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Beverly Sills Biographical Article- Kennedy Center Honors

(last updated: August 15, 2006)

the evolution of "Bubbly" Silverman, the little girl from Brooklyn who sang Rinso White radio commercials, to Beverly ("Bubbles") Sills, international coloratura soprano of the first magnitude, was a long one. When she pulled down the curtain on her singing career in 1980, at the age of 51, in order to, in her words, "put my voice to bed so it will go quietly, with pride," she left a legacy of operatic music destined to last in the recordings of nearly all her celebrated roles. She also gave her full attention to being the general director of the New York City Opera, a role she had assumed the preceding year upon the resignation of Julius Rubel.

Belle Miriam Silverman, or "Bubbly," was the daughter of Morris Silverman, a Romanian immigrant insurance broker, and Shirley (Bahn) Silverman, who was from Ukraine.

She made her unauspicious debut singing "The Wedding of Jack and Jill" which won her first prize in the "Miss Beautiful Baby of 1932" contest at Brooklyn's Tompkins Park.

Convinced of her daughter's musical gifts, Mrs. Silverman provided her with dance, voice, and elocution lessons in addition to frequent musical outings. During one, a Lily Pons concert, the pre-schooler announced: "I want to sit up very close. I want to see what she does with her mouth. Mamma, someday I want to sing like Lily Pons."

She did perform professionally in the 1930s, singing and tap dancing on WOR radio's "Uncle Bob's Rainbow House" and in the 1938 film "Uncle Sol Solves It." By the time she was 7, young "Bubbly" could also sing all 22 arias from her mother's cherished Galli-Curci recordings.

At the age of 12, the young singer retired from performing until she had completed her academic education at P.S. 91 in Brooklyn and at Erasmus Hall High School there and then at the Professional Children's School in Manhattan.

In 1945, she launched her full time career under the guidance of the Broadway producer J.J. Schubert who was determined to turn into a star of the musical theater. As a member of the Gilbert and Sullivan national touring company, she starred in a half dozen principal roles during a succession of brief engagements. The following year, assignments with the same company included leads in the operettas Rose Marie, Countess Maritza, and The Merry Widow.

Beverly Sills made her debut in grand opera in 1947 as the Spanish gypsy Frasquita in Bizet's Carmen with the Philadelphia Civic Opera. To make ends meet following her father's death in 1949, she sang in a private club, then toured from coast to coast with the Charles L. Wagner Opera Company. Her debut as Helen of Troy in Boito's Mifistofele at the San Francisco Opera on September 15, 1953, was an unqualified success, but her repeated auditioning for the New York City Opera was not--until 1955 when she finally joined the company and made her debut as Rosalinde in Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus.

The following year, Sills married Peter Buckeley Greenough, associate editor of his family-owned Cleveland Plain Dealer. She again virtually retired in 1961 when it was discovered that her two-year-old daughter was suffering from a profound loss of hearing and when, only a few months later, she and her husband realized that their newborn, Peter Jr., was mentally retarded. She decided to devote her time to her afflicted children. After several years, her husband and the New York City Opera general manager Julius Rudel persuaded her to return.

By the mid-1960s, critics, fans, and colleagues noted her newly found assurance and interpretive skills as demonstrated in such roles as the Queen of the Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute with the Boston Opera Company. Yet is was not until 1966 when the New York City Opera revived Handel's Guilio Cesare for her that she was catapulted to international superstardom.

In seasons immediately following, Sills won acclaim for such diversified roles as the Queen of Shemakha in Rimsky-Korsakov's Le Coq d'Or, Manon, in Massenet's opera of that title, Lucia in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, and the three female leads Suor Angelica, Giorgetta, and Lauretta in Puccini's trilogy Il Trittico.

Rudel's resignation in 1978 enabled Sills to follow in the footsteps of Sarah Caldwell of the Boston Opera Company and Carol Fox of the Chicago Lyric Opera in assuming sole directorship of a leading American opera company. It became effective July 1, 1979. Gradually phasing out her performances, which had grown to some 100 yearly, she accepted the leading role of Juana the Mad Queen of Spain in Menotti's La Loca, the opera commissioned to honor the soprano's 50th birthday. It was the last new piece of music she would ever have to learn.

In addition to the acclaim she received in the United States, she also received adulation abroad beginning with her role as Pamira at Milan's La Scala in 1969.

Among her recordings, for which she has won both Europe's Edison Award and America's Grammy Award, are 18 full-length operas. On television she starred in eight operas on PBS and in such specials as "Sills and Burnett at the Met," with Carol Burnett, "Profile in Music," which won an Emmy Award, and "A Conversation with Beverly Sills."

She has devoted herself to arts causes and such charities as the March of Dimes. Among her many honors is the Presidential Medal of Freedom which she received in 1980.

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