this country's great operatic
voices has fallen silent:
Soprano Beverly Sills, with her
soaring, silvery voice and
irrepressible personality, died
of cancer this evening. She was
She was born Belle Miriam
Silverman in New York, and
Beverly Sills, as she would
eventually rename herself, had
her first taste of stardom at age
3, when she was named
Brooklyn's "Miss Beautiful
Baby 1932." At age 4, she was a
regular on the Rainbow House
radio show, and at 7 she sang
in a film.
As a child performer, Sills was
billed as "Bubbles," a
nickname that matched her
effervescent personality — and
one that stuck with her from
the very beginning."
I was born with a big
spit-bubble in my mouth, and
the doctor had to break it," she
once said. "So the doctor said, I guess we're going to have to call this one 'Bubbles.'"
Sills was always a go-getter.
She was voted most likely to
succeed in high school, and in
her early years she sang on
cruise ships and did
one-nighters on the Borscht
Belt circuit in the Catskills.
Although she made her
operatic debut in 1947, in
Philadelphia, her career finally
got off the ground when a
reluctant impresario at the City
Opera of New York finally
signed her in 1955. She wasn't
getting a lot of attention in
those early years, but that's
when Sills' voice was in its
prime, according to
Washington Post critic Tim
"The voice itself had quite a bit
of luster," Page says. But "what
made it special ... was the
freedom that she had; she
could just go anywhere with
the voice. She also brought real
dramatic intelligence to her
The singer used that dramatic
sense and her sparkling
personality to great effect in
1959, when she took on the
title role in a brand-new opera,
Douglas Moore's The Ballad of
Baby Doe, based on the true
story of a Colorado silver
magnate, the young bride he
falls for, and the scandals and
tragedies they survive.
Baby Doe was a success for
Sills, but stardom was still a
long way off.
She was working
hard, essentially as the City Opera's house soprano, always
dreaming of singing at the
larger Metropolitan Opera. She
found her breakthrough role in
1966, when she talked her way
into singing Cleopatra in
Handel's Julius Caesar at the
"I always had a theory that
people became a superstar
because they could do one
thing better than anybody else
in the world," she said. "I think
there was an aria in Julius
Caesar called 'Se Pieta,' and I
used to think I sung that aria
better than anybody."
Sills' performance turned her
into a sensation, almost
overnight. A New Yorker
magazine critic at the time
said, "If I were recommending the wonders of New York to a
tourist, I would place Beverly Sills at the top of the list." But Sills might have pushed herself a little too hard. She finally
got her invite to sing at the Met in 1975, but by then her voice was
already showing signs of wear and tear.
In 1980, at age 51, she
retired from singing. She said it was the perfect time to go out— on top.
"There is a kind of desperation, I think, at staying at something
too long," she said. "And I was never a desperate woman. I
wanted people to say 'It's too early,' rather than 'When is that
woman ever gonna quit?'"
Tim Page says Sills did stay too long, and that her recordings,
mostly made later in her career, leave a slim legacy of the great
singer she was.
And although Sills retired, Page says, she was never out of the
"In some ways she became more famous after she stopped
singing, because she introduced all these television programs and
she went on to to become a big advocate for the arts," Page says.
Americans age 40 or younger, he says, "will remember Sills as this happy homemaker, nice lady from Queens with the red hair
and the friendly manner, and sort of as a celebrity, rather than as
the serious artist that she was."
Sills did go on to be a "serious" arts administrator, taking on
significant roles as director of the New York City Opera and chair
of both the Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera. She was
an organized person who seemed to have a natural ability to
charm money out of donors.
Great administrators are rarely remembered, though — and Sills
wouldn't have wanted to be remembered as one in any case.
"I want to be remembered as Beverly Sills, opera singer," she said
once. "My entire life was spent in preparing for that career, and I
was lucky that the preparation paid off."
It did indeed: Sills was first and foremost an opera singer, with
an expressive, flexible voice that soared beautifully above an
But her later career made her the face of opera for Americans— whether she was portraying queens and courtesans on stage,
guest-hosting the Tonight Show, or lifting opera companies out
of debt. She did it all with a voice that rang out and a smile that