Just imagine! The legend herself, Anja Silja taking time out of a busy rehearsal schedule (and despite her concern about the orchestra, problematic in early runthroughs)—to talk to parterre box. I confess I imagined she would be at least a little bit like her character of Emilia Marty—cynical, burned out, impatient. What a surprise, then, when into the BAM press room strolled a tall, smiling woman with a shock of platinum hair, casual in a cream suede blazer and high-fashion tinted eyeglasses. Most undivalike, she sipped from a cardboard cup, chatting about her role in Makropulos Case and her career, one of the longest and most varied of our time.
James Jorden: The first time I heard you here in New York was The Bassarids of Henze.
Anja Silja: Yes, that was about ten years ago, with the Cleveland Orchestra.
I am ashamed to say I do not remember the music well at all, but I do remember as if it were yesterday how elegant you looked — a very simple black dress and a string of baroque pearls.
How nice! Thank you. Actually I don’t remember the music either. I will be doing that piece again soon and I will have to learn it again.
For a long time, The Makropulos Case was a rarity, and now, it’s almost a standard repertory work. What do think accounts for this change in the public’s taste?
This may sound a little strange to say, but I think I did a lot to make this opera popular. I have sung it now for 30 years, beginning in 1970, then again ten years later, and then a few years ago the very successful production in Glyndebourne. Since that time I have sung it in many places. The Glyndebourne is a wonderful production dramatically and I think that did a lot to make the opera better known to the public. It’s an opera that is very difficult to cast, you know. Without the right person for the main role, I am afraid the opera will fall back into anonymity.
What sort of artist is needed to interpret Emila Marty?
One has to have had a whole lifetime behind her to sing that opera properly. As I said, I sang it first about 30 years ago, and at that time I had great fun in this role, but the performance really had nothing to do with the real meaning of what the opera is about. You need a lifetime, and a very specific kind of lifetime at that. It’s not enough to have been around for a while; you also must know that feeling of being tired of life, not having roots, not wanting to go on and having no real joy in life. This is something most performers don’t really understand; most of us today want to stay young and desirable. The real theme of Makropulos Case, I think, is just being tired of life, and specifically being misunderstood by other people. I really think Janacek knew this feeling of being misunderstood; he was not recognized during his lifetime and even today, he is not a popular composer. So he had this quality of being a stranger in the world, of standing outside the world. He was unique in his time, and is so even today, in the truth and honesty of his music.
Every day you read in the newspaper about some medical advance that promises to extend human life. But will this just make us all as unhappy as Emila Marty?
I am afraid so. I personally cannot imagine what it would be like to live even a few years longer than we already live, so three or four hundred years I think would be miserable. Already these days it’s difficult to build a relationship that lasts for more than five years. But imagine a couple trying to stay together for a century—that cannot work! So extending life that way, for centuries, cannot be worthwhile. Actually, that’s just what Marty says in the opera: life is not meant to go on so long. You get sarcastic, you get tired and angry. Marty behaves so strangely because she knows she has this knowledge of hundreds of years, but no one will believe her. No one understands her, and that makes her angry. We all get more impatient with other people as we get older, so you can imagine, after all those centuries!
But Emila Marty was a great diva too. Isn’t that an important part of the character?
I think Janacek wrote Marty as a glamorous figure to show how much people look only at the surface, like a mask. The public can accept the egomania of her personality because they see her as a larger than life theater personality. But deep inside all that, the glamour is perfectly meaningless. Inside she is someone totally empty and sad. You see that in the final scene, when I am in that simple black dress, very plain. That idea developed during rehearsals, to have no wig, almost no makeup. In earlier productions, one tried to transform Marty visually into an old woman, even to have her dissolve away like Dracula, but that was really a little ridiculous. It’s more honest to have her die as a real woman.
You also bring a lot of humor to the character of Marty.
In all parts you can find a humorous side. Herodias is another example. She is obsessed with the idea that everyone should recognize her, everyone should be on their knees. She becomes ridiculous because of her obsession to manipulate everyone around her. The only one she fears is Jokanaan because his belief is so strong she cannot dominate him. He doesn’t need her. So I try to express that aspect of her character, because otherwise she is the least interesting character I have ever done — she just enters, and she is, and she leaves, and she never changes. Therefore one tries to show something of her history, to demonstrate why she should have influenced Salome’s character.
Salome, another of your great roles. I wonder, is there any part you wanted to sing but missed?
I wish I had some desires still left, but there are so few things I haven’t done. One role I didn’t do because of the death of Wieland Wagner is Kundry. I now regret that I didn’t do the part anyway, but for a long time I never really liked her. I always thought, this role is ridiculous. In the first act she is screaming and then she sings in the second act and then in the last act she only says one word. What is this? There is no beginning, no end … this is not for me. But in the last couple of years I have started to understand that role. The meaning of Kundry’s silence is so strong to me now. And understanding a role is so important. I never chose a role because of the beauty of the singing phrases. Opera shouldn’t be like that, though very often it is, just beautiful sound. But drama in general is not beautiful. We see this some now on television, on some of the crime dramas, that some of it is ugly. And it should be the same way with opera, it should not be constantly beautiful. If you listen to violinists or cellists nowadays, you can hear how the style has changed. Fifty years ago, they played everything with beauty, but now, they let you hear some of the scratching, the noise. This is how it should be with a voice. You have to have the courage to sing some ugly tones to make clear the meaning.
So, is Anja Silja really Emilia Marty? Well, let me answer it this way: Emilia Marty lived centuries in the past. As I left the press offices of BAM, Anja Silja was giggling quietly as she spent the last few minutes of her lunch break answering her email.