Her mother said that Belle Miriam Silverman emerged from the womb with bubbles in her mouth and for the rest of her life friends, family, and eventually the world would know Beverly Sills (May 25, 1929 – July 2, 2007) as “Bubbles.” The name which perfectly described her personality on-stage and in public. Off stage she was just as delightful and charming, but had an iron will and a determination to succeed that made her an irresistible force in the world of opera.
Sills was essentially a lyric coloratura but her light soprano was strong with a warm tone and she often sang spinto and even dramatic coloratura roles as she grew older, a move which she once commented may have shortened her vocal career by several years.
She had superb musical technique, tossing off coloratura embellishments and high D’s – even occasional E-flat’s effortlessly with musicianship and incisiveness. And she had perfect comic timing (for a hilarious example, see my post “Poking Fun At Opera” on this site.) Harold C. Schonberg, chief music critic of The New York Times, wrote in 1970 about her performance in Lucia di Lammermoor: “The amazing thing about her Lucia is not so much the way she sings it, though that has moments of incandescent beauty, but the way she manages to make a living, breathing creature of the unhappy girl.”
American opera singers in the 1950’s were still expected to receive their training in Europe before becoming employable in America. Rosa Ponselle, who later became a mentor and close friend, was an exception to that rule but until Sills, there were few others. Like Rosa Ponselle, Beverly Sills was completely American trained and did not even perform in Europe until her mid-30’s. Born in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrants from Odessa, then part of the Russian Ukraine, she grew up speaking five languages, Yiddish, Russian, Romanian, French and English.
Her father was an insurance salesman and her mother, who had been a musician, enthusiastically became a classic stage-mother and manager. She entered “Bubbles” in a beauty contest at age 3 (she won), and at age 8 got her a spot in a short film “Uncle Sol Solves It” using the stage name of Beverly Sills,
Bubbles began singing lessons with her lifelong teacher, Estelle Liebling, and in 1945 year she appeared on the Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour, a nationwide radio program on the CBS network where she tap-danced and sang (she won.) She appeared for 36 episodes on a radio soap opera, “Our Gal Sunday,” made her professional stage debut in a Gilbert and Sullivan touring company, and appeared (under a pseudonym) on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts program, all before she was 16 years old.
In 1947 she made her operatic debut and toured for several years, appearing at major opera houses throughout the United States specializing in the Bel Canto roles of Rossini and Donizetti but also operas such as Carmen, Don Giovanni, and Boito’s Mefistofele. In 1955, after several years of trying (including seven failed auditions), Beverly Sills finally was allowed to join the New York City Opera and make her debut as Rosalinde in “Die Fledermaus.” Her appearance in the New York premier of the “Ballad of Baby Doe” in 1958, established her as City Opera’s leading soprano. I must apologize for the short glitch in the middle of the aria but it was apparently copied from a TV broadcast.
In 1956, Beverly Sills married Peter Greenough, a journalist and part owner of The Cleveland Plain Dealer. The couple had two children, a daughter born with mulitple sclerosis and profound deafness and a son who was severely autistic and later had to be institutionalized. During this period she turned down many singing engagements to care for her children, but finally agreed to commute to New York and perform again with the City Opera. “I was always a good singer,” she said in an interview, “but I was a combination of everyone else’s ideas: the director, the conductor, the tenor. After I came back, I talked back. I stopped caring what anyone else thought.I felt if I could survive my grief, I could survive anything.”
The family moved to Massachusetts where Sills began a long friendship and collaboration with Sarah Caldwell, director of the Opera Company of Boston, singing her first Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute there. In 1966, she fought for the role Cleopatra in Handel’s “Giulio Cesare,” with the New York City Opera, threatening to resign and give a Carnegie Hall concert singing Cleopatra’s arias if the director, Julius Rudel, did not give it to her. She won and the role was a major triumph, giving and new status as an international opera superstar and landing her on the cover of Time magazine where she was described as “America’s Queen of Opera”.
Soon she was appearing in opera houses and concert halls throughout the world and on television, holding her own in Specials with Danny Kaye, Julie Andrews, and Carol Burnett. She finally made her debut at La Scala in Milan in 1969, explaining to the press that her success there was “probably because Italians like big women, big bosoms and big backsides.” In 1974 she had successful surgery for ovarian cancer and recovered so swiftly that she was able to sing at the San Francisco Opera a month later.
Rudolf Bing, director of the Metropolitan Opera, had a preference for Italian opera stars and refused to engage either Sills or her compatriot at the City Opera, bass Norman Treigle. Sills once made her opinion known in an interview. “Oh, Mr. Bing is an ass . . . everybody said what a great administrator he was and a great this, Mr. Bing was just an improbable, impossible General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera…. The arrogance of that man.” After Bing retired, Sills made her Metropolitan Opera debut, having first insisted that her longtime colleague Ms. Caldwell conduct, making her the first woman to ever conduct at the Met. Rudolph Bing later admitted that his refusal to use Sills was the single biggest mistake of his career.
Sills retired from singing in 1980, giving a nationally televised farewell concert at the NYCO with Carol Burnet.
She said that she didn’t sing anymore, even in the shower, but she never left the world of Opera. She became co-director, then General Director, of NYCO inheriting a company deeply in debt and with no clear plan of operations. She began her tenure by offering unusual operatic repertory, hiring young American artists, and reducing ticket prices by 20 percent. City Opera also became the first American company to use supertitles. In spite of a warehouse fire that destroyed 10,000 costumes and a $3 million deficit, when she retired from her post in 1989, her management (and tireless fund raising) allowed her to leave with a $3 million surplus. After leaving City Opera she served as chairwoman of Lincoln Center and then, in an irony that must have pleased her, Beverly Sills became chairwoman of the Metropolitan Opera.
Beverly Sills died of complications of inoperable lung cancer on July 2, 2007, at the age of 78.