New York Times
July 2, 2007
Beverly Sills, Acclaimed Soprano, Dies at 78
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
Beverly Sills, the acclaimed Brooklyn-born coloratura soprano who was more popular with the American public than any opera singer since Enrico Caruso, even among people who never set foot in an opera house, died Monday night at her home in Manhattan. She was 78.
The cause was inoperable lung cancer, said her personal manager, Edgar Vincent.
Ms. Sills was America’s idea of a prima donna. Her plain-spoken manner and telegenic vitality made her a genuine celebrity and an invaluable advocate for the fine arts. Her life embodied an archetypal American story of humble origins, years of struggle, family tragedy and artistic triumph.
At a time when American opera singers routinely went overseas for training and professional opportunities, Ms. Sills was a product of her native country and did not even perform in Europe until she was 36. At a time when opera singers regularly appeared as guests on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” Ms. Sills was the only opera star who was invited to be guest host. She made frequent television appearances with Carol Burnett, Danny Kaye and even the Muppets.
Indeed, after she retired from singing, following her 10-year tenure as general director of the New York City Opera, Ms. Sills was briefly host of her own talk show on network television. After leaving her City Opera post, she continued an influential career as an arts administrator, becoming the chairwoman first of Lincoln Center and then of the Metropolitan Opera.
During her performing career, with her combination of brilliant singing, ebullience and self-deprecating humor, Ms. Sills demystified opera — and the fine arts in general — in a way that a general public audience responded to. Asked about the ecstatic reception she received when she made a belated debut at La Scala in Milan in 1969, Ms. Sills told the press, “It’s probably because Italians like big women, big bosoms and big backsides.”
Along with Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, she was an acknowledged exponent of the bel canto Italian repertory during the period of its post-World War II revival. Though she essentially had a light soprano voice, her sound was robust and enveloping. In her prime her technique was exemplary. She could dispatch coloratura roulades and embellishments, capped by radiant high D’s and E-flat’s, with seemingly effortless agility. She sang with scrupulous musicianship, rhythmic incisiveness and a vivid sense of text.
Moreover, she brought unerring acting instincts to her portrayals of tragic leading roles in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “Anna Bolena,” Bellini’s “Sonnambula” and “Puritani,” Massenet’s “Manon” and many other operas in her large repertory. And few singers matched her deadpan comic timing and physical nimbleness in lighter roles like Rosina in Rossini’s “Barbiere di Siviglia,” whom Ms. Sills portrayed as a ditsy yet determined young woman, and Marie, the tomboylike heroine raised by a military regiment in Donizetti’s “Fille du Régiment.”
In 1955 Ms. Sills joined the New York City Opera, which then performed in the City Center building on West 55th Street. Her loyal commitment to what at the time was an enterprising but second-tier company may have prevented her from achieving wider success earlier in her career. By the time Ms. Sills finally captured international attention, her voice had started to decline.
As early as 1970, reviews of her work were mixed. Harold C. Schonberg, then the chief music critic of The New York Times, fretted in his columns about Ms. Sills’s inconsistency. Yet reviewing her as Donizetti’s Lucia at the City Opera in early 1970, Mr. Schonberg wrote: “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.” He added that Ms. Sills “delivered by far the most believable mad scene I have ever seen in any opera house.”
That fall Mr. Schonberg’s quite negative review of Ms. Sills’s singing as Queen Elizabeth I in Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux” was strongly countered by other critics, notably Alan Rich in New York magazine. Mr. Rich reported that he had left the performance “in a state of euphoria bordering on hysteria.” A magnificent opera, he added, had been “rescued from oblivion and accorded superb treatment.” It was an “extraordinary accomplishment” for Ms. Sills, he felt.
For the rest of her singing career, Ms. Sills elicited divergent reactions from critics. But the public, by and large, adored her. Though most of her fans knew that her struggle to the top had been long and tough, few realized just how long and how tough.
Beverly Sills was born Belle Silverman on May 25, 1929, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. Her father, Morris, was an insurance broker whose family had emigrated from Bucharest, Romania. Her mother, Shirley, was born Sonia Markovna in the Russian city of Odessa. Ms. Sills was nicknamed Bubbles at birth because, her mother said, she emerged from the womb with bubbles in her mouth, and the name stuck.
Because Morris Silverman worked on commission, the family’s income fluctuated wildly, and they moved often. The first apartment Ms. Sills recalled living in was a one-bedroom flat where she shared the bedroom with her parents while her older brothers, Sidney and Stanley, slept on a Hide-a-Bed in the foyer.
Shirley Silverman was an unabashed stage mother who thought her talented little girl with the golden curls could become a Jewish Shirley Temple. So with the stage name Bubbles, Ms. Sills was pushed into radio work. At 4 she made her debut on a Saturday morning children’s show called “Uncle Bob’s Rainbow House,” quickly becoming a weekly fixture on the show. At 7 she graduated to the “Major Bowes Capital Family Hour,” on which she tap-danced and sang coloratura arias that she had learned phonetically from her mother’s Amelita Galli-Curci records. She won a role on a radio soap opera, “Our Gal Sunday,” where for 36 episodes she portrayed a “nightingirl of the mountains.”
But her father put an end to her child-star career when she was 12 so that she could concentrate on her education at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn and the Professional Children’s School in Manhattan. She devoted herself to her voice lessons with Estelle Liebling, which had begun when Ms. Sills was just 9. Liebling had coached Galli-Curci and was Ms. Sills’s only vocal teacher.
When Ms. Sills graduated from the professional school in 1945, at 16, she began 10 years of grinding work, including long stints with touring opera companies, performing Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and, later, leading roles like Violetta in Verdi’s “Traviata.” Recounting these tours for a Newsweek interview in 1969, Ms. Sills said, “I had my first high heels, my first updo hair style, my first strapless dress, and I didn’t know what to hold up first.”
In 1955, after eight previous unsuccessful auditions over a three-year period, Ms. Sills was accepted into the New York City Opera. Her debut as Rosalinde in “Die Fledermaus” was enthusiastically received by critics.
On tour with the City Opera in Cleveland in 1955, Ms. Sills met Peter B. Greenough, a Boston Brahmin descendant of John Alden, whose family holdings included The Plain Dealer of Cleveland. With a degree from Harvard and a master’s degree from the Columbia School of Journalism, Mr. Greenough was then an associate editor at The Plain Dealer. When he met Ms. Sills, he was going through a difficult divorce. Eight weeks after it was made final, he married Ms. Sills in a small civil ceremony at Liebling’s New York studio.
Suddenly Ms. Sills found herself the stepmother to three daughters and the mistress of a 23-room house in Cleveland. She hated the city, as she acknowledged in “Beverly: An Autobiography,” her blunt 1987 memoir: “Peter was ostracized by Cleveland’s rinky-dink version of high society because he had the nerve to fight for custody of his children.”
During this period Ms. Sills regularly commuted to New York to perform with the City Opera, which was experiencing hard times. The problems came to a head in 1956 when the conductor Joseph Rosenstock, the company’s general director, resigned. Ms. Sills was one of a core group of singers who met with board members to find a way to save it. This led to the appointment of the pragmatic, take-charge conductor Julius Rudel, who spearheaded a revival, as general director in 1957.
In 1959 Ms. Sills gave birth to a daughter, Meredith Holden Greenough. Two years later she gave birth to the couple’s second child, a son, Peter Bulkeley Greenough Jr. At the time Meredith, called Muffy, was 22 months old but unable to speak. Tests revealed that she had a profound loss of hearing.
Just as Ms. Sills and her husband were absorbing their daughter’s deafness, it became clear that their son, called Bucky, now 6 months old, was significantly mentally retarded, with additional complications that eluded diagnosis. “They knew nothing about autism then,” Ms. Sills later wrote.
With support, their daughter thrived over time. But the boy’s problems were severe, and he was eventually placed in an institution.
The diagnoses of her children’s disabilities had come within a six-week period. For months thereafter, Ms. Sills turned down all singing engagements to be at home. Mr. Rudel, convinced that going back to work would help her cope, sent lighthearted letters addressed to “Dear Bubbala,” suggesting implausible roles for her to sing, like Boris Godunov, and sharing opera gossip. He then tried to insist that Ms. Sills had a contract to fulfill. When she reported for work, she felt like a totally different artist.
“I was always a good singer,” she said in the Newsweek 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.” But she managed to rid herself of bitterness.
“I felt if I could survive my grief, I could survive anything,” she said. “Onstage I was uninhibited, and I began to have a good time.”
The Newhouse newspaper chain bought The Plain Dealer in 1967 for $58 million, a substantial portion of which went to Mr. Greenough. The family, extremely wealthy, lived in Milton, outside Boston. He was a financial columnist at The Boston Globe from 1961 to 1969.
There Ms. Sills formed a close working relationship with the conductor and stage director Sarah Caldwell, who then ran the Opera Company of Boston, and stretched herself in operas like Rameau’s “Hippolyte et Aricie.” At the City Opera, Ms. Sills scored a notable success singing the three heroines in Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann.” But her breakthrough came in the fall of 1966, when she helped to inaugurate the City Opera’s residency at its new Lincoln Center home, the New York State Theater, singing Cleopatra in Handel’s “Giulio Cesare,” the first production of a Handel opera by a major New York company in living memory. In snagging that role for herself, Ms. Sills demonstrated a fierce determination born of long frustration.
Mr. Rudel had conceived the production as a vehicle for the bass-baritone Norman Treigle, who was to sing the title role. For Cleopatra he had selected the soprano Phyllis Curtin, who joined the City Opera two years before Ms. Sills but who had been singing with the Metropolitan Opera since 1963.
Ms. Sills felt that Cleopatra was ideally suited to her and that the role might lift her to star status. Moreover, she felt she had earned the role because of her loyalty as a company member. After unproductive talks with Mr. Rudel, Ms. Sills told him that she would resign from the City Opera if he did not give her the role, and that her husband would secure Carnegie Hall for a recital in which she would sing five of Cleopatra’s arias. “You’re going to look sick,” she told him. Mr. Rudel relented.
Ms. Sills was correct about the effect that singing Cleopatra would have on her career. In a move that Handel purists today would consider sacrilege, Mr. Rudel and the stage director, Tito Capobianco, cut the lengthy opera to a workable three hours. The international press was in town to cover the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House, which was presenting the premiere of Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra.” Many critics also checked out the other Cleopatra opera across the plaza at Lincoln Center.
Ms. Sills won the greatest reviews of her career. Critics praised her adroit handling of the music’s florid fioritura, her perfect trills, her exquisite pianissimo singing and her rich sound. Beyond the vocal acrobatics, she made Cleopatra a queenly, charismatic and complex character. The production employed vocal transpositions and made sizable cuts that would be frowned on today, in the aftermath of the early-music movement, which has enhanced understanding of Handelian style and Baroque performance practice. Still, at the time, the production and Ms. Sills’s portrayal were revelations. Suddenly she was an opera superstar.
In 1968 she had another enormous success in the title role of Massenet’s “Manon.” When the production was revived the next year, the New Yorker critic Winthrop Sergeant wrote: “If I were recommending the wonders of New York City to a tourist, I should place Beverly Sills as Manon at the top of the list — way ahead of such things as the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building.”
In April of 1969 Ms. Sills made her La Scala debut, prompting a Newsweek cover story about America’s favorite diva and her European triumph. The opera was Rossini’s “Siege of Corinth,” which had not been performed at La Scala since 1853. A leading Italian critic, Franco Abbiati of Milan’s Corriere della Serra, commented: “In many ways she reminds me Callas — good presence, good face and, above all, a beautiful voice. She’s an angel of the lyric phrase, with great sweetness, delicacy and technical bravura.”
Her acclaimed debut at London’s Covent Garden came with Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” in December 1973. But the one company notably missing from her international schedule was the Metropolitan Opera. Rudolf Bing, who ran the Met during Ms. Sills’s prime years at the City Opera, later conceded that he had never managed to walk across the Lincoln Center plaza and hear her City Opera triumphs. He had invited her several times to sing with the Met, Bing later said. But either the invitations conflicted with Ms. Sills’s other bookings or the offered repertory did not interest her.
In 1975, three years after Bing retired, Ms. Sills finally made her Met debut in the opera of her La Scala success, “The Siege of Corinth.” In interviews she tried to play down the significance of this overdue milestone. The next season she repeated her role in “The Siege of Corinth” for the Met’s prestigious opening night. In the spring of 1976 she sang Violetta in “La Traviata” at the Met, having gotten the company to agree to invite her longtime colleague Ms. Caldwell to conduct, making her the first woman to take the Met’s podium.
But now that this kind of clout and acclaim had come to her, she started experiencing vocal unevenness. Ms. Sills continued to sing with a communicative presence and charisma that reached audiences. But in 1978 she announced that she would retire in 1980, when she would be 51. “I’ll put my voice to bed and go quietly and with pride,” she said in an interview with The New York Times. . It was announced at the same time that she would become co-director of the City Opera.
The plan was for her to ease into the general director’s post, sharing it with Mr. Rudel. But in 1979 he officially left the City Opera, and Ms. Sills assumed the post. She inherited a company burdened with debt and unsure of its direction.
Her vision for revitalizing the City Opera included offering unusual repertory and making the company a haven for talented younger American artists. Under her, the repertory significantly diversified, with productions of rarities like Wagner’s early opera “Die Feen,” Verdi’s “Attila” and Thomas’s “Hamlet,” as well as new operas like Anthony Davis’s “X (The Life and Times of Malcolm X).”
To entice new and younger audiences, she reduced ticket prices by 20 percent. A $5.3 million renovation of the New York State Theater in 1982 improved the look and efficiency of the building, though not its problematic acoustics. In 1983 the City Opera became the first American company to use supertitles. The company had a sense of mission and vitality. But the deficit grew to $3 million. Then a devastating warehouse fire destroyed 10,000 costumes for 74 productions.
Still, Ms. Sills was a prodigious fund-raiser and a tireless booster. When she retired from her post in early 1989, she had on balance a record of achievement. The budget had grown from $9 million to $26 million, and the $3 million deficit had become a $3 million surplus.
She then took her skills as a fund-raiser, consultant and spokeswoman to the entire Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts organization. In 1994 she was elected the chairwoman of the board, an unpaid but influential post. In 2002 she announced her retirement from arts administration.
But six months later she was persuaded to become the chairwoman of the Met. Her most significant act was to talk the board into hiring Peter Gelb as general manager, starting in 2006. During these years, she remained the host of choice for numerous arts programs on “Live from Lincoln Center” television broadcasts.
In retirement she continued a life of charitable work, notably as a longtime chairwoman of the board of trustees of the March of Dimes.
Ms. Sills’s two children, both of Manhattan, survive her, as do her stepchildren, Lindley Thomasett, of Bedford, N.Y.; Nancy Bliss, of Woodstock, N.Y.; and Diana Greenough, of Lancaster, Mass. Her husband, Mr. Greenough, died last year after a long illness.
In a conversation with a Times reporter in 2005, reflecting on her challenging life and triumphant career, Ms. Sills said, “Man plans and God laughs.” She added: “I have often said I’ve never considered myself a happy woman. How could I, with all that’s happened to me. But I’m a cheerful woman. Work kept me going.”