2 July 2007

Beverly Sills, 78, Celebrated American Soprano, Has Died

Beverly Sills
Maury Englander/OPERA NEWS Archives

Brooklyn, NY, May 25, 1929 - Manhattan, NY, July, 2, 2007

It seems a short time ago that an opera star could be considered appropriate cover material for a national newsmagazine. In fact, it was more than thirty years ago that Beverly Sills, who died of cancer on July 2, graced the covers of both Newsweek (1969) and Time (1971). The 1970s were Sills's era of greatest fame. Among opera singers, probably only Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo have matched the breadth of Sills's celebrity in America, and it could be argued that thanks to her steady presence on television throughout the decade, she outdistanced both of them. In addition to her many opera telecasts, Sills was a guest on the talk shows of Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas, a popular guest host of The Tonight Show, costar with Carol Burnett in the CBS special Sills and Burnett at the Met and host of two talk shows of her own, Lifestyles with Beverly Sills (NBC) and Skyline with Beverly Sills (PBS).

It wasn't mere hyperbole when Time proclaimed her "America's Queen of Opera." To millions of Americans, Sills was opera, and it is fair to say that she did more than any other performer to democratize the art form. She demonstrated that an opera singer did not have to be a remote, imperious figure; to the public, she was a warm, witty, gregarious New Yorker who just happened to sing opera. It was an image that her admirers came to love. "I'm a revolutionary," she later said, "because I proved that one can have a great career without the Met and in this country, without European approval." Her immense popularity later enabled her to become one of the most effective leaders ever on the American arts scene.

First and foremost, of course, Sills was a singer with serious ambitions. She was born Belle Miriam Silverman in Brooklyn, and her singing debut occurred at age three. In a few years, she had appeared on a number of top radio shows, including Major Bowes's CapitolFamily Hour and Our Gal Sunday. For a child prodigy, Sills had two enormous advantages: an astonishing facility for memorizing music and a devoted and aggressive mother who brought her seven-year-old daughter to the attention of the brilliant teacher Estelle Liebling. A onetime student of Mathilde Marchesi, Liebling had in turn taught Amelita Galli-Curci, among others. Sills would study with Liebling until the latter's death in 1970.

Sills's opera debut came as Frasquita in Carmen with Philadelphia Civic Opera when she was seventeen. She also appeared at an after-hours club and in operettas for impresario J. J. Shubert. The death of her father, in 1949, put additional pressure on her to bring money into the household. In 1952, she sang sixty-three consecutive performances of Carmen's Micaela for Charles Wagner's touring company, and the following year she made her San Francisco Opera debut as Elena in Mefistofele. In 1953, she sang Massenet's Manon for the first time, with Baltimore Opera (coached in the role by the company's founder, Rosa Ponselle). After putting herself through eight auditions for New York City Opera (then at City Center on West Fifty-fifth Street), she was finally accepted, making her NYCO debut as Rosalinde in DieFledermaus in 1955. She became a company regular, performing a variety of roles with distinction, including all the heroines in Les Contes d'Hoffmann, Donna Anna, Char-pentier's Louise, and the Prima Donna in Hugo Weisgall's Six Characters in Search of an Author. During these years, her greatest individual success with City Opera came in 1958, when she sang the title role of Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe, a part that suited her in all ways. A performance of the opera's "Willow Song," telecast on American Musical Theatre in 1962, displays a yearning quality, particularly in the aria's melting high D, unmatched by any other artist.

In 1956, Sills married Peter Greenough, scion of a distinguished Midwestern family that published The Cleveland Plain Dealer. They were highly compatible, but their family life was marred by deep tragedy. Their daughter Meredith (Muffy) was born in 1959, but when she was nearly two, it was discovered that she was deaf. The couple's son, Peter, Jr. (Bucky), was born in 1961, severely autistic. Sills bore these setbacks with great inner fortitude. When Greenough's business moved the family to the Boston area, they enrolled Muffy in the Horace Mann School for the Deaf, and Sills devoted herself to helping teach her daughter to speak and read lips. Professionally, she found a second artistic home with Sarah Caldwell's Boston Opera Company, where she appeared in works ranging from Die Entführung aus dem Serail to Luigi Nono's Intolleranza.

With such an undercurrent of sadness running through Sills's private life, the professional success that was to come was no doubt all the sweeter. Sills's career is a prime example of the folly of keeping score too soon in the game. She had become a fixture at New York City Opera by the time the company made plans for a new production of Handel's Giulio Cesare (then a rarity) in its new home at Lincoln Center's New York State Theater. Although NYCO's general director, Julius Rudel, had planned to cast Phyllis Curtin as Cleopatra, Sills had other ideas. She argued that Curtin, who had made her Metropolitan Opera debut a few seasons earlier, was no longer officially an NYCO artist, and that it would be an insult to every qualified soprano on the roster for an "outsider" to sing such an important role. In the face of Sills's formidable arsenal, Rudel relented and gave her the role, which turned out to be the making of her. In September 1966, her Cleopatra was greeted with an enormous outpouring of praise from both audiences and critics. She later said she knew after singing her first aria "that everything was going to be different for me." It amused her to be treated like an overnight discovery, and she considered it urgent to take her success and run with it, which she did. Giulio Cesare also marked the beginning of her long association with personal representative Edgar Vincent, who was to be one of the principal architects of the remainder of her career.

She was now in a position to command the best that NYCO had to offer, which included a stunning success in Donizetti's Tudor Queens trilogy, Maria Stuarda, Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux (as Elizabeth I). These plum roles revealed her as a superb bel canto stylist and technician, as well as a strong and imaginative actress. Years later, Sills would call her Elizabeth I one of the high points of her career, and she always credited stage director Tito Capobianco for much of her success in it. It was certainly her most demanding role: "I never walked out of the theater," she said, "when I had an ounce left."

Her career now expanded to Europe: she performed Mozart's Queen of the Night at Vienna State Opera, Pamira in a new staging of Rossini's L'Assedio di Corinto at La Scala, and Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden. Critic Peter G. Davis correctly stated that in these roles she lacked "the dramatic weight of a Callas or the sheer tonal beauty of Caballé and Sutherland," but Sills imbued them with a rhythmic command and a dramatic power and conviction all her own. NYCO also heard her as Manon. A video recording of her performance demonstrates how, despite her own maturity, she persuaded the audience that she was really a sixteen-year-old girl, ready to sample the best that life had to offer.

She recorded extensively during the 1970s, although she claimed to hate the process because she missed the presence of the audience. Several of her recordings (notably her Thaïs) show her past her vocal prime. Her arrival at the Met also came late. Having been repeatedly snubbed by Rudolf Bing during his tenure as the company's general manager, she was invited by Schuyler Chapin to make her house debut in L'Assedio di Corinto during the 1974-75 season. She followed this with fifty-five performances over four seasons, including Violetta, Lucia, Thaïs and Norina.

By the end of the decade, she was forced to face her own vocal decline, apparently without regret. "If I had a choice," she told Newsweek in 1969, "I'd take ten years as Callas rather than thirty years as somebody else." Her final opera performance came as Adele in a 1980 Die Fledermaus performance at San Diego Opera. Instead of settling into serene retirement, however, she took on a new life at her main artistic home, succeeding Rudel as NYCO's general director in 1980. On October 27 of that year, she made her official farewell from the stage with an all-star gala performance of Die Fledermaus. She also published two autobiographies: the once-over-lightly Bubbles: A Self-Portrait (1976) and the more serious-minded Beverly (1987).

Sills was a champion fund-raiser for NYCO, putting the company on solid financial footing and furthering the careers of many talented young American singers. During her tenure, NYCO also became the first U.S. company to introduce projected titles. She was active on the boards of American Express, Time Warner and many other organizations. She stepped down as NYCO's general director in 1989, but in 1994, she was named chairman of Lincoln Center (her board recruits included current New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg), and in 2002, she became chairman of the Metropolitan Opera, a post she held until January 2005. Notable accomplishments of her Met tenure included helping to rescue the company's Saturday-afternoon broadcasts in the wake of ChevronTexaco's withdrawal and influencing the choice of Peter Gelb as the company's new general manager, beginning in 2006.

Few people have ever used their position to achieve positive change in quite the way Sills did. To borrow an observation that the great film critic James Agee once made about Bette Davis in her prime, "Very few people in her position ... mean, or could do, so well." Perhaps one of the most telling moments came at Sills's 1980 farewell to NYCO. At the end of the performance, she sang her final notes in public in "Tell Me Why," a Portuguese folk song that Liebling had taught her long ago. While such farewells are usually fraught with emotion, this seemed a notably dry-eyed moment on Sills's part: one couldn't help suspecting that, having endured so much pain in her personal life, she had always walked out onstage simply ready to get the job done.


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