something funny, something sad.

BD:    Is this part of the genius of the composers to take the ideas that they wanted and really make the music enhance them?

AS:    Absolutely!  If you really listen to the music, it’s all there.  You just have to understand what he had in mind.  In concerts this is all in the music, so it is all there and they do it.  They play it like that.  The trumpet plays something, and the variety of the instruments are portraying a certain kind of character.  We can do that with the voice, too, but this is never asked nowadays.  They just sing, and that bothers me a lot, I must say.  I get so angry when people say, “But finally we understood the story, and it came out because of this and this.”  I say, “But this should always be like that.”  You have to cast the right people and then you will have it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve sung in big houses and small houses.  Do you change your technique at all when you’re in a very small house, such as Glyndebourne, or a very large house like here in Chicago?

AS:    No.  I think this is a matter of projecting of the voice, how well it projects.  My goodness!  No, I had never problems with big houses.  In small houses it could be a problem, but strangely enough I never had problems, so it goes maybe automatically.  I don’t know how that works.  That’s a good point, because it should be too much for a small house, but it never was.

BD:    I suppose it depends on the acoustics of the house.

siljaAS:    Yes.  Glyndebourne has fantastic acoustics.  It could really bring the house trouble, but it doesn’t.  You would think if a voice fills only Glyndebourne it will never fill Chicago whatsoever, but obviously it does.  I cannot explain that to you.

BD:    If you have a very limited number of people, do you change your acting style at all?  Can you be more subtle at Glyndebourne than here in Chicago, where we have 3600 seats?

AS:    No, I never did something different.  Maybe we can turn more with our backs to the audience and it still will fill the house, but nobody ever told me that.  I don’t know if this is really true or if you have to have a certain kind of set which bounces back in bigger houses, and more open space in smaller houses.  That could be.  I don’t know.  That changes a lot if you have an open space on stage.  Then the sound, of course, goes more in that direction.

BD:    If you have a big stage, do you try to stand in front of a solid piece of scenery?

AS:    Yes.  One usually tries that, and we have in Salome here also, this is surrounded by walls, which probably helps a little bit.

BD:    And focuses the sound?

AS:    It focuses the sound a little bit, yes. I think you have to do that, maybe, in bigger houses.

BD:    You have a great deal of experience at Bayreuth.  Is there something special about having the orchestra down under the stage and out of sight?

AS:    Certainly.  This is really the greatest acoustic, but it is also dangerous for singers who have a strong vibrato because that also comes out so much more clear than in other houses.  There are some very famous singers who are fantastic everywhere, and they had a problem in Bayreuth.  And there are others who have small voices who have no problems because it projects so well.  The orchestra’s always much softer than everywhere else, so this is a great help.

BD:    Thinking dramatically rather than just musically, would other operas work well either in that theater or in a duplicate of that theater?

AS:    For certain operas you need to see the orchestra, like in Mozart.  You really need to see that.  It wouldn’t work with this hidden orchestra.  One has to see it, even the conductor where you can still imagine with the long tails and wig.  This is kind of thing belongs there even if you have a modern interpretation of the opera.  It is a part of the world of Mozart and his time.

BD:    Should we get the orchestra to dress up in period costumes?

AS:    Yes.  Some did.  That has been done several times, but now that the productions are so modern it wouldn’t work.  But still, it is nice to see the orchestra.  I can only say where it disturbs to see the orchestra is in Vienna because it’s very high.  They sit very high and you have always the tops of the contrabasses as part of the set, which is awful.  Especially in Otello and the other Verdi operas it’s just really disturbing.  But you can’t convince them to lower the orchestra.  They just don’t do it.  It is really disturbing.  But the opposite way, not seeing the orchestra at all, I don’t know if it would suit another opera.  Maybe some big Strauss operas, but Strauss is always in a way related to Wagner and also Berlioz.  Those big operas would maybe be wonderful with a hidden orchestra.

BD:    Even something like Aïda with its procession?

AS:    Hmmmm.  Could be, yes, but it’s not necessary.  First of all, nobody performs Aïda anymore, strangely enough.  But nobody would put elephants on stage anymore, so there is no need to hide the orchestra.  If you don’t do the big bombast, it is not such a big opera.  It’s just those people on stage.

BD:    Except for the last scene, I can’t think of Aïda as chamber music, really.

AS:    No, it’s not chamber music, but it doesn’t need to have a hidden orchestra.  I mean, this is not necessary.  It’s a great opera, but it’s not... you know what I mean.

BD:    Oh yes.  Have you’ve done some producing of opera?

AS:    Only once.  I did Lohengrin in Brussels.

BD:    Did you also sing?

AS:    No, no.  I just staged it.  Actually, I was almost about to sing Ortrud myself, because the singer got ill, but then I thought I cannot do that. It would always look as if I have thrown her out or treated her badly.  So I didn’t do that.  Until then I had never sung Ortrud, so I didn’t want that.  So that was my only producing experience so far.  It was interesting, and very frustrating.

BD:    Was it positive enough that you will repeat the experience?

AS:    At the time it was more of a challenge first of all, and then I was very depressed
as all stage directors are after they finish.  I really fell into a deep, deep hole for a couple of months.  But I think this is common.  [Both laugh]  Then my singing career picked up again, so I have no time, actually.  You really need at least half a year to think about it, with the reading about the opera and the preparation with the setting designer and lighting designer and so on and so on.  It takes really a lot of time and a lot of thinking.

BD:    Having done this production, does that give you a little more respect for the producer?

AS:    I always respect them.  As I said in the beginning, this was always and is always my major interest
the stage, the stagingand therefore also the stage directors.  But I learned for the first time how much you depend on the good will of the singer and the talent of the singer, which is not always there.  If they joke on stage and are not paying the proper attention, then you get very angry.  You can get very angry and very annoyed by it.  You never know if they understood what you said, or if they will remember it or if they have forgotten it, so that makes you really nervous.

BD:    Should we perhaps require that any singer who becomes too temperamental be assigned to direct something so they understand it a little more?

AS:    [Laughs]  Yes, but it also depends on the character of the singers.  They maybe would not even notice.  Maybe they wouldn’t be disturbed by it.  I’m not saying that I am one, but to be a good stage director is really a very, very difficult and very demanding job.  You have to have a lot of knowledge and intelligence, and almost genius ideas.  This is really a very, very difficult profession, and therefore we have so few.

BD:    You worked with so many stage directors.  When you came to directing yourself, did you take from all of them or did you strike out on your own?

AS:    I tried to, of course.  Like everybody in music, you always get some ideas or some melodies or something.  Everybody is stealing a little bit from each other, but at the end you have to find your own style — which is impossible in one production, which I have done only.  But if you cannot find your own style, then there is no place for you in that world of staging or singing whatsoever.

BD:    Yet there are so many opera houses in Europe that they all have to have stage directors.

AS:    Yes, we have plenty, but very, very few are good.  I was lucky enough to know them all.  [Laughs]  I was blessed in the beginning with Wieland Wagner, and then I was working with almost every famous stage director in the world.  But I have my favorites, of course!  [Laughs]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is there any character that you have portrayed which is perilously close to the real Anja Silja.

siljaAS:    The character I like the most now is Emilia Marty in The Makropoulos Case.  This was the one who, if I may say so, almost was composed for me, was meant for me.  I feel like Emilia Marty since I started so young.  I started at the age of six and never stopped singing, so I feel a little bit like her.  She’s three hundred fifty years old and I’m only in my fifties, but thinking back it seems as if I was always on stage.  So there is a little bit of similarity in it.  Also the complication of life and the up and downs reminds me very much of my own life.  I can really sympathize with her, but besides that, not really.  One of my favorite parts also is the Kostelnička in Jenůfa.  I can really not sympathize with a child’s murderer, but on the other hand I can understand, otherwise I couldn’t portray her.  I can understand that this is possible, especially at the time when it was composed and when it was meant to take place.  That was a difficult time to bring up a child without a father and not being married.  So knowing this time, I can understand that.

BD:    Is it good that we bring stories which are, perhaps, no longer quite relevant to the audiences of the 1990s?

AS:    There’s always truth to all those stories, even if they seem to be a little bit old fashioned.  There’s always something which is still true.  The characters in all those operas have the same destiny and the same feelings as we all have.  There’s always hate, there’s always love, there’s always desperation, and that’s what it is all about in opera.  You can bring everything on a modern level.  That’s what I try to do, and so far I have succeeded pretty well with it, which makes me happy.  There is not so much joy and happiness in life, I discovered.  There is sometimes a little bit of it, and you just have to grab and hold onto that for a while.  But then there is something else which comes — a friend is dying, or a friend gets ill, or I don’t know what.  There is so much going on as you get older, so I think the happiness is really something very rare.  So opera portrays the true life even if it doesn’t seem so.  The only thing which in opera is its worst or best, is that you sing.  Even if you are dead, you still sing for ten minutes.  This is something which doesn’t exist!  [Laughs]  But beside that, everything else is kind of true.  This is not meant as a constant, even if you are stabbed or shot to death.  It is just what you think in that moment, and that’s how it is meant.  An aria is just a moment, a flash of life passing before your eyes.

BD:    So each opera is a series of moments?

AS:    Absolutely.  One has to understand it that way. 

BD:    What advice do you have for the young singer coming along?

AS:    [Laughs]  There is no secret.  You just have to be honest.  You just have to try to tell the story, and don’t fall into the habit just to sing.  This is the worst thing you can do.  This is simply not what life is and what one should do in opera.  It’s so hard to tell them what to do because they never listen, and they just think the beauty of the sound is the major thing.  But this is absolutely not true, and therefore I think the future of opera is doubtful because the recording companies have taken over so much.  They are telling us that this is what one wants to hear, and that is certainly not true.  The moment you have an interesting production, like this one here, the people come and it’s sold out.  It’s a success.  It is this way all over the world.  It’s not only with this production but all over the world if you have an interesting production
even without star names.  It’s not necessary, but they have to be good singers and interesting singers.  It is the same with the movies.  They do so many movies and very few really are worthwhile to go to.  This is the secret, I think.  Singing alone is not enough.  This is the tragedy of our time, that one concentrates like in sport.  You have Michael Jordan and we have Boris Becker.  They are young and are good-looking and they earn so much money.  But you have to have the genius and the talent, and there are only very, very few in our world that can do everything.  The others have to do something special with their talent and with what they have.  They cannot just go out and play football.  They really have to do something special.

BD:    To maximize whatever talents they have?

AS:    Absolutely, and they really have to search for it.  Just don’t go for what one is always told, “Sing well and just don’t bother with the words.  Bring the sound out.”  This is awful.

BD:    You’ve made some recordings.  Are you pleased with those?

AS:    No!  I never listen to them.  I have never heard them.  I’m generally not happy with recordings.  I hate recordings because of the same reason.  They are all so perfect.  I like live performances.  It is interesting then, you hear the real thing.  You hear something dropping and you hear somebody coughing, and you hear also some mistakes sometimes and sometimes not.  It’s not necessary, but you have the feeling this is really live.  Those recordings made in a studio are, in my opinion, so perfect and lack spontaneity.  I don’t like even those collectors who have several sets of Beethoven Symphonies and five Otellos with all the tenors in the world.  They collect those.  Maybe it is great that they have them, but I’m not convinced.

siljaBD:    You don’t even look at it as documentation?

AS:    No.  For them it isn’t, because they are not becoming singers.  This is just a collector item.  They can just say, “We have it.”  I don’t know if it really means so much if they just collect and they listen to it.  Then they go to the opera and expect the same sound from a less famous singer, which is, of course, impossible.  There are those stars and they have their special sound.  You cannot expect somebody else to sing like Pavarotti, and this is a big danger with those recordings.

BD:    Is there such a thing as a perfect performance?

AS:    Oh, yes.  That exists, even in live performances.  It doesn’t need to be in a studio.  There are some, let’s say, ninety-nine per cent, but this is already a lot.  Also recordings are not that perfect.  There are many mistakes in them and they have to be re-done.  The most famous story is this recording of Tristan with Flagstad and the high C of Schwarzkopf.  Things like that exist more than ever nowadays.

BD:    In films the have body doubles and stand-ins.

AS:    Exactly!  So everybody goes for the great figure now, and even the movie stars don’t have those perfect figures.  It’s a fake world, and this is what I try to fight.  I try to fight it but it is, of course, fighting against the dragon, eh?  [Laughs]

BD:    Despite all of this, is performing fun?

AS:    Yes, if it’s a good performance and if it’s a good staging and there is a good conductor in front of me.  Then it’s still fun.

BD:    Is it special when you are performing with Christoph?

AS:    No.  That doesn’t make any difference for me.  The relationship doesn’t count anymore the moment you are on stage; just the combination of the colleagues and what you are supposed to do.  Of course, it is very helpful if you have a nice face in front of you, and sometimes the conductor looks pretty grim.

BD:    I just wondered if there’s special simpatico between you two?

AS:    Yes, of course, but this is mainly true during the rehearsing time.  When we work together and when he gives us ideas, we can talk back.  But during a performance it doesn’t make any difference.  Then we are colleagues.  If you have to do love scenes or whatsoever, then the colleague becomes the most important person.  It has to be that way.  During the rehearsing time, the stage director can be a very close relationship.  Also the conductor, but mainly the stage director because he’s the closest, and the one you are most with during your rehearsing time.  So this can become a very close relationship, and this is what I had very often, and that’s fun.  This production here is really fun.  For the first time Herodias can do something different than only sitting on a big chair and looking apathetic.

BD:    I also remember you vividly from many years ago as the title character.

AS:    Yes.  It is a very, very different production, so you cannot compare it at all.  It’s in every way totally different.  It’s really special.

BD:    Thank you so much for the conversation.  I appreciate it very much.

AS:    You’re welcome. 

A native of Berlin, Anja Silja began her vocal studies at the age of six, gave her first performance at the city's Titania Palace at the age of ten, and made her stage debut at the age of sixteen in Braunschweig as Rosina in The Barber of Seville. It was the beginning of a long and distinguished career both at home and abroad, solidifying in 1960 when she was invited to Bayreuth. She debuted there as Senta in The Flying Dutchman and continued to perform in Wieland Wagner's productions until 1967, singing Elisabeth, Venus, Eva, Elsa, and Freia - roles which she subsequently performed at major opera houses throughout the world.

siljaAnja Silja's large and varied repertoire, which includes nearly every major soprano role in opera, has shaped and informed her unique career. She is especially acclaimed for her interpretation of Emilia Marty in Janácek's The Makropoulos Case - in Vienna, Zürich, Barcelona, Aix-en-Provence, Hamburg, and the Glyndebourne Festival Opera. She sang the role of Elsa in Lohengrin and Kostelnička in Janácek's Jenůfa at Glyndebourne and Zürich, at Covent Garden, and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York; the role of Amme in Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten in Zürich, Vienna, and Paris; and Salome at Covent Garden, Hamburg, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Other performances include Schoenberg's Erwartung and Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins at the New Israeli Opera and Stuttgart State Opera, and Berg's Lulu at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf. She made guest appearances in New York with the Glyndebourne Festival Opera's production of The Makropoulos Case, and Act II of Jenůfa in a concert version at Carnegie Hall with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Simon Rattle. She made her debut as an opera producer in Brussels with a production of Lohrengrin.

Ms. Silja has worked with many of the world's great conductors, including Bruno Bartoletti, Karl Böhm, Pierre Boulez, Silvain Cambreling, André Cluytens, Andrew Davis, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Otto Klemperer, Hans Knappertsbusch, James Levine, Antonio Pappano, Simon Rattle, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Sir Georg Solti and Franz Welser-Möst.

In recent seasons, Ms. Silja sang in new productions of Pique Dame at the Vienna Staatsoper and of Katya Kabanova at the Theater an der Wien; Pierrot Lunaire with James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, and with the Boston Symphony. She sang a highly acclaimed Kostelnička in Jenůfa at The Metropolitan Opera, and concert performances of Jenůfa's Act II with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and of Salome at the newly renovated Salle Pleyel in Paris. Other recent highlights include Janacek's Osud at the Staatsoper in Vienna, The Makropoulos Case in Berlin, Jenůfa in Barcelona, Lulu in Munich, and Jenůfa and The Makropoulos Case in Lyon. Ms. Silja sang highly acclaimed performances of Erwartung in New York, Berlin, Madrid, and at the Verbier Festival with Maestro Levine; a concert version of Elektra in London and Berlin; Jenůfa at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin; Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites in Hamburg and at La Scala; and the roles of Herodias in Salome and Countess Geschwitz in Lulu at the Opéra Bastille in Paris.

Her extensive discography includes recordings of The Flying Dutchman, Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Fricka in Der Ring des Nibelungen, Lulu, Wozzeck, Erwartung, The Makropoulos Case and the major repertoire of Kurt Weill.
In April 2012, Ms. Silja was honored in New York City with an Opera News Award.

-- Biography from Colbert Artists  (Text only)

© 1996 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at her apartment on December 5, 1996.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1999 and again in 2000.  The transcription was posted on this website in 2013.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.