Beverly Sills (May 25, 1929 – July 2, 2007) was an American operatic soprano between the 1950s and 1970s.
Although she sang a repertoire from Handel and Mozart to Puccini, Massenet, Wagner, and Verdi, she was known for her performances in coloratura soprano roles in live opera and recordings. Sills was largely associated with the operas of Gaetano Donizetti, of which she performed and recorded many roles. Her signature roles include the title role in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, the title role in Massenet‘s Manon, Marie in Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, the three heroines in Offenbach‘s Les contes d’Hoffmann, Rosina in Rossini‘s The Barber of Seville, and Violetta in Verdi‘s La Traviata.
After retiring from singing in 1980, she became the general manager of the New York City Opera. In 1994, she became the Chairman of Lincoln Center and then, in 2002, of the Metropolitan Opera, stepping down in 2005. Sills lent her celebrity to further her charity work for the prevention and treatment of birth defects.
Sills was born Belle Miriam Silverman in Brooklyn, New York to Shirley Bahn (née Sonia Markovna), a musician, and Morris Silverman, an insurance broker. Her parents were Jewish immigrants from Odessa and Bucharest, Romania. She was raised in Brooklyn, where she was known, among friends, as “Bubbles” Silverman. As a child, she spoke Yiddish, Russian, Romanian, French and English. She attended Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, as well as Manhattan‘s Professional Children’s School.
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 with Estelle Liebling 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. Liebling encouraged her to audition for CBS Radio’s Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour, and on October 26, 1939 at the age of 10, Sills was the winner of that week’s program. Bowes then asked her to appear on his Capitol Family Hour, a weekly variety show. Her first appearance was on November 19, 1939, the 17th anniversary of the show, and she appeared frequently on the program thereafter.
In 1945, Sills made her professional stage debut with a Gilbert and Sullivan touring company produced by Jacob J. Shubert, playing twelve cities in the US and Canada, offering seven different Gilbert and Sullivan operas. In her 1987 autobiography, she credits that tour with helping to develop the comic timing she soon became famous for: “I played the title role in Patience, and I absolutely loved the character, because Patience is a very funny, flaky girl…. I played her as a dumb Dora all the way through and really had fun with the role…. My Patience grew clumsier and clumsier with each performance, and audiences seemed to like her…. I found that I had a gift for slapstick humor, and it was fun to exercise it onstage.” Sills sang in light operas for several more years.
On July 9, 1946, Sills appeared as a contestant on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts (radio). She sang under the pseudonym of “Vicki Lynn”, as she was under contract to Shubert. Shubert did not want Godfrey to be able to say he had discovered “Beverly Sills” if she won the contest (although she did not ultimately win). Sills sang “Romany Life” from Victor Herbert‘s The Fortune Teller.
In 1947, she made her operatic stage debut as the Spanish gypsy Frasquita in Bizet’s Carmen with the Philadelphia Civic Grand Opera Company. She toured North America with the Charles Wagner Opera Company, in the fall of 1951 singing Violetta in La traviata and, in the fall of 1952, singing Micaëla in Carmen. On September 15, 1953, she made her debut with the San Francisco Opera as Helen of Troy in Boito’s Mefistofele and also sang Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni the same season. On October 29, 1955, she first appeared with the New York City Opera as Rosalinde in Johann Strauss II‘s Die Fledermaus, which received critical praise. As early as 1956 she performed before an audience of over 13,000 guests at the landmark Lewisohn Stadium with the noted operatic conductor Alfredo Antonini in an aria from Vincenzo Bellini‘s I puritani. Her reputation expanded with her performance of the title role in the New York premiere of Douglas Stuart Moore‘s The Ballad of Baby Doe in 1958.
On November 17, 1956, Sills married journalist Peter Greenough, of the Cleveland, Ohio newspaper The Plain Dealer and moved to Cleveland. She had two children with Greenough, Meredith (“Muffy”) in 1959 and Peter, Jr. (“Bucky”) in 1961. Muffy was profoundly deaf and Peter was severely mentally disabled. Sills restricted her performing schedule to care for her children.
In 1960, Sills and her family moved to Milton, Massachusetts, near Boston. In 1962, Sills sang the title role in Massenet’s Manon with the Opera Company of Boston, the first of many roles for opera director Sarah Caldwell. Manon continued to be one of Sills’ signature roles throughout most of her career. In January 1964, she sang her first Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute for Caldwell. Although Sills drew critical praise for her coloratura technique and for her performance, she was not fond of the latter role; she observed that she often passed the time between the two arias and the finale addressing holiday cards.
In 1966, the New York City Opera revived Handel’s then virtually unknown opera seria Giulio Cesare (with Norman Treigle as Cæsar), and Sills’ performance as Cleopatra made her an international opera star. Sills also made her “unofficial” Met debut in its “Opera in the Parks” program as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, though nothing further came of this other than offers from Rudolf Bing for roles such as Flotow’s Martha. In subsequent seasons at the NYCO, Sills had great successes in the roles of the Queen of Shemakha in Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel, the title role in Manon, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and the three female leads Suor Angelica, Giorgetta, and Lauretta in Puccini’s trilogy Il trittico.
In 1969, Sills sang Zerbinetta in the American premiere (in a concert version) of the 1912 version of Richard Strauss‘ Ariadne auf Naxos with the Boston Symphony. Her performance of the role, especially Zerbinetta’s aria, “Grossmächtige Prinzessin”, which she sang in the original higher key, won her acclaim. Home video-taped copies circulated among collectors for years afterwards, often commanding large sums on Internet auction sites (the performance was released commercially in 2006, garnering high praise). The second major event of the year was her debut as Pamira in Rossini’s The Siege of Corinth at La Scala, a success that put her on the cover of Newsweek.
Sills’ now high-profile career landed her on the cover of Time in 1971, where she was described as “America’s Queen of Opera”. The title was appropriate because Sills had purposely limited her overseas engagements because of her family. Her major overseas appearances include London’s Covent Garden, Milan’s La Scala, La Fenice in Venice, the Vienna State Opera, the Théâtre de Beaulieu in Lausanne, Switzerland, and concerts in Paris. In South America, she sang in the opera houses of Buenos Aires and Santiago, a concert in Lima, Peru, and appeared in several productions in Mexico City, including Lucia di Lammermoor with Luciano Pavarotti. On November 9, 1971, her performance in the New York City Opera’s production of The Golden Cockerel was telecast live to cable tv subscribers.
During this period, she made her first television appearance as a talk-show personality on Virginia Graham’s Girl Talk, a weekday series syndicated by ABC Films. An opera fan who was Talent Coordinator for the series persuaded the producer to put her on the air and she was a huge hit. Throughout the rest of her career she shone as a talk show guest, sometimes also functioning as a guest host. Sills underwent successful surgery for ovarian cancer in late October, 1974 (sometimes misreported as breast cancer). Her recovery was so rapid and complete that she opened in Daughter of the Regiment at the San Francisco Opera a month later.
Following Sir Rudolf Bing‘s departure as director, Sills finally made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera on April 7, 1975 in The Siege of Corinth, receiving an eighteen-minute ovation. Other operas she sang at the Met include La traviata, Lucia di Lammermoor, Thaïs, and Don Pasquale (directed by John Dexter). In an interview after his retirement, Bing stated that his refusal to use Sills, as well as his preference for engaging, almost exclusively, Italian stars such as Renata Tebaldi – due to his notion that American audiences expected to see Italian stars – was the single biggest mistake of his career. Sills attempted to downplay her animosity towards Bing while she was still singing, and even in her two autobiographies. But in a 1997 interview, Sills spoke her mind plainly, “Oh, Mr. Bing is an ass. [W]hile 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.”
Sills was a recitalist, especially in the final decade of her career. She sang in mid-size cities and on college concert series, bringing her art to many who might never see her on stage in a fully staged opera. She also sang concerts with a number of symphony orchestras. Sills continued to perform for New York City Opera, her home opera house, essaying new roles right up to her retirement, including the leading roles in Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia, Lehár‘s Die lustige Witwe and Gian Carlo Menotti‘s La loca, a role written especially for her.
Although Sills’ voice type was characterized as a “lyric coloratura”, she took a number of heavier spinto and dramatic coloratura roles more associated with heavier voices as she grew older, including Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia (with Susanne Marsee as Orsini) and the same composer’s Tudor Queens, Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux (opposite Plácido Domingo in the title part). She was admired in those roles for transcending the lightness of her voice with dramatic interpretation, although it may have come at a cost: Sills later commented that Roberto Devereux shortened her career by at least four years.
Sills popularized opera through her talk show appearances, including Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, David Frost, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, and Dinah Shore. Sills hosted her own talk show, Lifestyles with Beverly Sills, which ran on Sunday mornings on NBC for two years in the late 1970s; it won an Emmy Award. In 1979 she even appeared on The Muppet Show. Down-to-earth and approachable, Sills helped dispel the traditional image of the temperamental opera diva.
In 1978, Sills announced she would retire on October 27, 1980, in a farewell gala at the New York City Opera. In the spring of 1979, she began acting as co-director of NYCO, and became its sole general director as of the fall season of that year, a post she held until 1989, although she remained on the NYCO board until 1991. During her time as general director, Sills helped turn what was then a financially struggling opera company into a viable enterprise. She also devoted herself to various arts causes and such charities as the March of Dimes and was sought after for speaking engagements on college campuses and for fund raisers.
From 1994 to 2002, Sills was chairman of Lincoln Center. In October 2002, she agreed to serve as chairman of the Metropolitan Opera, for which she had been a board member since 1991. She resigned as Met chairman in January 2005, citing family as the main reason (she had to place her husband, whom she had cared for over eight years, in a nursing home). She stayed long enough to supervise the appointment of Peter Gelb, formerly head of Sony Classical Records, as the Met’s General Manager, to succeed Joseph Volpe in August 2006.
Peter Greenough, Sills’ husband, died on September 6, 2006, at the age of 89. They would have had their 50th wedding anniversary on November 17, 2006.
She co-hosted The View for Best Friends Week on November 9, 2006, as Barbara Walters’ best friend. She said that she didn’t sing anymore, even in the shower, to preserve the memory of her voice.
She appeared on screen in movie theaters during HD transmissions live from the Met, interviewed during intermissions by the host Margaret Juntwait on January 6, 2007 (I puritani simulcast), as a backstage interviewer on February 24, 2007 (Eugene Onegin simulcast) and then, briefly, on April 28, 2007 (Il trittico simulcast).
On June 28, 2007, the Associated Press and CNN reported that Sills was hospitalized as “gravely ill”, from lung cancer. With her daughter at her bedside, Beverly Sills succumbed to cancer on July 2, 2007, at the age of 78.
Here’s Beverly singing Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s song, “All The Things You Are.”
Her final perfomance