SHOW PEOPLE / Return of the dangerous diva: 73. Anja Silja

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The Independent Culture
A FEW years ago I went to visit Anja Silja in the American Midwest and couldn't work out what she was doing there. On the surface it was perfectly explicable: as the wife of Christoph von Dohnanyi she was, more or less officially, the First Lady of the Cleveland Orchestra, which Dohnanyi conducts, leading a green-and-pleasantly suburban life. She drove me round her neighbourhood of sleek lawns, swimming-pools and colonial mansions, 'so you won't feel sorry for us,' she said. And I didn't.

But this was Anja Silja, radical soprano with a history of living dangerously: a fiery cross-breed of Maria Callas with Marlene Dietrich, famous for breaking the rules. She had never seemed the suburban type; and the only interpretation was that she was easing into early retirement. After all, her professional commitments were down to two operas a year and a handful of concerts. She talked about moving into production work. And she had taken up knitting.

But Silja's retirement, if such it was, didn't last long. She soon resurfaced in a new role which might have been made for her: the Stepmother in Janacek's Jenufa. She sang it first in Brussels, then at Glyndebourne and on the international circuit, always with searing success. On Tuesday she sings it again at Covent Garden, in a production by Yuri Lyubimov that hasn't gone well in rehearsal and will rely on Silja's experience to be any kind of success at all.

The Stepmother is not a glamour role. She is tyranically austere: a Bernarda Alba who impresses with sheer strength of will. She is not a creature that many star sopranos in their mid-fifties would feel comfortable with. But for Silja she is absolutely right: the culmination of an unconventional career that has always courted risk.

She started early, courtesy of her grandfather, who was her only singing teacher and taught her throughout her childhood in Germany - from the age of six until 23: a less than orthodox regime. But by 23 Silja was already a star, appearing at Bayreuth at a time when it was still ruled by the Wagner family, its productions directed by the iconoclastic genius of post-war German opera, Wieland Wagner, the composer's grandson.

Wieland thought that Silja was the perfect Wagner heroine, so at 19 she sang Senta in The Flying Dutchman, and at 20 she graduated to Isolde and Brunnhilde - the heaviest roles in the repertory and apparent madness for any singer of such tender years. Critics prophesied she would be voiceless by her thirties. But they also trembled at the sensual power of her performances; and so did Wieland who, although considerably older than Silja, became her lover. It was, inevitably, the talk of the Sixties opera world, and the daunting Wagner clan kept its distance - 'Wieland couldn't stand them,' says Silja, 'they hardly ever spoke' - but made the distance felt.

When Wieland died six years later, Silja was so traumatised that she took a characteristically radical decision to deal with it. She stopped singing Wagner; and has never gone back, either to the music or to the theatre at Bayreuth. Instead, she developed a new repertory based around Strauss, Janacek and German expressionists such as Berg and Schreker; and she found a like- minded husband in Dohnanyi, who was working his way up through the German opera-house league when they met in 1967.

Curiously, her marriage drew her into another celebrated German dynasty - and one which counterbalanced the Wagners on the wartime morality scale. Dohnanyi's father was hanged by Hitler after a famous assassination attempt. His uncle, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was similarly killed for opposing the Nazis. They were a rigorously liberal intellectual elite; and Christoph and Anja are in many ways their natural heirs. Last year I encountered them at their most severe after a superlative Death in Venice at Glyndebourne. 'Wasn't it wonderful?' I gushed. 'It's false,' said Anja. 'Badly written,' added Christoph.

But these exacting standards pay off in performance. Their joint recordings of Schoenberg's Erwartung and Berg's Wozzeck are probably the best on the market; and whenever they work together - as they did at last year's Proms, in Kurt Weill's Seven Deadly Sins - the electricity of two forthright, if rather chic, personalities is utterly compelling. Sparks fly; and you assume they must have flown during the rehearsals, although Christoph says his wife is more pacific in such circumstances than people imagine. 'With most people Anja doesn't argue at all. She's an incredible actress, and if she doesn't like something a director wants, she does it so perfectly that it's perfectly obviously wrong - so he changes his mind.'

What transforming effect this has on Yuri Lyubimov at Covent Garden remains to be seen; but Anja Silja in any circumstances is a spirit not easily suppressed, and her years as First Lady of the Cleveland Orchestra haven't changed that. At Glyndebourne she was not amused by the way the long dinner interval sliced the piece in two. 'It's butchery,' she said. 'What are they coming for: to listen or to eat?' At least at Covent Garden Silja's audience will have had the decency to eat at lunchtime.

'Jenufa' runs from Tues at Covent Garden (071-240 1066).

(Photograph omitted)