Beverly Sills Index Page

Singing Career - Bubbles

Opera News, September 19, 1970, pp. 19-21 by Faubion Bowers

"Everybody's favorite," one journal says. "Describable only in superlatives," croons another. Is it possible, you find yourself asking, for such a soprano to exist without fits and bouts of skittering temper? To be able to sing anything-lyric, dramatic, spinto, coloratura? Yes, anything: fifty-two different French, Italian, German, Russian, English and American operas with widely varying tessitura, some with notes so high they get lost in the firmament. And in the bargain to admire other sopranos? ("I think Eileen Farrell is the greatest dramatic soprano in the world. . . Sutherland's voice is the most perfect instrument.") Can a ranking prima donna be fantastically successful (three records on the Best Ten list for months on end), happily married, have a life flooded with joy and kissed with enough tragedy to give chiaroscuro? Is there no straw to come out of this woman?

So you find yourself going through channels to set up an interview. "Is Friday at ten O.K.?" "Sure, thanks." You go to the Lincoln Center Music Research Library and ask for the Beverly Sills clipping file. "Wow!" says the librarian, "if I have the strength to bring it all in one load." And now here you are walking to Central Park West near the Planetarium; you come to a large, fashionable apartment house. You ring the bell, and there she is. Instant impression: much smaller than you remember from the stage in all those queen roles-of the Night, of Shemakha, of Egypt, of the Fairies. You don't even look at the excellent view of Central Park, but you take in the elegance of the apartment at a glance-soft old-rose carpet, enormous armchair of crewelwork, bronze fountain, a cityscape over the fireplace (painted, you learn, by the Grandma Moses of Italy 1, a Giacometti sculpture on the mantel, an early picture of Miss Sills' now ten-year-old daughter, Muffy, who is a student at the Lexington School for the Deaf.

The diva's husband, Peter Bulkeley Greenough (rhymes with "Green Grow"), brings us coffee; she herself will bring the second batch, and the maid the third. Mr. Greenough is tall and handsome, eyes sparkling with mischievous extra thoughts. "My husband looks very young. . . I'm very fond of him." The singer sits on a long, bright-green sofa, her throat protected by a high- (almost turtle-) neck dress of subdued-green silk and worsted: "It has a strange name, 'torquese' or something like that." Low-heeled, brown-suede shoes: "My voice never tires, but my feet sometimes hurt," she said somewhere in another interview. All those greens fade together, and she ~ would disappear were it not for that shock of coppery, russet-red hair, officially described in the handouts as "titian." It is morning, but she wears jewelry-heavy gold watch with thick gold band, a ring of brushed gold with clumps of big diamonds thumbed in, a wedding ring, of course, and an enormously large diamond ring. Discreet earrings, whose gold you can't see for the brilliance of the hair. Or is it her smile, a smile so bright you can read by it?

Beverly Sills' career tells a contradictory, up-down, on-off story of an anything but meteoric rise. She is testimony to the random facts that artists may not audition well, are not spotted instantly, cannot always strike their stride before they are already marching lockstep in steady attainment. Perhaps never has so much come so late or so all-at-once to an artist. "It's like any product that goes on the market," she explains indifferently, "and has to wait to be consumed to catch on. It doesn't ruffle my feathers, doesn't matter. If I'd had the razzle-dazzle earlier, I would never have been able to concentrate the way I have in these last four or five years. Anyway, I think the pressures of success and things like going to La Scala are too much for very young people. Now I don't have to act like a prima donna. I know what I want and know what I need. People have respect for me because I have had a long career behind me. I'm not a fluke; somebody can't just dream up Beverly Sills and decide to make her up. I'm a damn good musician, and most conductors will say so-they back me up. It means when I go to La Scala to do Lucia, I don't have to have fits when I ask for something-I get it. I've been through the nonsense."

Miss Sills was always well known, even as a child performer by the name of Bubbles Silverman (from Brooklyn) on WOR's Uncle Bob's Rainbow Show and, later, Major Bowes's Capitol Family Hour. But she was not-how does one put this?- a celebrity. "Singing was always so easy for me, so natural. Iron lungs, that's me, and I was never really taught to sing, just helped by discipline. I did the Marchesi school of vocal exercises every day for five solid years. My teacher, Estelle Liebling, is the last survivor of this school, except for one little old lady in Europe. Miss Liebling made me stand in the middle of that big old Oriental carpet. (She still has it.) Talk about discipline! At first I scratched and fidgeted, but she wouldn't let me move-and for a seven-year-old child, that's hell. The first thing I sang for her was 'Il Bacio' [Luigi Arditi's waltz]. She said, 'That's terrible, terrible.' I burst into tears, because I thought I was doing wonderfully. I did a nice trill in there, I guess it was a shake. Anyway, she took it and started separating the two notes, making me put the accent on the upper notes, and making it faster and faster, until finally she said, 'You're the first seven-year-old I ever heard with a trill.' "And she laughed, because she thought it was the funniest, oddest thing she had ever heard. I can still do all those Marchesi exercises from first to last. You start with a series of thirds going up and down the scale. Then you broaden the intervals. I was terribly lucky to get to Miss Liebling. She has the greatest facility, could whip up and down staccato scales like nobody's business.

"I must have known thirty roles by the time I was twelve," Miss Sills continues. "The first was Gounod's Juliette. It was light and high, the vowels more closed than in Italian. Miss Liebling wanted me to keep the overtones in my voice for as long as possible. She kept me away from middle C. I vocalized on 'aw' and 'ooh' for years. I could already sing A above high C. You know what kids's voices are like; sometimes I hear them in the park sing C above high C."

For a long time Miss Sills worked as a commodity singer, oblivious to the dull roar of either failure or fame. She was self-supporting if not a star. On a concert tour in 1946 she sang things like "Upstream," by the man who wrote "The Lord's Prayer." She signed with the Shuberts to do the inspired piffle of The Merry Widow, Countess Maritza, Rose Marie, and she performed their 212-degreesFahrenheit love scenes and songs as if she really meant them (she did), obediently following the hand-on-the-heart, glint-in-the-eye rules of operetta acting. "When I came home, my father told me I was a great disappointment to him. That wasn't singing, to his mind: it was putting on false eyelashes. Unfortunately, he died in 1949, before I got going on anything."

In 1951 she set her heart on the New York City Opera. Joseph Rosenstock ("Now he's a good friend") was leading conductor and chief auditioner. Miss Sills auditioned eight times-unsuccessfully, until the eighth. "I was the hippie of my time. Dr. Rosenstock didn't like that then, I think. He's very conventional. I was a very kooky dresser. I wore black stockings. I was a kooky kid; I just wanted to act."

In 1953 she made her debut at the San Francisco Opera, astonishing everyone at the opening-night Mefistofele with her Helen of Troy, a role that calls for an enormous voice with top and chest tones. Later that season she appeared as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni. By 1955 she finally made it into the New York City Opera, playing the giddy wife, Rosalinda, in Die Fledermaus on October 29. The following month, on three days' notice, she learned Oxana (substituting for an ailing Jean Penn) in Tchaikovsky's Golden Slippers. Official annals describe the opera as "a crashing non-success," but the soprano recalls it otherwise: "The opera was very good, marvelous. Witches floating in the air, but those golden slippers-ha! I had quite an experience. Listen to what happened. This hulky boy brings them back from the Tsarina's palace (that's the plot of the opera), and there's this lovely wedding dance at the end. Nobody thought about changing Jean's slippers-and our feet are entirely different from each other's in shape-so I danced right out of them. I mean, after going through all this, three acts of screaming about golden slippers, and then just to dance your way right out of them at the end was unbelievable. When the curtain went down, there they were in front of the curtain. Dr. Rosenstock was very mad at me-furious."

That year there were more Rosalindas, on tour. And here it was that Beverly and Peter met. His family had founded the Cleveland Plain Dealer; he was a major stockholder and an associate editor of the paper. He had a twenty-five-room house and three little girls. In November 1956 the couple married, and she became a commuting opera singer. That same year with the New York City Opera she ripped off Philine's "Je suis Titania la blonde," complete with feathered Eugenie hat, fan and decolletage, to Francis Bible's Mignon. "La Philine est vraiment divine," goes the aria, and the critics went along-more or less. Later that season she was the aging opera star, Mme. Goldentrill, in Mozart's Impresario and sang the title role of Douglas Moore's Pulitzer Prizewinning Ballad of Baby Doe.

In 1959 she became the mother of a daughter, Meredith, quickly abbreviated to Muffy, and in 1961 a son arrived, Bucky. Muffy was nearly two before the parents learned she had "a profound hearing loss." Shortly after, it was discovered that Bucky was retarded. She says of Bucky now, looking you straight in the eye, "He's a very beautiful boy. , . but very sick." The Sills career nearly vanished into oblivion. She stayed at home in Milton, a rural suburb outside Boston where the Greenoughs had now moved; Peter had become financial columnist of the Boston Globe. She wanted to be with the children and took Muffy every day to a special school for the deaf. There Miss Sills learned how she could work with Muffy at home, teaching her to speak. The following season, however, Julius Rudel insisted she honor her contract with the New York City Opera, so she again began to commute for appearances. There were many who believed that the tragedies of her children had tempered both voice and person in the forge of life, freeing her as an interpreter. She was revealed more sharply than ever as an actress as well as a singer. But the Year of the Miracle, as everybody knows, was 1966-during the City Opera's first fall season at Lincoln Center. The opera was Handel's Julius Caesar, the work's initial staging in New York, with Miss Sills as Cleopatra. "We started fooling around with makeup. Norman [Treigle] came in one day looking exactly like Caesar. So unusual it all was. And we did it like a balletic opera, not moving the way we would in a regular opera." The more Miss Sills sang that opening night, the closer to the edge of the seats the audience sat. She orbited the high notes of the steeplechase embellishments and interpolated cadenzas like birds wheeling in the sky. The more she gave, the more the audience wanted; at the end, everyone swept to his feet in a whoosh of excitement.

That same season Sills repeated her tour de force of singing Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann-all three heroines, Olympia the mechanical doll with high E-flats, Giulietta the seductive courtesan, and sweet Antonia with the triple-fortissimo top C-sharp. In 1967, when she finally faced the fact that Bucky would be better cared for in an institution, she asked Rudel for something that would completely absorb her. As a companion to her Hoffmann roles she suggested the three heroines of Puccini's Trittico - Giorgetta (dramatic soprano), Sister Angelica (high lyric) and Lauretta (light soubrette). "A challenge to versatility," she calls it today. She also made her debut at the Vienna State Opera, as the Queen of the Night, a role she had already performed at the City Opera.

All the time, Miss Sills was learning and performing new roles, focusing more and more on the high-coloratura and bel canto repertory. Among the roles were Manon ("Sexy? My, my!" wrote Harold C. Schonberg in the New York Times) and Zerbinetta ("doing all sorts of things most sopranos wouldn't attempt in the privacy of their studios," wrote Allen Hughes in the same paper). Then, when Renata Scotto became pregnant, La Scala invited Miss Sills to sing Pamira in Rossini's Siege of Corinth, honoring the 200th anniversary of the composer's birth. It was an all-American triumph: her colleagues included Marilyn Horne, Justino Diaz and conductor Thomas Schippers. Last spring she returned to La Scala for Lucia di Lammermoor, a work newly produced for her a year ago by the New York City Opera. ("It was Sills, Sills, Sills all the way," chronicled Schonberg.) With all the acclaim have come the peripheral evidences of stardom-recordings, TV appearances on the Ed Sullivan, Dick Cavett, David Frost and Mike Douglas shows, discussions about a biography, a skyrocketed fee of $7,5OO-plus.

Roberto Devereux is the excitement of the moment. The New York City Opera has built a spanking new production of this Donizetti rarity all around her (despite the opera's title). She plays Queen Elizabeth I. When Tito Capobianco, the director, "threw" the score into her hands, he added, "This is the nicest present I ever gave you." The opera is sure-fire, with its heroes familiar since high school (Sir Walter Raleigh, for one) and its tale of love and vengeance between Elizabeth and Essex (Roberto Devereux). The first performance will be on October 15.

Miss Sills has been preparing for a long time. First, she bought every book about Elizabeth she could, including out-of-prints. "A very expensive collecting habit," she points out. "I also have copies of every portrait ever painted of her, and each one is different. I make Elizabeth sympathetic. Look, she's a fifty-five-year-old woman in love with a twenty-four-year-old boy. She finds he's betrayed her. She has a rival, and he wants her throne. The key line is 'Better to be buried alive than to offend her who was born of the fearsome Henry VIII.' I use the same makeup Elizabeth herself used-flour and alum, with putty to block my own hair out on the headpiece. And I have a lump on my nose. Oh, I just love all that makeup." Coming up next June is an even greater challenge, vocally speaking: Bellini's Norma, for Sarah Caldwell's company in Boston.

Miss Sills today is besieged with offers, promises, opportunities, requests, demands. And nowadays everyone gets her name right. No more critics writing about "Beverly Hills," or that frightful poster announcing "Beverly Soils" in Chicago. Even Who's Who no longer sends her its questionnaire addressed to "Miss Betty Siltzer."

Peter Greenough has "retired," given up the job in Boston. And, it is rumored, he has bought Westminster Records, which gives Miss Sills a unique opportunity to record not only what she wants (arias, Roberto Devereux, the forthcoming Lucia and Manon) but with whom. The family has now moved to New York-for the Sills career, for Muffy and for life. As Muffy gets older, she needs her mother more. "I have my daughter when she comes home from school. She can talk now, and we sing together. Her voice is beautifully modulated, and I teach her a great deal. People don't know how to use the diaphragm, so I help her with that. I teach her all the little rhymes and rhythm chants I know.

"I don't want to be separated from her for any long period of time, and I can't take her out of school to travel with me anymore. She likes to see me in Tales of Hoffmann, and she likes Marguerite but hates Faust. She loves Daughter of the Regiment because I play the drum in it; the man in the Boston Symphony Orchestra taught me himself. I place a high price on me now, because I can't leave her for more than two and a half or three weeks. Fortunately, Covent Garden comes over the Christmas holidays, though it's a six-week engagement. [She will make her debut as Lucia.] I refuse any engagement that conflicts with Muffy."

Perhaps this is part of her loyalty to the New York City Opera, which she calls "the company." It's convenient for Muffy. But there are other reasons, too: it's better to be part of a team than a star. ("Superstar," she says in an eclat de rire. "Get your terminology right. After all, the maid calls me 'Soup.''') And like Edward Villella at the New York City Ballet, Sills will perform for thousands of dollars in one place and for a pittance at the City Opera. The company returns her loyalty: she has asked for The Daughter of the Regiment for 1971, and doubtless she will get it.

Some straw does come out of the woman. Occasionally her trills are upside down, for example, and her various registers do not always sound homogenized. But never mind. She's home-grown and all our own. "Yes," she says wonderingly, "everybody talks to me as Beverly. They feel they've made me-and they have." Winthrop Sargeant wrote in The New Yorker, "If I were recommending the wonders of New York to a tourist, I should place Beverly Sills way ahead of such things as the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building." So would we all. So would we all.