(last updated: August 15, 2006)
he coloratura soprano Beverly Sills (born May 25, 1929) was perhaps the best-known American opera singer in the 1960s and 1970s. After retiring in 1980, she became the general manager of the New York City Opera. As a celebrity, Sills was and continues to be much liked for her down-to-earth personality and her charity work for the prevention and treatment of birth defects.
Sills was born Belle Miriam Silverman to first generation immigrants of Ukrainian and Romanian Jewish background. She was raised in a working-class neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. As a child, she spoke Yiddish, Russian, Romanian and English.
When she was three years old, Sills won a "Miss Beautiful Baby" contest singing "The Wedding of Jack and Jill". Her mother was convinced of her musical talents, and she provided her daughter with lessons in dance, voice and elocution. In the 1930s, she performed professionally on radio and in the 1936 short film Uncle Sol Solves It. In 1936, Sills began taking lessons with Estelle Liebling, a famous singing teacher, who encouraged her to audition for CBS Radio's Major Bowes' Amateur Hour. On October 26, 1939, she was the winner of that week's program. Bowes then asked her to appear on his Capitol Family Hour, a weekly variety show. Her first appearance was on November 19, 1939, the 17th anniversary of the show, and she appeared a number of times on the program thereafter (the dates of the first Bowes appearances are incorrect in most printed sources about Sills) .
In 1945, Sills made her professional stage debut with a Gilbert & Sullivan touring company and sang operetta for several years. In 1947, she made her operatic stage debut as the Spanish gypsy Frasquita in Bizet's Carmen with the Philadelphia Civic Opera. On September 15, 1953, she made her debut with the San Francisco Opera as Helen of Troy in Boito's Mefistofele. In 1955, she first appeared with the New York City Opera as Rosalinde in Strauss's Die Fledermaus, which drew raves from the newspaper critics. Her reputation was established with her performance of the title role in the New York premiere of Douglas Stuart Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe in 1958.
On November 17, 1956, she married Peter Greenough, publisher of the Cleveland, Ohio newspaper, The Plain Dealer and moved to Cleveland. She had two children with Greenough, Muffy in 1959 and Bucky in 1961. Upon learning that one was virtually deaf and the other mentally retarded, she restricted her schedule in order to care for them.
In 1960, the Greenoughs moved to Milton (outside Boston). In 1962, Sills sang the title role in Massenet's Manon for the Opera Company of Boston, the first of many roles with Sarah Caldwell. In January 1964 she sang her first Queen of the Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute for Caldwell . (Thanks to her formidable coloratura technique, Sills was greatly admired for her performance, but she herself was not fond of the role. She tells the story that she often spent the time between the two arias and the finale addressing holiday cards.)
In 1966, the New York City Opera revived Handel's then virtually unknown opera seria masterpiece Giulio Cesare and Sills' performance as Cleopatra made her an international opera star. In subsequent seasons, Sills had great successes in the roles of the Queen of Shemakha in Rimsky-Korsakov's Le Coq d'Or, Manon in Massenet's opera of that title, Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, and the three female leads Suor Angelica, Giorgetta, and Lauretta in Puccini's trilogy Il Trittico.
In 1969, she sang Pamira in Rossini's The Siege of Corinth, at La Scala, a triumph which put her on the cover of Newsweek magazine. Her now high-profile career landed her on the cover of Time in 1971, labeling her as "America's Queen of Opera." The title was appropriate because Sills had purposely limited her overseas engagements because of her family. Her major overseas appearances includes debuts at London's Covent Garden, Milan's La Scala and in Naples, the Vienna State Opera, Lausanne in Switzerland, and concerts in Paris. In South America, she sang in the opera houses of Buenos Aires and Santiago, and appeared in several productions in Mexico City.
In April 1975, Sills made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in the same opera, receiving an eighteen-minute ovation. Other operas she sang at the Met include "La Traviata," "Lucia di Lammermoor," "Thaïs," and "Don Pasquale." But Sills stayed loyal to the New York City Opera, her home opera house, essaying new roles right up to her retirement, including the leading roles in Rossini's "Turk in Italy," Lehár's "Merry Widow" and Menotti's "La Loca," a role written especially for her.
Although essentially a "lyric coloratura" as a voice type, Sills took on a number of heavier roles more associated with spinto sopranos as she grew older, including Violetta in Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata and Gaetano Donizetti's Tudor Queens - "Anna Bolena." "Maria Stuarda," and Roberto Devereux. She was much admired for transcending the lightness of her voice with dramatic interpretation, although it may have come at a cost; Sills later commented that Roberto Devereux "shortened her career by at least four years."
Sills was a tireless recitalist, especially in the final decade of her career. She sang in many mid-size cities and on numerous college concert series, bringing her art to many who might never see her on stage in a full opera. She also sang concerts with a number of symphony orchestras.
Sills probably did more for popularizing opera that any other singer of her era through her many appearances on talk shows, including those with Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, Mike Douglas and Dinah Shore. Sills even had her own talk show, "Lifestyles with Beverly Sills" on NBC.
In 1978, Sills announced she would retire on October 27, 1980, in a farewell gala at the New York City Opera. In the spring of 1979, she began acting as co-director of NYCO, and became its full general director as of the fall season of that year, a post she held until 1989, although she remained on the NYCO board until 1991. During her time as general director, Sills helped turn what was then a financially struggling opera company into a viable enterprise. She also devoted herself to various arts causes and such charities as the March of Dimes. From 1994 to 2002, she was chairman of Lincoln Center. In October 2002, Sills agreed to serve as chairman of the Metropolitan Opera, for which she had been a board member since 1991. She resigned as Met chairman in January 2005, citing family as the main reason (she had recently had to place her husband, whom she had cared for over 8 years, in a nursing home). She stayed long enough to supervise the controversial appointment of Peter Gelb, known while at Sony Records for his doubts about the commercial potential for classical music, as the Met's General Manager.
During her illustrious operatic career, Sills recorded eighteen full-length operas. She also starred in eight opera productions televised on PBS and participated in such specials as A Look-in at the Met with Danny Kaye in 1975, Sills and Burnett at the Met, with Carol Burnett in 1976, and Profile in Music, which won an Emmy Award for its showing in the US in 1975, although it had been recorded in England in 1971. In 1976, Sills published a memoir, Bubbles: A Self-Portrait (ISBN 0446815209). In 1987, she wrote Beverly: An Autobiography (ISBN 0553051733), along with a companion audio book, "Beverly Sills: On My Own," which included interviews, musical excerpts and a biographical narration (ISBN 0553457438).
For many years Sills has been the host for PBS broadcasts from Lincoln Center and is still sought after for speaking engagements.
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