Monday, July 2, 2007

Goodbye, Dear Beverly.

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 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.

More tributes:

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.

An Appreciation of Idaho's Wild Gift

This weekend, the New York Times' Timothy Egan wrote that the majestic swath of the country I call home "may be the most overlooked part of the West — the Big Empty of north-central Idaho." This is the area bounded roughly by the St. Joe to the north and the Middle Fork of the Salmon to the south.

In The Last Wilderness, Egan writes about a grove of ancient cedars, pools of gin-clear trout water, and: "natural showers, courtesy of hot-spring waterfalls along the way. Of course you can soak in deep-pocket boulders — nature’s hot tubs. But there is nothing like standing next to polished basalt under a cascade of 105-degree water at the end of a day."

Egan correctly describes the area, which in may places is "as wild today as it was 200 years ago, full of jumpy rivers kicking out of the Bitterroot Mountains...[but] it may be safe to say that the wilds of the Idaho Panhandle, like much of the West, are deep into a new chapter — the microbrews and mountain bike phase. It has its hook-and-bullet enthusiasts, yes, and count me among those who get more excited chasing cutthroat trout with a dry fly than listening to Broadway show tunes."

Egan suggests driving across the Panhandle on US 12, which I agree is one of the prettiest roads anywhere in the country. I especially enjoy it in late October, when the weak sunlight enhances fall colors along the Clearwater River.

South of Lewiston is the heart of Nez Perce country. "These natives impressed Lewis and Clark more than any other people they met along the way," writes Egan. "Not only did the Nez Perce basically save the Virginia Men, as they were sometimes called, from starving, but they impressed them with what may be the finest breed of horse in the West — the appaloosa."

Let me add: "appaloosa" literally means "a Palouse horse," the Palouse being the stunning plateau of rolling hills, at the heart of which are the college towns of Pullman, Washington, and Moscow, Idaho. In 1805, Meriwether Lewis wrote in his journal that the Appaloosa he saw on the Nez Perce range "appear to be of excellent race, lofty, elegantly formed, active and durable; many of them appear like fine English coursers, some of them are pied with large spots of white irregularly mixed with dark brown bay."

"Unlike some tribes left with only a casino or a small reservation, the Nez Perce are not a mere passive presence in this part of the West. Their imprint is big.

"There is the history, notably that surrounding
Chief Joseph
and his epic 1877 running battle that is commemorated at sites along the Nez Perce National Historic Park. And then the culture, through powwows and numerous festivals open to the public in reservation towns like Kooskia, Kamiah and Lapwai throughout the summer months.

"For me, the most stirring of the Nez Perce sites is White Bird, along Route 95 south of the reservation. This is the Indian Gettysburg, where one of the few real pitched battles between natives and the American Army was fought. The army was routed at White Bird, while the Nez Perce did not lose a man. But it was bittersweet, as Chief Joseph’s people — about 750 men, women and children — were later chased more than 1,500 miles throughout the Rockies and finally gave up, hungry and cold, just short of the Canadian border.

"It does not take much to look down into the canyon from the roadside historic site and imagine the battle unfolding, or to stare into the wilds of the Salmon River country, the mountains snagging wayward clouds, the River of No Return at its center, and see why they fought so hard to hold on to this place."

You can read Egan's article here. You might also enjoy exploring this website on the region from the PBS series New Perspectives on The West.