One of America's greatest and dearest opera stars has died. Beverly Sills, a star from childhood, was 78. Her manager said she succumbed to an inoperable form of lung cancer.
I first heard of Beverly Sills when I was growing up in Singapore. That was in the 1970s, when I was a kid with no interest in opera, something I thought of as a very crazy European prima donna thing. Then one day, watching the Carol Burnett Show, here was this sunny, American soprano, hamming it up in a manner not consistent with the diva stereotype. She was singing something non-classical - a Broadway tune, I think, but in her trademark voice: rich, brilliant, thrilling...and she was funny. (Watch her Sills hamming it up with Danny Kaye here.) That caught my attention, and from then on I was more attentive to opera voices. That led to purchases of my first opera LPs, but sadly, I couldn't find any of Ms. Sills in the stores. It wasn't till I was a young adult working at Singapore's classical radio station that I heard her recordings. That made me a definite fan - maybe especially because of warm, real presence. In large part, I owe my current interest in opera to Ms. Sills.
The New York Times says "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."
Ms. Sills was born Belle Miriam Silverman in 1929. From Wikipedia:
"At the age of three, Sills won a "Miss Beautiful Baby" contest, in which she sang "The Wedding of Jack and Jill". Beginning at age four, she performed professionally on the Saturday morning radio program, "Rainbow House," as "Bubbles" Silverman. Sills began taking singing lessons...at the age of seven and a year later sang in the short film Uncle Sol Solves It (filmed August 1937, released June 1938 by Educational Pictures), by which time she had adopted her stage name, Beverly Sills."
WATCH the seven-year old Sills singing "Arditi: Il bacio" in "Uncle Sol Solves It".
At the age of 10, Sills, known affectionately as Bubbles Silverman (supposedly because she was born with a bubble in her mouth), won CBS Radio's Major Bowes' Amateur Hour for that week. The nickname persisted: her 1976 autobiography is titled "Bubbles: A Self-Portrait."
"At a time when American opera singers routinely went overseas for training and professional opportunities," reports the Times, "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."
Sills was a pioneer, establishing her career for the most part outside America's sacred temple of opera, the Met. That allowed many other singers to follow that path - wholly trained in America, yet succeeding without Met certification.
Her repertoire eventually encompassed more than 70 roles, and she recorded 18 full-length operas and several solo recital discs. Her "Manon" received the Edison Award for best operatic album of 1971, and her Victor Herbert album won a Grammy Award in 1978.
From the Los Angeles Times:
"She had a silvery, lyric soprano that she intelligently employed in creating a character, narrowing the sound to evoke a younger woman or widening and deepening it to reflect greater maturity. She sang more than the usual number of coloratura embellishments — including perfect trills — with ease, agility, accuracy and clarity, but always in the service of a role.
"Sills needed contact with an audience. She was far more comfortable onstage, where she could amplify her characterizations with subtle facial expressions and physical gestures, than she was making recordings."
She wasn't just a pretty voice either. As administrator of New York City Opera, Sills turned a desperate financial situation around. Fundraising was another of her talents, which she gave to Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera. As as a mother of a deaf daughter and a mentally disabled son, Sills also served for many years as chair of the board of the March of Dimes Foundation.
Rest in peace, Bubbles. You will be sorely missed.
NPR's Morning Edition remembered Beverly Sills Tuesday morning. You can listen here. That afternoon on All Things Considered, Carol Burnett talked about losing her friend.
The Washington Post's Tim Page describes Sills as a complicated person in his remembrance, A Voice That Carried Weight.
Below is video (grainy, but with good sound) of Ms. Sills as Cleopatra in the Handel opera Giulio Cesare, one of her defining roles.