everly Sills, the longtime opera diva, director and master money-raiser who stepped down as chairwoman of Lincoln Center last May, is un-retiring at 73 to become chairwoman of the Metropolitan Opera, which had once spurned her singing.
When she left her Lincoln Center position six months ago, she said she wanted "to smell the flowers a little bit."
"So I smelled the roses and developed an allergy," Ms. Sills said yesterday, describing the latest twist in a nearly 60-year career that includes a decade as general director of the New York City Opera, the Met's Lincoln Center neighbor.
Ms. Sills' re-emergence could influence the direction of major initiatives on the New York cultural scene: Lincoln Center's often contentious rehabilitation project, now estimated at $1.8 billion, and City Opera's possible move on or off the Lincoln Center campus. The Met, by far the most powerful of the center's constituents, has taken strong positions on both issues.
Paul M. Montrone, the Met's president and chief executive, said the executive committee agreed on Thursday to recommend Ms. Sills to the directors next month as a successor to James W. Kinnear, 74, the former president and chief executive of Texaco. The Met's chairman since 1993, he will now become honorary chairman.
Ms. Sills has been on the Met's board since 1991. Since May she has also been vice chairman of Lincoln Center, and it was not immediately clear whether she would retain that post, which, like the Met's chairmanship, is unpaid.
Persuading Ms. Sills to lead the board and fund-raising drive at a time of stringent financial need is a particular triumph for Joseph Volpe, the company's general manager. Yesterday he recalled that early in his career, as a carpenter, he had helped build the set for "Thaïs," the racy Massenet opera she had sung on the Met's stage in 1978 after years of waiting to sing there, despite raves at City Opera. "I made the bed, and she slept in it," he said.
Mr. Volpe said he was delighted that after years of courting her at lunches and dinners, "my dear friend and colleague" would be taking the post. For her part, Ms. Sills said she particularly looked forward to working with Mr. Volpe "whom I have come to admire enormously."
During heated disputes over the redevelopment plan last year, Ms. Sills and Mr. Volpe were sometimes at odds, but she came to side with him on some major issues, including arguing against a proposed dome over the plaza and a new home for City Opera in Damrosch Park. Among the divisive questions still ahead is whether City Opera should remain eligible for Lincoln Center money if it moves to a new location.
Ms. Sills insisted yesterday that the discussions were never acrimonious but simply "challenging."
The new move represents a final vindication for Ms. Sills, ignored by the Met during the autocratic reign of Rudolph Bing, who held her career at the City Opera against her. She finally made her Met debut in 1975 in "The Siege of Corinth," winning an 18-minute ovation. She then sang more than 100 performances there before leaving the opera stage for good in 1980.
"The world is divided among those who love opera and those who like it a little less, and Ms. Sills will be helpful to Lincoln Center for both," said Reynold Levy, the president of Lincoln Center, who took over this spring as Ms. Sills was leaving. He called her "an enormously effective chairman of Lincoln Center for eight years."
Coming four months after a former Met president, Bruce Crawford, succeeded Ms. Sills as chairman of Lincoln Center, this pas de deux seemed to add to the Met's already large voice in center politics.
But if other groups were concerned, none acknowledged it yesterday; some executives warmly applauded the step, and others offered at least measured praise. "The City Opera is pleased to know Beverly Sills is continuing her service to opera," said Paul Kellogg, that company's general and artistic director.
Paul B. Guenther, chairman of the New York Philharmonic, who has clashed at times with Mr. Volpe over the redevelopment plan, said the appointment would be "a huge gain for the Met and Lincoln Center."
It may be a particularly good time to have a top fund-raiser like Ms. Sills leading the board. With an annual budget of $200 million, of which about $75 million has to be raised from benefactors, the Met, the world's largest opera company, is suffering from the economic downturn and the slowdown in tourism, Mr. Volpe and other executives acknowledged. Its endowment of about $225 million has also been affected by the market drop.
Ms. Sills said she savored the chance to return to an opera house instead of worrying about "real estate and fountains" at the center. "I can't tell you how happy I am to have an office in a theater," she said.
In a joint interview Mr. Volpe interrupted, "This is your life, is what it boils down to."
Ms. Sills said she was never secretly biased against the Met in her years with City Opera and Lincoln Center. "Everyone knows what I think," she said. "I don't have the brains to keep my mouth shut."
She said her husband, Peter Greenough, and her daughter, Muffy, nudged her out of retirement. "They felt they had quite enough of me," she said. "I need new mountains to climb, which is why roses don't appeal to me."