When it comes to risk, Beverly Sills’ approach has been akin to a beer commercial. She goes for the gusto.
When she was 40 years old, Sills made a sudden and dramatic switch in her repertoire. Instead of sticking with the mostly French operas (such as “Manon”) that made her an international star, Sills decided to add more difficult Italian bel canto roles to her repertoire. The move was counter to the advice of her longtime singing teacher, Estelle Liebling, who feared that these frequently strenuous parts would strain her voice.
“But what was I saving (my voice) for?” Sills wrote in her autobiography, “Beverly.” “Better to have 10 glorious years than 20 safe and ultimately boring ones.”
It proved the right course. Sills had a 27-year adult operatic career during which she established a reputation as the finest coloratura soprano of the 20th century. She went on to serve as general director of the New York City Opera Co. and more recently as chairwoman of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Actually Sills, 72, began her career in the entertainment business as a child star. Born Belle Silverman in Brooklyn, N.Y., she made her debut as a 3-year-old, singing “The Wedding of Jack and Jill.” That earned her first place in the Miss Beautiful Baby of 1932 contest. In love with singing, she appeared professionally on a number of national radio programs, including “Major Bowes’ Capitol Family Hour,” “Rainbow House” and “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts.”
Her first appearance as an “adult” was as a member of a national touring company that performed Gilbert and Sullivan works around the country. Even as just a teen-ager, Sills had a passion for song and a confidence in her ability that kept her from developing stage fright.
“The rationale I eventually dreamed up was if somebody in the audience could sing my part better than I could, our roles would be reversed: I’d be sitting in the audience and she’d be on stage,” she said.
While she liked to sing all tunes, opera provided the biggest challenge. And Sills loved a challenge.
By the time she was 7, Sills knew all 22 arias in her mother’s cherished record collection. Before she was 17, she knew 50 to 60 operas. She made it a point to study more than the bare minimum, pieces outside the range of roles she was likely to play. In addition, Sills would “read up on any character I played that was based on a literary or historical figure.”
Sills learned more than she had to because it gave her a better understanding of what the composer was going for. That extra knowledge turned out to be an added bonus when she took over the New York City Opera and began acting as a producer rather than performer.
Early on, Sills tried to be a realist about her career. Although Liebling and others urged her to tackle parts such as Mimi in “La Boheme” and Cio-Cio San in “Madame Butterfly,” Sills resisted. She didn’t have the proper voice for these roles, “and I saw no sense kidding myself about it,” she wrote.
Sills was known for more than the quality of her voice. She was also a superb actress, and emoted at a time when most divas just sang their roles.
She sought a careful balance onstage. Sometimes Sills used grand gestures; other times her movements were tiny. “When you want to get the audience’s attention on stage, stand perfectly still,” she wrote.
Sills believed careful preparation was crucial. So before every performance, she’d go through what she called her Ted Williams drill.
Sills once watched Williams walk around left field and examine the turn at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, where she lived at the time, even though he’d played there hundreds of times. He’d check for divots and bumps.
She decided to emulate a man she considered an expert. Sills checked her costumes, her music, her props, the stage, the hallway — even the curtain. She had learned the hard way — once failing to check out her props and thus finding herself with a Valkyrie helmet that didn’t fit and bumping into furniture that had been improperly placed by a stage hand.
She’d run the same follow-up checks afterward. “I’d be on stage after every performance to check where every piece of furniture was placed and to make sure I had all my props.”
To sustain her confidence, she worked with the prop department at the New York City Opera Co. to create mirrors and fans she could manipulate easily on stage. “A small point, perhaps,” she wrote. “But the use of familiar props gave me an extra edge of confidence.”
Sills believes in tackling confrontations head-on. Take her showdown with a claque leader in Milan, Italy.
Claques — paid cheering sections — are still common in Europe, and if not paid off by performers, they will boo. Sills decided not to give in to blackmail. She convinced the claque leader that this soprano was no one to mess with. “I belong to a very important “family’ in New York. Do you understand me?” she told him. “Do you understand what I mean by “family’? One sound out of you, and I suggest you leave Milan.” He got the message — and there was no booing after her performances.
Sills also understands the power of leverage. In 1980, after retiring as a singer, she was named director general of the New York City Opera. The company was nearly bankrupt. So she approached Ed Koch, then New York’s mayor, and told him the company’s name prevented her from raising funds outside the Big Apple. Unless he came through with more money — closer to what other cultural institutions in the city got — she’d have to change the New York City Opera to American National Opera.
The following year, Koch persuaded the city to more than quadruple its annual contribution to $1.3 million from $300,000.
Sills relies on the power of teamwork. When she took over at the opera company, she asked the performers to freeze their salaries and friends and associates to contribute or increase previous donations. All came through. “It taught me that under the worst possible conditions, sane people will listen if you make a presentation that’s honest,” she told The Dallas Morning News.
She strives constantly to improve. While visiting China, for instance, she saw that subtitles were projected on screens at the side of the stage of the Beijing Opera. There are so many dialects in China, it was necessary to translate the opera for the benefit of audience members who spoke a different dialect.
Recognizing a good idea when she saw it, she arranged for the New York City Opera to flash supertitles — English translations of the opera — on a screen at the top of the stage. It was an instant success.
“It’s stupid to sit in a theater for 2 1/2 or three hours and not understand one word that’s being sung,” she told The Dallas Morning News. “I’m not sure what is worse, not understanding or pretending that you do.”
Sills worked to understand her customers. During the summer, she found that many of her customers went away for the weekends. In order to attract audiences then, she put on lighter pieces — operettas such as “The Student Prince” and musicals like “Kismet” — that would attract young people. In the fall, many visitors to New York — a prime market for the company — return home on Sundays. So she eliminated Sunday evening performances, saving thousands of dollars.