Beverly Sills - From First note to last

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The Case for Sillsí Operatic Debut Occurring in 1951

An invaluable resource in our research has been the work of the late Frank Hamilton, a highly respected, extremely conscientious compiler of operatic annals (including the definitive set for Maria Callas). One of his many projects was an attempt to document every operatic performance occurring in Philadelphia, a task that he completed to his satisfaction. He spent years going through sources in libraries and opera company archives. He looked through microfilm for every Philadelphia newspaper, as well as programs and papers for all the opera companies in the city and the archives of the Academy of Music (the main performance venue for opera in Philadelphia during the period in question). Much of what follows is confirmed by his Philadelphia operatic performance annals.

In Chapter 3 of “Bubbles,” her 1976 autobiography, Sills states that in 1946 at age 17, after completing two J. J. Schubert operetta tours, she ended her operetta career at her father’s insistence that she concentrate on opera exclusively by continuing her training with Estelle Liebling. Sills relates that by age 19 she had learned 50 or 60 operatic roles with Liebling. Sills then says that she finally made her operatic debut in the role of Frasquita in “Carmen” for the Philadelphia Opera Company, conducted by Giuseppe Bamboschek. She says the leads were Winifred Heidt and Eugene Conley, whom Sills mentions were a married couple at the time. She does not give a date for the performance, but the chronology in the text implies it was after Sills was 19 (i.e., after May 25, 1948).

In Chapter 3 of “Beverly,” her 1987 autobiography, Sills mentions stopping the Schubert tours at the end of 1946 and starting back studying opera with Liebling. She then says her teacher began sending her down to Philadelphia every Saturday to be coached for an hour by Bamboschek, whom Sills identifies as conductor for the Philadelphia Opera Company.

[The two Philadelphia opera companies in existence in 1947 were the Philadelphia La Scala Opera Company (for which Bamboschek did conduct) and the Cosmopolitan Opera Company. In 1951, the Philadelphia La Scala Company was still in business but there also was the Philadelphia Civic Grand Opera Company, formed in 1950, for which Giuseppe Bamboschek conducted as well.

In articles published as early as 1951, and continuing throughout the rest Sills’ life, when an opera company is named in connection with her operatic debut, it is usually listed as the Philadelphia Civic Opera. It’s easy to see this as a slight shortening of the full name, the Philadelphia Civic Grand Opera.]

Sills goes on to write in “Beverly” that Bamboschek told her it would be helpful if she observed other singers in performance, hiring her to understudy Florence Quartararo in “Thaïs.” Sills says that, after working as the understudy for only a couple of weeks, Bamboschek gave her a big break by casting her as Frasquita in the “Philadelphia Opera” production of “Carmen” in February 1947.

However, there was no “Thaïs” in 1947 in Philadelphia, according to Frank Hamilton’s annals. But there was a “Thaïs” with Florence Quartararo on February 27, 1951, conducted by Bamboschek for the Philadelphia Civic Grand Opera. Hamilton’s annals also reveal that there was a performance of “Carmen” by the same company in Philadelphia on February 14, 1951, in which Sills sang Frasquita, with Giuseppe Bamboschek conducting and Winifred Heidt as the Carmen.

Hamilton’s annals have no listings for any performance of “Carmen” in February 1947 in Philadelphia. Sills’ story about understudying Quartararo for a few weeks before being cast in Carmen can only be true if placed in the context of Sills’ verified February 14, 1951, performance in “Carmen” and of Quartararo’s February 27, 1951, “Thaïs.” Sills’ undated reference in “Bubbles” to Winifred Heidt as Carmen and her mention of Heidt and Eugene Conley as being a married couple at the time only makes sense for the 1951 performance, the singers having married in 1948.

Additional evidence supporting the 1951 debut date comes from Sills’ personal scrapbooks (now housed in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.), which preserve virtually every program, clipping and photo concerning her singing career. Although most other major events are recorded in detail in these scrapbooks, for Sills’ official operatic debut there is no performance program, no review, no clipping, no photo or any other reference to a February 1947 “Carmen.”

There are clippings in the scrapbooks about Sills’ performances in July 1947 as the lead in “The Merry Widow” in Berwyn, Pennsylvania. Those clippings include her performance history up to that point but nothing is mentioned about an operatic debut, an odd omission if it was supposed to have happened in nearby Philadelphia earlier that same year.

Also, from March 13 to 23, 1947, Sills participated in a Liebling Singers tour of one-night concerts in the mid-West. Her bio on the tour brochure lists her credits only as having participated in the J. J. Schubert Gilbert & Sullivan tour in 1945 and the Merry Widow/Countess Maritza tour in 1946. It does not include any reference to an operatic debut – again an odd omission for a young singer needing to claim opera credits at that point.

Finally, in another unexplained omission, Sills’ scrapbooks jump from the end of 1947 to the fall of 1951 (with no gaps in the numbering of the scrapbooks). The first entries in the 1951 scrapbook are for the Charles Wagner “La Traviata” tour. Oddly, the verified February 14, 1951, Philadelphia “Carmen” performance in the small role of Frasquita is skipped over entirely.

It is interesting to note that in the October 10, 1966, issue of Newsweek magazine, Hubert Saal, in reviewing Sills’ breakthrough performance in the New York City Opera’s “Giulio Cesare,” mentions Sills’ early career, including the Charles Wagner tours. He quotes Sills as saying about the fall 1951 “La Traviata tour, “That’s where I made my operatic debut.” While she may have been referring to her debut in a leading role in an opera, it seems to indicate that her actual professional operatic debut in a small role was not significant enough to mention.

How the earlier debut date of 1947 came to be accepted as fact is likely an accumulation of misattributions rather than willful distortions of truth. There’s a tradition in the crafting of artists’ bios for press releases and performance programs of putting the best spin on early accomplishments. These are usually written by agents and managers whose job is making their clients look good. There’s also the possibility of reporters mishearing or faultily transcribing details from interviews that then became concrete once in print. Further distortions can have come through Sills’ own autobiographies, put together when she was either busy in the final years of her career (1976) or in the middle of running the New York City Opera (1987). During both times, she had help with her manuscripts from family, editors and co-authors, who relied on her scrapbooks for information, which unfortunately include those early publicity articles with incorrect or misleading information.

This debut date clarification is not offered as a criticism of Sills or her management but as the proof required to put the event in its proper place in her career, among all the other verified entries in our performance annals. While this clarification is likely to be of little import to the general Sills fan, it should be of interest to biographers and researchers as a cautionary note about where and how to determine the facts of a celebrity’s life.