occasionally had Entenmann's
coffee cake with her at 9 in
the morning. She would serve
it up casually while pondering
yet another financial crisis as
she sat in her subterranean lair
at the New York City Opera
surrounded by souvenirs from
her singing days.
Like so many people fortunate to hear her sing or watch her eat, I will really
miss Beverly Sills, diva, manager, fund-raiser deluxe. The superstar singer
died last night age 78.
``How much money you got on you?'' she would joke, as I packed up my
reporter's notebook. ``We take small bills.'' When she was general director of
City Opera in the 1980s, Sills sometimes met the weekly payroll by eating
staggered lunches with donors before clattering down corporate hallways with
her begging cup in the afternoon. Then she'd have dinner with opera patrons.
Her mother draped her in a variety of fat-shrouding caftans and curtains.
Periodically, she would diet madly. At Trastevere, an Upper East Side
restaurant, she spent an evening staring melodramatically at a large pill and
some festively arrayed carrots while I feasted with the opera company's press
director, Susan Woelzl.
In her heyday, Sills was slim enough for the tight bustiers of Cleopatra in
Handel's ``Julius Caesar,'' the role that made her a megastar in 1966. Even
snobby teenagers who hung out next door at the grander Metropolitan Opera,
where international divas like Renata Tebaldi reigned in ripe operas by
Puccini, were won over.
`A Great High'
Somewhere, I still have a very 1960s button that says ``Beverly Sills Is a Great
High.'' She could sing up to high F as Mozart's Queen of the Night. City Opera
became a destination for us.
The Met took forever to ask her over. General Manager Rudolf Bing preferred
Europeans, and offered her silly pieces like Flotow's ``Martha'' in which the
tenor has the best song. The man finally retired and in 1975 she made her
debut in a little-known Rossini showcase called ``The Siege of Corinth,''
which I reviewed for the Wall Street Journal. It was some night. The audience
screamed even before she materialized on the stage. Tickets had sold out the
Sills was unique. Because she was such a cheerful goofball with television
comics Johnny Carson or Carol Burnett, even opera nuts sometimes forget her
greatness, especially in the French repertoire to which she brought charm and
delicacy. She had something very unusual: a timbre, a sound, that was all her
own and unmistakable in its luminosity.
Her dazzling virtuosity, so well suited to the mad warblings of Lucia di
Lammermoor, was impressive. Yet it is that
plaintive tone that I remember as I
think of her now: the sad inflections she brought to Massenet's doomed party
girl, Manon, as she recalls the happy days with her chevalier: ``N'est-ce plus
ma main.'' Her sadness reflected her
essence as much as the jokiness.
More than most people, Sills experienced tragedies in her own life, which she
endured stoically and with what
seemed to me a sense of the absurd. Daughter
Muffy, born deaf in 1959, never heard what the ruckus was all about
mom. For decades, Muffy has battled multiple sclerosis and now gets about in
a scooter and a wheelchair.
The son, Bucky, who also survives her, is mentally
retarded. Just before her Met debut, Sills was operated on for
growth. Sadly, too, the voice deteriorated rather early, when she was barely
In her last production at the Met, Donizetti's ``Don Pasquale'' in 1979, we all
leaned forward as if to help her
make those difficult little high notes. At the
City Opera, she tried on one last new costume, that of the deranged
Loca'' by Gian Carlo Menotti, and ended up tearing her hair out while he
pondered finishing a mad
scene. ``Why do you want a mad scene?'' he would
ask, whining. ``Because she's nuts!'' she remembered
screaming at him. The
Then came the decades on corporate boards and managing the City Opera,
though Sills could have simply
retired as the wealthy wife of the wealthy Peter
Greenough, whose family had owned the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper.
But she loved opera and other people's money and by combining the two
remained in the spotlight
-- which she also loved a lot.
Corporate leaders enjoyed talking to her because she had a fabulous red head
for business and was a good stock
picker on her own. For SmartMoney
magazine in 1996, I wrote a piece on her investments which required another
breakfast, this one in a restaurant opposite Lincoln Center, where she was then
ensconced as chairman. Even then,
with the sun barely out, she made an
entrance, squeezing past tables and rearranging a place setting or two by
time she dropped her huge memo-filled bag and sat down with a pleased
``oomph'' to order a pumpkin muffin.
Cash in a Bag
She remembered 1969 as her first million-dollar year, the earnings boosted by
her debut at La Scala, where she
was paid around $15,000 a night in cash in a
paper bag. In the mid-1970s, when Luciano Pavarotti was just a
on the high- earning horizon, Sills started to pull in $35,000 for concerts,
setting the stage for the
Three Tenors and their grotesque fees. Her recordings
also sold well, especially one of ``La Traviata.''
That morning she beamed, describing how she put some of her royalties and
fees into a ``Whoopee Fund'' -- with
which she bought whatever stocks she
liked, including Merck & Co. and QVC Inc. She invested in baby-product
companies with the assumption there would always be a ready supply of users
and did well with disposable
diapers. When Whoopee was closed down in
1994, it was worth more than $1 million, 15 times what she had
I don't know if anyone did a tally of the money she raised for medical research
and music, her twin causes. In
the mid-1990s she had raised $80 million for
the March of Dimes charity, she told me, and left the City Opera with
endowment of $5 million.
The last time I saw her was in the fall at Le Cirque in the Bloomberg complex
in mid-Manhattan, where she was
lunching with several lacquered women who
were probably lighter by a million or two by the time the baked Alaska
wobbled into view.