If the secret to a career in opera is timing, the Latvian bass-baritone Egils Siliņš certainly has a knack. It’s not just the combination of poise and gravitas with which he rolls out his phrases as Bayreuth’s reigning Wotan, or the directness and unfeigned affection in his 2016 album of Latvian Lieder. It’s a matter of a whole career that seems to have been timed just so: a singer whose artistic coming-of-age coincided with Latvia’s liberation from Soviet rule, and who found a series of major western companies eager to make full use of his arresting stage-presence and resplendent tone. He’s emerged as one of the commanding Wagnerians of the 21st century.

Egils Siliņš
© Jānis Deinats

Now, since 2019, Siliņš has been pursuing a parallel career – as Chair (or Intendant) of the Latvian National Opera and Ballet in Riga. A natural step for a singer who began his career in that very house (he made his debut there in Boito’s Mefistofele, in 1988), or simply another case of being the right man in the right place at the right time? Actually, it turns out that his first instinct was to refuse.

“It wasn’t like they just gave me the post!”, he says. “21 people were in contention for the role, and when they asked me to apply, my first reaction was: ‘No, no, no – I don’t want to do this job. I really have enough on as a singer’. Then some months later they approached me again and said: ‘Look, you have so much international experience – you could really help’.” That, it seems, swung the balance. For the rest of the board, Siliņš’s international career is a feature, not a bug. He could keep singing. In fact, that was the whole point – his work at major houses ranging from Bayreuth to the New York Met gives him personal access to some of the most sought-after names in international opera.

“I’m the chairman of the board, but we have experienced producers too – and in these days of electronic communications, when you can Zoom, that frees me up. We can have meetings while I’m singing in, say, Berlin, and meanwhile, if I’m working with interesting directors or hearing new singers, I don’t need to make a special visit to establish those contacts.”

Siliņš as Wotan at the Bayerische Staatsoper
© Bayerische Staatsoper

There’s no question that Siliņš’s CV is impressive. He spent that first post-Communist decade building a repertoire from the ground up. As part of the company at the Volksoper Wien, and later the Staatsoper, he was offered a remarkable breadth of leading roles. “Usually, if singers are going to the Wiener Staatsoper, your agent says, ‘Don’t. You will sing only the small parts.’” he recalls. “In my case I was very lucky to start as Méphistophélès in Gounod’s Faust. Director Holender asked to see me the next day and said, ‘From now on you will sing only the first parts’”.

“So I sang at least seventeen roles in the Wiener Staatsoper during the four years before I went freelance in 2000. I sang the title role in Boris Godunov, directed by Harry Kupfer. I sang Boito’s Mefistofele, Silva in Ernani, Banquo in Macbeth, Procida in I vespri siciliani. I was also Gessler in Guillaume Tell – and Escamillo many times!” It was good timing, again – as well as the good fortune to encounter directors who saw the potential in a singer who was willing to work hard. Still, these aren’t perhaps the first roles that come to mind when opera lovers talk about Egils Siliņš.

“In Vienna, I sang only Italian and French repertoire. For me it was quite surprising when I got the invitation from Chicago Lyric Opera to sing Klingsor in Parsifal in 2001. I was, like, wow! I’d never sung Wagner before. It all started from there. Actually, I'm not sure that at the beginning my voice was really Wagnerian in style, but 23 years after my first Wagner, I still enjoy singing Italian repertoire in concerts. People are surprised: ‘Wow, you can sing in Italian!’ Yes, I did it for my first 15 years!”

Siliņš sings “Udite udite o rustici” from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore with the Latvian National Opera Orchestra.

It’s hard to think of a better grounding for the head of a national opera house. “We are the only opera house in Latvia”, Siliņš explains. “Our income is 70% government subsidy, which covers salaries, and 30% from ticket sales. That 30% dictates our budget for new productions and guest artists”. That’s crucial, because Siliņš’ is eager to innovate. “I would like the Latvian audience to experience more international directors and conductors, and I’m inviting people with whom I’ve worked myself: I don't need an agent to tell me, ‘Oh, he is a fantastic director or conductor’. We are trying also to include operas by Latvian composers”. Arturs Maskats is writing an opera for 2026. “Of course, it's a slow process – a commission takes at least three or four years.”

But Siliņš’s vision is beginning to take shape, with Claus Guth due to direct Don Carlos in Riga next season and Sven-Eric Bechtolf booked for L’elisir d’amore. In the meantime, since taking post in November 2019 Siliņš has steered the company through the twin shocks of COVID (generous state subsidy offset the worst of the financial loss, while Siliņš maintained morale and artistic form with a programme of workshops and vocal training) and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: a serious jolt to a company barely 150 miles from the Russian border, with a long (and historically amicable) tradition of hiring singers from Russia and neighbouring Belarus. But the comeback has been swift.

Siliņš sings excerpts from The Flying Dutchman in a pedestrian tunnel in Riga.

“When I’ve sung in Berlin in January, some audiences have been only 50 or 60% full. In Riga, in November, December and January this season, we were 98% sold”, Siliņš says, with some relish. “What I love is that in our audience you see young people also. If I sing in Switzerland, then on the first night you see only grey hair.” For Siliņš, it’s a particular advantage of working in Latvia. “What we do have here are good musical traditions for the kids – our music school system. In every small city, they have a state-run children’s music school and it costs very little. It's actually the only good thing left by the Soviet Union! So in the audience we have a very good mix.”

And as the Latvian State Opera sets its new course, Siliņš own artistic journey continues. In April 2023 he made his debut as Hans Sachs at the Tokyo Spring Festival (and will return to Tokyo in March 2024). He’s currently scheduled to sing Wotan/Wanderer in Budapest and Kassel; Lohengrin at the Bayerische Staatsoper, and King Marke in Tristan und Isolde – another role debut – in Leipzig. Once again, the secret is all in the timing; scheduling his work around his responsibilities in Riga.

As Wotan, backstage
© Bayerische Staatsoper

What’s certain, though, is that it won’t just be German or Hungarian audiences who get the benefit of Siliņš’s future performances: he’ll be doubling as a talent scout and roving ambassador for a company that’s been central to his whole artistic life. “If you work together on a production where it's six weeks of rehearsal, two times a day, then you really can discover an artist”, he says. “That is what I do now. It really is possible to do a double job.”

See forthcoming performances at Latvian National Opera and Ballet.
This article was sponsored by Latvian National Opera and Ballet.