reasured as much for her bubbling personality and administrative
acumen as for her extraordinary voice, coloratura soprano Beverly Sills died of lung
cancer on July 2. One of the finest high-flying sopranos of the latter 20th century, she
leaves behind a rich legacy of recordings and an opera scene revitalized by her
tireless efforts on behalf of American singers.
To lovers of the human voice, there was no one like Sills in her prime. That prime
was relatively brief, extending from her assumption of the title role in New York City
Opera's production of Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe in 1958 to
breakthrough performances as Cleopatra in Handel's Julio Cesare in 1966 and
subsequent triumphs in Rossini's The Siege of Corinth, Massenet's Manon, and
Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor and Roberto Devereux. Her assumption of the
extremely demanding role of Queen Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux , one of a Donizetti trilogy of Tudor queen roles she undertook
at NYCO in the early 1970s, contributed to her rapid vocal decline, and her
retirement, in 1980, at the relatively early age of 51.
Sills' vocal magic was rooted in part in a mesmerizing, iridescent head voice whose
searing intensity cut right to the heart. Her indescribably beautiful top notes,
seemingly fragile yet capable of riding above a full orchestra, shimmered in the air as
if produced by some uncanny, disembodied presence. The best of her studio and live recordings, set down between 1959 and 1971, only begin to convey the extraordinary
emotional impact of those pure, translucent highs. That they arose from the same
being who could sing in a hollow, grief-stricken chest voice and a mature, hardly
virginal midrange further contributed to their wonder.
Sills was also a consummate actress. I first saw her live at NYCO in 1971, in an
astounding performance of Roberto Devereux. In her opening scene, when she
leaned across a table and emitted the first of many extraordinary coloratura runs, I
was stunned by the pathetic intensity of her performance. Both voice and gestures
seemed to transmit the pain of all women who have suffered at the hands of men.
Although the 1975 DVD of Roberto Devereux (VAI) finds her voice in diminished
condition, it remains one of the great opera videos of the 20th century.
But Sills was hardly all pain. Listen to her three 1968 recordings of the coloratura
showpiece "O luce di quest' anima," from Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix. One,
filmed in color for The Bell Telephone Hour, finds her emitting awesome coloratura
runs with the delighted ease of a young child scampering up and down a slide in a
fun house. Performances in Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment and Rossini's
The Barber of Seville found her equally gay, even when the voice itself was no
longer in happiest estate.
Sills, née Belle Miriam Silverman, was born in Brooklyn on May 25, 1929. Her
nickname, "Bubbles," coined when the doctor who delivered her noticed that the
newborn was blowing a bubble from her mouth, stuck on more than a surface level.
A few years after her radio debut on Uncle Bob's Rainbow House at age four, she
won a role on a radio soap opera, Our Gal Sunday, and sang in a Rinso-White TV
commercial. Even at the height of her performing career, the public knew her best as
the smiling, droll, down-to-earth Diva who bubbled her way through TV stints with
Carol Burnett, Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson, Danny Kaye, Dinah Shore, and Miss
Behind the smile was a history of hard work, unwavering determination, and personal
pain. Her marriage to Peter B. Greenough, who died last year after a prolonged
illness, produced two children with disabilities. The discovery that her daughter had
profound hearing loss, and that her son was suffering from severe autism that
resulted in his eventual institutionalization, led her to retire briefly in 1961. Asked
later in life about her smiling disposition, she acknowledged that, given all she had
gone through, she considered herself cheerful rather than happy.
Shortly before retiring from singing in 1980, Sills became acting codirector and then
general director of New York City Opera. While rescuing the financially strapped
company, she continued a crusade on behalf of American opera singers that had
begun with her own decision to base her career in the US. From 1994 to 2002 she
served as "chairman" of Lincoln Center, then moved on to become chairperson of
the Metropolitan Opera. She resigned in January 2005 in order to give more attention
to her failing husband and her own health.
Sills' determination is legendary. Once she delivered an ultimatum to Julius Rudel,
then general director of NYCO: either give me that role of Cleopatra in Julius Caesar
that you've promised to Phyllis Curtin, or my husband will rent out Carnegie Hall,
where I'll sing five of Cleopatra's arias and make you 'look sick.' " Rudel relented,
and Sills became an international celebrity overnight. Another time, faced with a La
Scala seamstress who three times refused to fulfill an agreement to redo Sills'
costume in the right color, she ensured that she'd get what she needed by cutting the
offending costume in pieces before the seamstress's eyes.
For those wishing to experience Sills at her finest, her earliest complete opera
recording, The Ballad of Baby Doe (DG), finds the extraordinary beauty and
heartbreaking pathos of her singing transcending the set's sonic limitations. Three
years later, on a 1962 CBC broadcast clip included on the indispensable DVD
Beverly Sills: Made in America (Deutsche Grammophon), her phenomenally free,
effortless high D at the climax of Doe's "Willow, where we meet together" is worth its
weight in tears. My friend Mike, who to this day cannot listen to Sills' recording of
Doe's final aria, "Always through the changing" (DG), without sobbing, remembers a
night that the Corner Grocery Store bar in San Francisco's Castro District played the
aria. "Everyone stopped talking," he reports. "The boys at the bar, the men at the
pool table. All was quiet."
Other representative samples of Sills in her prime include complete recordings of
Julio Cesare (RCA Victor), Manon (DG), Roberto Devereux (DG, studio; Melodram,
live), Lucia di Lammermoor (DG), and L'Assedio di Corinto (Opera D'Oro, preserving
Sills' phenomenal 1969 La Scala début, alongside Marilyn Horne at her butch best).
I also recommend the aria and song compilations on DG; The Singers: Beverly Sills
(London/Decca); and various pirate recordings. Favorite standalone recordings
include "Breit' über mein Haupt" (R. Strauss), "Ruhe sanft" (Mozart, especially the
live version from 1968), "Vorrei spiegarvi, o Dio" (Mozart), "Vilia" (Lehár), and "Mariettas Lied" (Korngold). Forget about historical correctness and tempo
indications; no one performs these pieces like Beverly Sills. Also check out the
tantalizing video clips (in compromised sound) scattered around the pages of