Silja’s family was of Finnish extraction. Both her parents were actors and her musical ability was quickly recognized by her grandfather, Egon van Rijn, who was her singing coach from her sixth to her twenty-sixth year, giving her an extremely secure vocal technique. She made her first public appearance aged only ten at Berlin’s Titania Palast and thereafter toured as a child prodigy.
In 1956 Silja made her operatic stage debut at Braunschweig (Brunswick) as Rosina / Il barbiere di Siviglia. She sang with the Stuttgart Opera in 1958 and the Frankfurt Opera in 1959, the year in which she attracted attention as the Queen of the Night / Die Zauberflöte at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, having already sung this role with the Vienna State Opera under Karl Böhm. However her real breakthrough occurred during the following year when, having learnt all the major Wagnerian roles with her grandfather, a keen Wagnerian, by the age of ten, she substituted for Leonie Rysanek as Senta / Der fliegende Holländer at the Bayreuth Festival.
The Festival’s key artistic influence, Wieland Wagner, committed to a dramatic vision based upon the remorseless exposure of the human psyche, was fired by Silja’s powerful acting ability and they were to work closely together for the rest of his life. At Bayreuth under Wieland Wagner’s direction she sang Elsa / Lohengrin (1962), Elisabeth / Tannhäuser (1962, 1966–1967), Eva / Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1963–1964), Venus / Tannhäuser (1964–1966), Freia and the Third Norn / Der Ring des Nibelungen, 1965–1967 and the Woodbird / Siegfried (1966–1967) as well as one of the Flower Maidens / Parsifal (1961–1967); and elsewhere Isolde / Tristan und Isolde, Brünnhilde / Die Walküre, Siegfried; Desdemona / Otello, Leonore / Fidelio and the title roles of Elektra, Salome and Lulu (the last production on which they worked before Wieland’s untimely death in 1966, and which was seen at the Edinburgh Festival in that year).
During this period Silja sang mainly at the Stuttgart Opera, of which she was a member from 1965, and the Frankfurt Opera, where she came into contact with Christoph von Dohnányi, whom she later married. Her roles at Frankfurt included Renata / The Fiery Angel, Desdemona / Otello and the title part in Kát’a Kabanová. She first appeared in London with this company as Leonore / Fidelio in 1963.
In America Silja made her debut in 1968 at San Francisco as Salome and in 1969 appeared with the Chicago Lyric Opera as Senta, followed by Leonore in concert under Solti in 1970 and then Salome (1971) and Marie / Wozzeck (1972) with the Lyric Opera. She first sang at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in 1972 as Leonore, quickly followed by Salome, and returned to the Met as Marie in 1980.
Her debut at the Royal Opera House, London came in 1969 as Leonore, followed by Cassandra / Les Troyens in the same year. She had already sung Senta in concert and on record with Klemperer in 1968 and memorably returned to Covent Garden in this role in 1972 and as Marie in 1975. She also sang Marie at the Salzburg Festival in 1971 and 1972. Silja formally joined the Hamburg State Opera in 1974 (having sung there often as a guest) and in 1975 created the part of Luise in Gottfried von Einem’s Kabale und Liebe at the Vienna State Opera.
During the 1980s Silja became especially renowned for her interpretations of Janáček’s operas: she sang the Kostelnička / Jenůfa in Brussels in 1987 and at Glyndebourne in 1989, 1992 and 2000, followed by Emilia Marty / The Makropoulos Case there in 1995, 1997 and 2001. She went on to sing the Kostelnička at the Met in 1992–1993 and 2007 and at Frankfurt (1995), Paris and Prague (both 1996) and Zürich (1998).
In several Richard Strauss operas Silja gradually moved to lower parts, singing the Nurse / Die Frau ohne Schatten at San Francisco (1989) and Paris (1994), and Herodias / Salome at Covent Garden (1995), Chicago (1996), Barcelona (1998) and Rio de Janiero (1999). At Brussels in 1987 she also sang Grete / Der ferne Klang (Schreker). Although mainly retired from the stage after 2001, Silja still performed occasionally, appearing in 2004 as Madame de Croissy / Dialogues des Carmélites at La Scala, Milan and in 2008 as the Witch / Hänsel und Gretel at Covent Garden; and as late as 2013 at Frankfurt as the Grandmother / The Gambler (Prokofiev).
Although Silja’s voice was not the most alluring, her extraordinary command of the stage carried all before it, leaving audiences stunned with her dramatic intensity. As she herself said in interview with Bruce Duffie: ‘…if you are on stage, you should really portray what you have to portray.’
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).