Join Date: Jul 2006
Location: Metro New York
RIP -- Beverly Sills
I know, "she lived a good life," but this makes me sad... I'm having a h&ll of a time getting this obit short enough to print here!
July 3, 2007
Beverly Sills, the All-American Diva, Is Dead 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 last 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.
During her day, American opera singers routinely went overseas for training and professional opportunities. But 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, while she was still singing, and before her 10-year tenure as general director of the New York City Opera, Ms. Sills for nearly two years was host of her own weekly 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.
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.
An Early Start
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.
A Triumphant Debut
In 1955, after seven 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.
n 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 absurd 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.
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.”
An Overdue Milestone
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.
To entice new 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 chairwoman of the board of trustees of the March of Dimes for several years, until 1994.
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.
Wine is the food that completes the meal.