everly Sills, whose radiant soprano and vibrant personality
made her "America's Queen of Opera," as Time magazine
called her in 1971, died last night. She was 78.
It had been revealed a few days ago
that Ms. Sills was gravely ill with
inoperable lung cancer. The singer,
who never smoked, died about 9 p.m.
at her Manhattan home, said her
manager, Edgar Vincent.
Ms. Sills, who retired from the stage in
1980, sang some 70 roles in her
career. The two opera companies with
which she was most closely associated
were the New York City Opera and the
Opera Company of Boston, headed by
Sarah Caldwell. Ms. Sills was a
mainstay of the latter throughout the
Both companies were operatic
underdogs, which contributed to Ms. Sills' democratic,
one-of-us image, as did the fact she spent most of her career
performing in the United States. Her friendly, extroverted
manner helped popularize opera in this country. This was
equally true during her performing career and then as an
administrator at City Opera, New York's Lincoln Center, and
the Metropolitan Opera.
Among Ms. Sills' most notable roles were Cleopatra, in
Handel's "Julius Caesar" (her breakthrough performance, at
City Opera, in 1966); Massenet's "Manon"; Violetta , in Verdi's "La Traviata"; and the title role in Douglas Stuart Moore's "The Ballad of Baby Doe."
Ms. Sills' soprano was a lyric coloratura, prized for its
lightness, agility, range, and skill at ornamentation. Later in
her career she took on several spinto (or heavier-voiced)
roles, most notably the three Tudor queens in Donizetti's
operas: Elizabeth I, in "Robert Devereaux," Anne Boleyn, in "Anna Bolena," and Mary Stuart, in "Maria Stuarda." For Elizabeth, Ms. Sills spent two hours being made up and
wore a gown that weighed 55 pounds. "Elizabeth was not my
finest role, but it was my finest accomplishment," she said in
a 2000 Boston Globe interview. "I couldn't depend on my
dimples to get me through."
More than dimples contributed to Ms. Sills' impact on stage.
She had a helm of titian hair and statuesque physique and
boasted impressive acting skills. Performance for her was a
matter of interpretation as well as music. "Before she
undertakes a role, Miss Sills exhausts the literature about it," the critic Winthrop Sargeant wrote in his 1973 book, "Divas." Having "absorbed all the available historical and biographical
data, she starts going over the music at the piano."
Opera did not lack for legendary sopranos during Ms. Sills'
heyday, the 1960s and 1970s. Maria Callas, all intensity and
hubris, could have stepped out of Greek tragedy. Leontyne
Price had an unmatched regal presence. Joan Sutherland
was hailed as "La Stupenda."
In contrast, Ms. Sills was known as "Bubbles."
It is commonly assumed the name sprang from her warmth
and ebullience. In fact, the nickname was bestowed at birth
because of the foamed saliva on her lips. "Bubbles" couldn't
have been topped as a term of affection.
As much as her superlative singing, it was Ms. Sills' lack of
pretense that helped make her such a cherished figure. A
down-to-earth diva, she was more big sister or friendly aunt
than temperamental prima donna -- "the sort of woman," Michael Steinberg wrote in his Globe review of her 1975
debut at the Metropolitan Opera, "who actually catches the
bouquets that are thrown at her across orchestra pits and
Long before the Three Tenors, Ms. Sills braided together
opera and popular culture. She clowned with Carol Burnett in
an Emmy-nominated television special and subbed for
Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show." She had her own talk
show on NBC, "Lifestyles with Beverly Sills," and for many
years hosted PBS's "Live from Lincoln Center" broadcasts.
Show biz came naturally to Ms. Sills, who never attended a
conservatory. Born Belle Miriam Silverman in Brooklyn on
May 25, 1929, she first sang in public at 3, winning a Most
Beautiful Baby contest with a rendition of "The Wedding of
Jack and Jack." Her parents were Morris Silverman, an
insurance salesman, and Sonia (Bahn) Silverman.
"When I was 4 or 5, everybody's mother was convinced their
daughter was the next Shirley Temple," Ms. Sills said last
year in a Newsday interview. "I was the operatic Shirley
Ms. Sills regularly performed on a Saturday morning radio
show, began voice lessons, and sang in a 1936
movie short,"Uncle Sol Solves It." At 10, she won first place on a network
radio program, "Major Bowes' Amateur Hour," the "American
Idol" of its day.
"I was self-supporting as a singer from the time I was 15
years old," Ms. Sills remarked in that 2000 Globe interview.
Promoted as "the youngest prima donna in captivity," Ms.
Sills recalled traveling "around the country
on a bus, singing
every night and making $125 a week and living on Dinty
Moore beef stew -- I didn't have a weight
problem in those
Joking about her size was indicative of Ms. Sills'
forthrightness and candor. Her husband, Peter Greenough,
came from a wealthy background (his family owned The
Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper), and she acknowledged
how that helped her to thrive in a demanding career while
raising a family.
She met Greenough in Cleveland while on a 1955 tour with
City Opera. "He winked, which I thought was pretty
corny," Ms. Sills told The Christian Science Monitor in 1985, "but it
worked." Greenough died last year.
Ms. Sills had three stepchildren from Greenough's previous
marriage and two children with her husband: a son,
who is autistic and mentally retarded, and a daughter,
Meredith, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and who is deaf.
For many years, Ms. Sills served on the boards of the March
of Dimes and the Multiple Sclerosis Society.
"It was an ironic trick of the gods to give me a daughter who
couldn't hear me sing," Ms. Sills said on a PBS special
year devoted to her career, "Beverly Sills: Made in America." "It affected my singing. The best times I had were
on stage. To be able to pretend to be somebody else for
three hours was such a relief."
Largely because of her family situation, Ms. Sills spent most
of her career in the United States -- something highly
for someone with her gifts. "I'm a revolutionary," Ms. Sills said
in a 1975 Opera News interview, "because I proved that one
can have a great career without the Met and, in this country,
without European approval. Few Americans
have made it
really big at home, and my career is typically American -- yet
so atypical. I went [to Europe] as a prima donna [who was]
stamped first in America."
A revolutionary needs to be determined, and Ms. Sills was.
She auditioned nine times at City Opera before making
debut there, in 1955. When it appeared the company might
not cast her in "Julius Caesar," she announced, "If I don't get
the Cleopatra, I'll hire Carnegie Hall and sing five Cleopatra
arias just to get her out of my system,
because, by God, I'm
going to sing Cleopatra in New York!"
At a 1994 tribute, the violinist Isaac Stern described Ms. Sills
as "this steamroller that travels around like a lady."
Ms. Sills had a rich and longstanding connection with the
Boston area. She lived in Milton during much of the
husband was the Globe's financial columnist from 1961 to
1969.) Ms. Sills also had a summer home on
Vineyard for many years.
"Manon" was her debut performance with the Opera
Company of Boston. She also appeared as the Queen of the
Night in Mozart's "The Magic Flute;" with Placido Domingo in
Rameau's "Hippolyte et Aricie"; in the US premiere
Nono's "Intolleranza" (a rare foray into contemporary music);
her only Gilda, in Verdi's "Rigoletto"; and
the title roles in
Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" and "La Fille de
Ms. Sills also performed several times with the Boston
Symphony during Erich Leinsdorf's tenure as music director
most memorably in a concert performance of the original
version of Richard Strauss's "Ariadne auf Naxos," as
Zerbinetta. At one point, the score calls for the character to
sing an F-sharp above a high C -- a note "only audible
dogs," Ms. Sills liked to joke.
Ms. Sills recorded 18 operas and several recitals, twice
winning Grammy Awards. Still, the recording studio never
meant as much to her as the stage. "I like the audience," she
told Opera News in 1975, "and I'm not thrilled by the
Perhaps her most memorable stage performance came when
she finally made her Met debut, in Rossini's "The Siege of
Corinth." Rudolf Bing, the Met's famously autocratic director,
had said of Ms. Sills a few years before, "I have heard
sing, but not lately, and I can't remember in just what." She
made her debut after Bing resigned. When the curtain
down that night, Ms. Sills received 26 curtain calls and the
standing ovation lasted 18 minutes and 20 seconds.
She was only 50 when she sang onstage for the last time. "I
wanted people to say, 'You left too soon,' not 'You left
late,' " she said in a 2002 Globe interview. She professed
never to regret the decision. "Since I retired," she
been singing nothing but 'Happy Birthday,' and now even my
family doesn't ask me to do that."
Retirement from the stage did not mean retirement from
opera. Ms. Sills served as general director of City Opera
1979 to 1989; chairwoman of New York's Lincoln Center for
the Performing Arts from 1994 to 2002; and
New York's Metropolitan Opera from 2002 to 2005. Ms. Sills
was the first woman to hold
each of those positions.
"While I no longer do what made me famous," Ms. Sills said
in her 1985 Christian Science Monitor interview, "I'm still
pretty much of a driving force in the same area."
Ms. Sills received the nation's highest civilian honor, the
Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1980. A Kennedy
honoree in 1985, she was a recipient of the National Medal of
Arts in 1990. She also won two Emmy Awards.
"Oh, I always knew I was going to be an opera star," Ms. Sills
said in that Monitor interview, "not just an
opera singer, an
opera star. The moment I saw Lily Pons on the stage, I knew
that." She was 8.
In addition to her children, both of Manhattan, and
stepchildren, Lindley Thomasett of Bedford, N.Y.,
of Woodstock, N.Y., and Diana Greenough, of Lancaster,
Mass., Ms. Sills leaves a brother, Stanley.