From Infant Prodigy to Veteran Star: Anja Silja [The Royal Opera’s Hansel and Gretel, 9 December-1 January]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to Anja Silja as she prepares for her first appearance as the Witch in the new Covent Garden production of Hansel and Gretel

Anja Silja. Photograph:

No infant prodigy has an ordinary childhood but in the case of the German soprano Anja Silja that was particularly true. The person who made it so was the first of four men to be significant figures in her life, namely her grandfather Egon Friedrich Maria Anders van Rijn. That he had the opportunity to play such a key role in her life stemmed from the fact that when Anja was born in 1940 her parents were already divorced. That was a situation which might have blighted her childhood but instead it led directly to her being brought up by her grandfather and that proved crucial to her future career.

Our meeting at Covent Garden confirms that Anja is straightforward and direct both when talking about her life and when discussing her singing career, one that started with a concert appearance in Berlin at the age of ten and which finds her still embracing new roles and new departures today. This is evidenced by her appearances as the Countess in The Queen of Spades, the Kabanicha in Kátya Kabanová and the Witch in Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, the role that now brings her back to Covent Garden. “I’m always living in the past, but that doesn’t mean that I like to perform in the past. I’m interested in new directors and new conductors. Among the latter my favourite right now is Kirill Petrenko who is really fantastic, and I was very pleased to work with him. Also, I have just started to sing songs by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov and I go on tour with them. Doing that, and performing them in the Russian language of course, makes it a new field for me.”

That is the present, but what about those early days and her memories of how her grandfather became her voice teacher when she was all of six years old? “I was brought up by my grandparents, and only by them. I never knew my father and as for my mother she was an actress who was away entertaining for many years after the war, so my grandfather kept me and hung on to me. In those times there were days when we were not allowed to have light but had only candles and that was when my grandfather introduced me to all the operas he loved, especially those of Wagner. From him I learnt of Wagner’s world, of the fairy tales behind that and of the truths that underlie them. In those days every child who grew up in a good family learnt to play the piano, but I hated it and instead of counting the rhythm I would sing. Hearing that was what encouraged my grandfather to give me singing lessons.”

Anja is, of course, well aware of the widely held view that being an infant prodigy can be detrimental and for a singer potentially dangerous since, in addition to the risk of being pressurised and deprived of any ordinary life, the child may do too much and damage the voice. Anja’s long and triumphantly successful career is proof positive of her grandfather’s wisdom in the technique that he taught her. Indeed she has no qualms whatever about the life that she led. “I had a wonderful childhood and I was not forced to go to school. My grandfather took me out after the first year of schooling and taught me writing and reading himself. He didn’t want me to go to school because he saw what my character was and he wanted me to be true to that. He was prepared to move on from place to place, over twenty times I think, in order to avoid the duty of sending me to school. So that was very unusual, but for a child it was great: it was an adventure, and I was very comfortable being taught by my grandfather. As for performing, I grew up with that and it was for me as natural as mother’s milk. I gave more than eighty concerts between my debut aged ten and my first engagement in an opera house in 1955 and during that period I learnt all the big opera roles that I could not then perform. My grandfather was disciplined in what he did and as I became older I slowly learnt to have that discipline myself.”

1959 and 1960 were key years in Anja’s life. In 1959 she was acclaimed when she appeared as the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte, first in Vienna under Karl Böhm and then at Aix-en-Provence. “Because I started so young, I began with the coloratura repertoire although that was never my favourite. I was able to sing very high, and that made people curious about me: I was someone for whom the Queen of the Night was not a demanding role because I could sing half an octave over her high F.”

As for 1960, that was the year in which this nineteen-year-old went to Bayreuth as Senta in Der fliegende Holländer after Leonie Rysanek had cancelled. “I had started to sing for Wieland Wagner in Bayreuth some years earlier, but I was too young then for them to know what to do with me. But this time when I auditioned they finally hired me, although they were afraid of my reputation as a wonder-child. Having me sing at Bayreuth was very risky actually, but Wieland took that risk and that was the beginning of what both personally and professionally was a great relationship and I went on to do everything with him for six years.”

Wieland Wagner was to die in 1966 but their years together provided Anja with a great love (as she said not so long ago, “Whatever I do now, I do in his memory”). It was also a great period in her career, encompassing not only major roles in Wagner’s operas but appearing in Wieland’s productions of such works as Elektra, Fidelio, Otello, Lulu and Wozzeck. The cost that she had to pay, however, was her virtual withdrawal from singing Wagner following Wieland’s death (“That was just too emotional and still is after forty years”). The one exception she allowed herself came around thirty years on when she accepted a role that she had never done with him, that of Ortrud in Lohengrin, an occasion that proved to be a further turning point in her career.

In that interim period two great conductors, André Cluytens and Christoph von Dohnányi were to play an important part in her life. Indeed, Anja now lives in Paris in the house that once belonged to Cluytens. After Wieland Wagner died in 1966, it had seemed that Anja might find a new lasting relationship with Cluytens whom she had come to admire as an elegant conductor and who had been a close friend of Wieland. Tragedy struck again, however, when some nine months later Cluytens also died.

Professionally, though, Anja’s successes continued as she built up a new repertoire. The range that she developed took in The Merry Widow and Prince Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus confirming her enjoyment of doing lighter pieces, but dramatic roles nevertheless remained central. “I discovered Janáček and he is my great love as a composer”. As for her personal life, she would marry Dohnányi and have three children and would eventually live in Cleveland where he was Music Director of The Cleveland Orchestra. At that time it seemed likely that Anja’s singing career would end, but the couple divorced in the 1990s and offers flooded in after Anja had taken to the stage once again in that production of Lohengrin.

As already indicated, the past decade has seen no lessening in her commitment to performing. She talks about the roles that attract her and about her belief in opera as a great art form. “I’m a little bit tired of those operas where singing is all there is to it: if the acting is interesting, if the destiny of the character is interesting, then I like to do it. For example, appearing as Regan is Aribert Reimann’s Lear was very worthwhile because it’s a great role, and by that I mean not only that the music is good but that doing a character from Shakespeare is so fascinating.

“Similarly with my role in The Queen of Spades you can go back a little bit to what Pushkin wrote about the character’s background and that can give you something extra when you come to do the operatic role. It is always important to find the roots of a character and those that have their origins in literature or in the theatre give you so much to work on. But I have always believed that the emotional level in opera is above that in theatre: however wonderfully a role is spoken, the addition of music lifts it to an even higher level. But that doesn’t mean that the singing itself is uniquely important in opera. The drama should never be forgotten, and it bothers me a lot if a production so concentrates on the music as such that the whole story is not being presented as the basis of the emotion. That’s why I’ve always been drawn to interesting roles and interesting operas rather than to what the music alone has to offer.”

When it comes to the dramatic side of an opera having a deep effect on somebody, a striking example is what happened to Anja herself when she played Mother Marie in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. “Doing that had the most influence on my life. Of course people like Wieland and my grandfather had influenced me a lot, but I can only say that this piece really changed my life. I found it so amazing in the way that it depicted the destiny of those nuns and how they lived their lives that because of it and out of my tremendous admiration for Pope Benedict XVI I became a Catholic. Until then I had never been baptised, but I don’t think that you can just suddenly become religious. I think that some sense of religion and faith was always within me but that something was needed to bring it out and that opera did it. I’m very thankful that it happened and it’s a great help and strength to me.”

It could be thought that in the context of her other work Humperdinck’s fairy tale opera of 1893 about the children Hansel and Gretel is very lightweight, but now that Anja is taking on the role of the evil Witch who dominates Act Three she is finding that her attitude to the opera is changing. “It’s a wonderful work but one has to think about it differently nowadays. That was not so easy for me since I took my own children to see it and I myself went to it when I was young. But it never occurred to me that I would ever sing in it, and I always thought of it as this romantic children’s piece.

“However, one has to recognise that, as with most fairytales, this is not just a children’s story. Particularly with the tales of the brothers Grimm there’s a lot of nastiness together with broken families and everything else. They are really gruesome and the stories they picked definitely reflected the problems of the time. I think that Humperdinck recognised that when he created this opera. Old productions of it were always romantic, emphasising the angels and the ladder but particularly with the character of the Witch it should be much tougher.”

There is much that is easy to enjoy in Hansel and Gretel and it does appeal to children as well as to adults. This is so despite the score being influenced by so many sources including folksong, quite possibly operetta and certainly Wagner, a blend that strongly attracted Mahler when he heard the work. “There is so much Wagner in it, I think, and a friend of mine was observing just this morning that in Humperdinck there is also a lot of Mahler too, while that influence also went the other way I feel.” But for all the easy appeal this is a tale that touches on greed (the children being lured to what could be their deaths by the attraction of the Witch’s gingerbread house) and on a mother who fails to protect her children and then tries to conceal exactly what happened.

“At this stage I’m just concentrating on the character of the Witch and she is no kind of a grandma figure, not even an ugly and nasty one. She is a very dangerous person and I think that she has to frighten everybody. Even if she pretends to be sweet, it’s very, very ugly because her tone is ironic and she cares for no one and nothing. It may be difficult to bring that out since everybody thinks that they know the piece differently in that they want to see funny things in it, but we are trying to avoid that.” Does this mean that Anja would be happy if her Witch were to make the audience feel uncomfortable? “Definitely!”

  • The opening night of Hansel and Gretel is Tuesday 9 December 2008 at 7.30 p.m. and runs until Thursday 1 January 2009 at 6 p.m.
  • Sir Colin Davis conducts on 9, 12, 14, 16, 18 & 21 December
  • Robin Ticciati conducts on 11, 28, 29 & 30 December and 1 January
  • Roles are double cast
  • The performance on 14 December begins at 6.30 p.m.
  • The performance on 29 December begins at 1 p.m.
  • The performance on 30 December begins at 6 p.m.
  • BBC Radio 3 broadcast on Tuesday 16 December at 7.30 p.m.
  • BBC2 broadcast on Christmas Day at 3 p.m.
  • Live relay on Tuesday 16 December into cinemas throughout London, the UK and Europe (full details on following link)
  • Cinema Relays
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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