n January 2005, after a career stretching back over seventy years, Beverly Sills officially retired from public life.
Lest I be accused of ungallantry in emphasizing this great passage of time, I should state that she made her public singing debut at the age of 3, winning first prize in the Miss Beautiful Baby of 1932 contest in Brooklyn’s Tompkins Park.
After twenty long years as a professional singer, she finally became a star in 1966 when she sang the role of Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare at New York City Opera. A gifted communicator off stage as well as on, she achieved huge celebrity status in the USA, combining her purely musical activities with regular appearances on mainstream television, at one point even hosting her own chat show. In 1979, the last year of her singing career, she became director of the New York City Opera, a position she held until 1988, and subsequently became chairwoman of the Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera.
In Europe, the perception of her as ‘America’s Queen of Opera’, together with her readiness to have fun on The Muppet Show, have perhaps obscured her extraordinary artistic achievements and technical abilities as a serious singer. Compared to her contemporaries Sutherland, Callas and Scotto, she was felt by some to be too lightweight in timbre for the heavier bel canto roles (such as Norma and Anna Bolena) which they shared.
While this may be arguably true, if one listens to Sills’ Cleopatra, Manon, Baby Doe, Pamira (L’Assedio di Corinto), Konstanze, Semele, Queen of Shemakhan (Le Coq d’Or) and Marie (La Fille du Regiment), in recordings made between 1966 and 1970, one hears a superlative artist at the peak of her powers. Conductor Thomas Schippers called hers “the fastest voice alive” - a tribute to her ability to articulate coloratura at staggering speed without the use of intrusive aspirates. It was said of the Victorian nightingale Henriette Sontag that she ‘excelled equally at bravura and melancholy’ - a description which seems to fit Sills perfectly.
I first heard the voice of Beverly Sills when I was a teenager, and was instantly drawn to it, seduced as much by the charm of her personality as by the sheer virtuosity of her singing. Now that I am a voice teacher, I can analyse in greater detail the qualities which attracted me: the complete freedom and ease of delivery, whether in fiendish coloratura divisions, or high sustained long legato lines which seem to spin and shimmer.
Reviewing Sills’ 1970 recording of Lucia di Lammermoor, John Steane remarked that hers was ‘the deepest psychological interpretation so far on record’, and that she ‘achieved profundity despite her timbre, rather than because of it’. Yet it was this very girlish, youthful timbre that appealed to me, as I felt it suggested a vulnerability essential to the character. Donizetti wrote the role for Fanny Persiani, described as having a ‘small and delicate voice, sweet and lacking in fullness of tone’ - hardly qualities one could apply to Sutherland or Callas, the most famous of modern Lucias.
Sills’ flute cadenza in the Mad Scene was quite unlike any other I had heard. The more standard flute cadenza is thought to have been composed not by Donizetti, but by Mathilde Marchesi (1821-1913), the famous singing teacher who specialised in coloratura sopranos, and whose pupils included Melba, Sibyl Sanderson, Emma Eames and Selma Kurz. One of Marchesi’s last pupils was Estelle Liebling, who made her debut as Lucia aged 18, and herself became a teacher after retiring.
Sills auditioned for Liebling at the tender age of seven, by which time she had she had already appeared twice on an amateur-hour radio show, as well as singing ‘Il Bacio’ for a suspicious-looking character called ‘Uncle Sol” on television. Liebling was highly amused by Sills’ prodigious ability to mimic the recordings of Galli-Curci and Lily Pons, but realizing the child had genuine talent, started her on a serious regime of scales and exercises. Their pedagogic relationship would continue for 34 years.
As a voice teacher, I am fascinated by the various and apparently contradictory routes many singers take to achieve the same goal, and when I met Sills this year at her apartment on Central Park West, I was keen to ask her what she thought was the foundation of Liebling’s particular technique.
According to her, ‘cover, cover, cover’ was Liebling’s most frequent instruction. ‘Cover’ is one of those controversial terms that can cause confusion among singers and disagreements between teachers. Usually, it refers to the choice that singers face when they sing certain notes between the middle and higher registers, often termed the passaggio. Some singing teachers insist that there is no such thing as passaggio (in other words, no gear change) but all would agree that the transition between registers should be seamless and undetectable, unless employed for a dramatic effect.
Liebling was worried that Sills could strain her young voice by singing in too openly Italianate a fashion, and Liebling’s interpretation of ‘covering’ was to move up into the head voice on a combination of oo and awe vowels, and never on a wide open ah. (We discussed how Sutherland, whom Sills describes as having ‘the voice of the century’, often used this oo position). Liebling also insisted on warming Sills up with a half-hour of very light rapid scales and arpeggios, believing that long sustained tones should only be attempted once the voice and muscles were suitably ‘buttered up’. This technique enabled Sills to sing forty Violettas on tour at the age of twenty-one, and sixty-three consecutive Micaelas the following year.
Although Liebling was Sills’ only teacher, she also worked with Rosa Ponselle, one of the greatest voices of all time, and with the Aberdeen-born soprano often described as the first ‘singing actress’, Mary Garden.
’She was some piece of work,’ says Sills of Garden, ‘but a rich source of advice on stagecraft. Although she was an impossible taskmaster, I realised that she had something very special, and I decided I needed some of that and was going to get it! She made me stand on a chair while she was teaching me. When I asked her why, she replied in her best Scottish accent “Because audiences have always looked up to me-that’s why!” ’
Garden told Sills ‘When you make an entrance, don’t make them look for you - let them know you’re there! Always tell the audience what you were doing just before you come on - and where you’re going when you leave.’ She tried to make Sills copy the gestures and actions that had worked for her as Manon: Sills’ protestations that these would be inappropriate due to their difference in height and size were simply dismissed.
Garden worked primarily as a coach, concentrating on acting and gestures, only occasionally hinting at how a phrase should be sung, while Ponselle dissected each role one note at a time. Liebling maintained that the reason Ponselle had a short top to her voice was that she kept her placement directed forward into the front of her face - the area singers call ‘the mask’ - and did not ‘flip back’ for the high notes. This concept of ‘flipping back’ and concentrating on the area towards the soft palate and the back of the top of the head is also favoured by Sutherland, who discusses it briefly in Jerome Hines’ Great Singers on Great Singing. Many voices with wonderful top registers which ‘spin’ from the head can have slightly compromised middle and/or bottom registers. Conversely, voices with solid rich lower and weighty middle registers are often shorter on top, like those of Tebaldi, Ponselle and Flagstad.
Ponselle tried her best to get Sills to place her voice in the mask, but as Sills pointed out, ‘Ponselle’s face was so much broader than mine and her sound so creamy and Italianate. Well, it just wouldn’t work for me. However, to hear her sing Isolde, walking around that house at 3 a.m, with a glass of red wine in her hand, is something I will never forget.’
The other strong musical influence on Sills was her coach Roland Gagnon, who she met in 1962. He worked with her on an almost daily basis, writing all her vocal ornamentation. I remember as a teenager being struck by how original and extravagant this was: conventions of style and authenticity were frequently defied, but the results were undeniably spectacular.
Whilst the choice of a teacher and a coach is always at a singer’s discretion, finding an inspirational conductor who is strong yet sympathetic is not so easy. Erich Leinsdorf was a great champion of Sills, and conducted her in some of her most technically demanding music, including Konstanze, Queen of the Night, Donna Anna and Strauss’s Daphne and Zerbinetta in the infamous 1912 version. The latter pitches the aria a tone higher than the more familiar 1916 version, and contains even more fiendish bravura. I told Sills how effortless she made it seem on a television recording made in Boston in 1969.
‘Don’t you believe it!’ she retorted. ‘I was absolutely terrified! I thought I’d known Zerbinetta for years when that concert came up. Three weeks before, a score arrived from Leinsdorf. Gagnon said nervously that we had a problem when he opened it and started to play. “This has different music that you don’t know. And it’s a tone higher - there’s an F sharp here!!” Well, I didn’t have an F sharp, I barely had an F’.
This was a delicate issue, as she had previously annoyed Leinsdorf with a flippant remark about her high F average for the Queen of the Night being four out of five, ‘which I thought was OK’. (I reminded her that I have a pirate recording of her Queen in which she hits all the Fs spot-on. ‘That’s the only time I managed that!’ she laughed.) Gagnon went through the aria and marked a spot in the score where he told her, ‘If it becomes unsingable, just miss out these few bars here- what’s he going to do, stop the performance?’
Leinsdorf unfortunately came across the score during a rehearsal break. ‘What’s this?’ he raged. ‘More of your four out of five attitude?’ Sills went on to sing Zerbinetta without missing any bars, and even without the F sharps, the result is astonishing. She advised me to watch the video more closely and told me the point at which she had felt the sweat break out!
In 1970, Sills made a somewhat controversial decision to take on a heavier repertory that would push her light lyric voice into a territory associated with more dramatic sopranos. Although she had a brief flirtation with the roles of Aida, Tosca and Carmen in the 1950s, this transformation began in earnest when she accepted the role of Elisabetta in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, an interpretation which she once interestingly described as her finest artistic achievement. How did Liebling react to her desire to move into this Fach?
‘She was dead set against it. “This role will shorten your career, you would be mad to touch it. How can you get bored with Manon, Lucia, Traviata ?” she said. I wasn’t bored, but I needed new challenges. I read the text and it thrilled me. I really wanted to play that character.’
Did the technique she had learned from Liebling provide sufficient basis to get her through the role? ‘Absolutely no way could I sing it with that technique,’ she replied. Liebling refused to work on it with her, and so Sills had to devise a new, “more open throated” way of singing.This provides a fascinating example of mind over matter: on both the commercial and live recordings, she pushes all her boundaries, drawing on sensitive use of text and extravagant ornamentation to make Elisabetta into an indelibly vivid character. Her performance so impressed her stage Roberto, Placido Domingo, that he dubbed her ‘the greatest operatic actress’ he had yet encountered, and such was her success in the role that she was featured on the cover of Time magazine, emboldening New York City Opera to mount two further Donizetti Tudor Queen operas for her, Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena.
‘Stuarda was the only one that really was right for my voice.’ she says candidly. ‘I knew I was taking a risk and shortening my vocal career with the others, but I had made a pact with my husband that I would stop performing when I was 50, and I needed some interesting challenges before then.’
Does she still listen to her recordings? ‘Never,’ she replied firmly. ‘I once met Tebaldi after her retirement, and asked her how she occupied her time. She replied that she was feeling lonely and often sat at home all day listening to her recordings and weeping. I decided then and there that that definitely wasn’t going to be me.’ Not for Sills a Norma Desmond-like existence reliving her former glories - she has now donated her vocal scores to the Juilliard and NYCO library, keeping ‘only about five or six which I couldn’t bear to part with.’
Could she choose her greatest vocal moment? ‘If I had to pick one aria, it would be “Se Pieta” from Giulio Cesare. I thought I sang that aria just about better than anyone else! One night, I turned the radio on and was upset to hear someone sing it even better than I did. I was so disappointed that I had to wait to hear the announcer name the singer. It was me, so I was delighted!’
I asked her if she was aware that she was probably the only real opera star between Callas and Pavarotti to have become a household name - the term superstar could well have been invented for her in the 1970s. She replied that superstardom isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.
‘When you become a superstar, you immediately become much more attractive to a certain section of the public, and much less to another. At least in my day, when I went on The Johnny Carson Show, I could sing what I like. If I wanted “Let the Bright Seraphim”, an orchestra and a trumpeter would be produced. Johnny told me not to sing popular music, but to bring my opera arias to the public. Nowadays, everything is dumbed down, our television is moronic.’
Apart from her keen intelligence and quick wit, Sills has a genuine interest in other people. She is also generous in her praise for other singers, speaking with great admiration about Tebaldi and Leontyne Price, who, together with Ponselle, she considers to have produced the most beautiful Italianate sounds she has ever heard. She speaks with sadness of the death of Birgit Nilsson, a former neighbour, but almost immediately counters this with an anecdote of Nilsson calling her up and telling her that she must come to hear her sing Salome at the Met that evening. ‘Birgit, I don’t need to. I just have to open the window a little - I’ll hear you!’
When asked about today’s singers, Sills speaks with enthusiasm of Renée Fleming and Natalie Dessay. ‘Nobody is making more beautiful sounds today than Fleming, nobody.’ Of Dessay’s Ophelie in Hamlet, she remarks, ‘she’s my kind of singer, a real singing actress - phenomenal.’
Talking to Sills, it’s easy to see that besides the voice, the personality was one of her secrets of success - and it wasn’t a plastic personality manufactured by PR spin either. Beneath her warmth and charm lies a supremely practical woman - ‘a tough kid from Brooklyn’ as she described herself. It is these qualities that have seen her through some very tough times and personal problems related to her family’s health.
The esteem in which Sills is held extends way beyond the world of show business. As I arrived for this interview, I encountered in the apartment-block foyer a little old lady struggling with a zimmer frame. She seemed rather put out at having to share the lift with me and my floral tribute and rather testily asked to whose apartment I was headed. When I mentioned the name of Beverly Sills, her face lit up and her attitude changed immediately. ‘Beverly Sills deserves to have fresh flowers delivered every day of her life!’ she cried. I could only agree.