everly Sills has long been such a fixture as an arts administrator, matchless fund-raiser, and media personality that it’s good to be reminded of her previous role as “America’s queen of opera” (as a 1971 Time cover story touted her). A talisman of those times is the 1959 New York City Opera recording of Douglas Stuart Moore’s “Ballad Of Baby Doe,” which featured an up-and-coming Sills making the title role her own. Last month, Deutsche Grammophon reissued the original Heliodor set to mark the opera’s 40th anniversary–and Sills’ 70th birthday which was May 25.
The success of “The Ballad Of Baby Doe” reissue–which charted on Billboard’s Top Classical Albums list, rare for a full opera, much less a reissue–has spurred Deutsche Grammophon into planning further re-releases from Sills’ neglected catalog. Universal has the rights to ABC’s Audio Treasury, which includes such Sills highlights as Grammy-nominated recitals of French arias (1969, with Sir Charles Mackerras) and Mozart and Strauss (1970, with Aldo Ceccato). Due in early 2000, the next Sills reissue will likely include the soprano’s acclaimed survey of Donizetti’s three queens: Elizabeth I (”Roberto Devereux”), Mary Queen Of Scots (”Maria Stuarda”), and Anne Boleyn (”Anna Bolena”).
Regarding other items from Sills’ back pages, Sony Classical has reissued her “Plaisir D’Amour” (a 1976 Colombia recital of French songs and arias) in its mid-price “Vocal Masterworks” series. Angel has a considerable store of her work both available (Rossini’s “Seige Of Corinth,” Massenet’s “Manon”) and yet to be revived (her Grammy-winning Victor Herbert recital from ‘76). And currently available but ripe for remastering is the 1967 RCA set spotlighting Sills’ signature turn as Cleopatra in Handel’s “Julius Caesar.”
After her vocal farewell in 1980, Sills has been so busy–running the New York City Opera for a decade and serving as chairman of Lincoln Center since ‘94, as well as raising many millions of dollars for charities–that she hasn’t been so concerned with cultivating her recorded legacy.
“I haven’t kept up with my old records,” she says, “and I know that every era has its own voices. Lately, though, I have realized that they are the only documents of my life’s work, and it would be nice to have some of them out. ‘Baby Doe’ is special, I think. I remember that we all felt like we were really on to something then. And that feeling made our spirits and our voices soar.
“‘Baby Doe’ has become something of a cult hit over the years,” Sills continues. “I talk to young people all around the country, and someone always has a question about it. Beyond the fact that Douglas wrote some beautiful tones, ‘Baby Doe’ is a piece of real Americana–and there is always a passion for characters who really lived. The same goes for Donizetti’s three queens. Even though those operas took serious liberties with history the characters were three-dimensional.”
Despite having been through some of the glory days of opera on record, Sills is optimistic about the art form’s future–particularly in the U.S. She says, “it is easy to say ‘Oh, it was so much better back in my day.’ But if you really think about it: Was it so much better? Everything goes in cycles, with a dry spell in the bel canto repertoire at one stage or a lack of Wagner specialists at another. Now, the next true Verdian baritone who comes along will be a millionaire. But when we have such spectacular, individual singers as Renee Fleming, Dawn Upshaw, and so many others, you can’t say that we don’t have some real talent today.
“I think the days of America’s inferiority complex in the arts are over,” Sills adds. “You don’t need a hard-to-pronounce name to succeed nowadays. It is much more difficult to raise funds for the arts now, but at least we’re used to it in America–and self-initiative is something we can teach Europe. I’m a big believer in American know-how, and I also believe in the quality of American audiences. I don’t think God kisses ears more passionately in Italy than he does in New York or Chicago.”