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Obituaries & Tributes Articles - Beverly Sills

Bloomberg, July 3, 2007, by Manuela Hoelterhoff

occasionally had Entenmann's coffee cake with her at 9 in the morning. She would serve it up casually while pondering yet another financial crisis as she sat in her subterranean lair at the New York City Opera surrounded by souvenirs from her singing days.

Like so many people fortunate to hear her sing or watch her eat, I will really miss Beverly Sills, diva, manager, fund-raiser deluxe. The superstar singer died last night age 78.

``How much money you got on you?'' she would joke, as I packed up my reporter's notebook. ``We take small bills.'' When she was general director of City Opera in the 1980s, Sills sometimes met the weekly payroll by eating staggered lunches with donors before clattering down corporate hallways with her begging cup in the afternoon. Then she'd have dinner with opera patrons.

Her mother draped her in a variety of fat-shrouding caftans and curtains. Periodically, she would diet madly. At Trastevere, an Upper East Side restaurant, she spent an evening staring melodramatically at a large pill and some festively arrayed carrots while I feasted with the opera company's press director, Susan Woelzl.

In her heyday, Sills was slim enough for the tight bustiers of Cleopatra in Handel's ``Julius Caesar,'' the role that made her a megastar in 1966. Even snobby teenagers who hung out next door at the grander Metropolitan Opera, where international divas like Renata Tebaldi reigned in ripe operas by Puccini, were won over.

`A Great High'

Somewhere, I still have a very 1960s button that says ``Beverly Sills Is a Great High.'' She could sing up to high F as Mozart's Queen of the Night. City Opera became a destination for us.

The Met took forever to ask her over. General Manager Rudolf Bing preferred Europeans, and offered her silly pieces like Flotow's ``Martha'' in which the tenor has the best song. The man finally retired and in 1975 she made her debut in a little-known Rossini showcase called ``The Siege of Corinth,'' which I reviewed for the Wall Street Journal. It was some night. The audience screamed even before she materialized on the stage. Tickets had sold out the previous year.

Sills was unique. Because she was such a cheerful goofball with television comics Johnny Carson or Carol Burnett, even opera nuts sometimes forget her greatness, especially in the French repertoire to which she brought charm and delicacy. She had something very unusual: a timbre, a sound, that was all her own and unmistakable in its luminosity.

Sad Manon

Her dazzling virtuosity, so well suited to the mad warblings of Lucia di Lammermoor, was impressive. Yet it is that plaintive tone that I remember as I think of her now: the sad inflections she brought to Massenet's doomed party girl, Manon, as she recalls the happy days with her chevalier: ``N'est-ce plus ma main.'' Her sadness reflected her essence as much as the jokiness.

More than most people, Sills experienced tragedies in her own life, which she endured stoically and with what seemed to me a sense of the absurd. Daughter Muffy, born deaf in 1959, never heard what the ruckus was all about with mom. For decades, Muffy has battled multiple sclerosis and now gets about in a scooter and a wheelchair. The son, Bucky, who also survives her, is mentally retarded. Just before her Met debut, Sills was operated on for a cancerous growth. Sadly, too, the voice deteriorated rather early, when she was barely 50.

`She's Nuts!'

In her last production at the Met, Donizetti's ``Don Pasquale'' in 1979, we all leaned forward as if to help her make those difficult little high notes. At the City Opera, she tried on one last new costume, that of the deranged ``Juana la Loca'' by Gian Carlo Menotti, and ended up tearing her hair out while he pondered finishing a mad scene. ``Why do you want a mad scene?'' he would ask, whining. ``Because she's nuts!'' she remembered screaming at him. The piece bombed.

Then came the decades on corporate boards and managing the City Opera, though Sills could have simply retired as the wealthy wife of the wealthy Peter Greenough, whose family had owned the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper. But she loved opera and other people's money and by combining the two remained in the spotlight -- which she also loved a lot.

Corporate leaders enjoyed talking to her because she had a fabulous red head for business and was a good stock picker on her own. For SmartMoney magazine in 1996, I wrote a piece on her investments which required another breakfast, this one in a restaurant opposite Lincoln Center, where she was then ensconced as chairman. Even then, with the sun barely out, she made an entrance, squeezing past tables and rearranging a place setting or two by the time she dropped her huge memo-filled bag and sat down with a pleased ``oomph'' to order a pumpkin muffin.

Cash in a Bag

She remembered 1969 as her first million-dollar year, the earnings boosted by her debut at La Scala, where she was paid around $15,000 a night in cash in a paper bag. In the mid-1970s, when Luciano Pavarotti was just a bearded blob on the high- earning horizon, Sills started to pull in $35,000 for concerts, setting the stage for the Three Tenors and their grotesque fees. Her recordings also sold well, especially one of ``La Traviata.''

That morning she beamed, describing how she put some of her royalties and fees into a ``Whoopee Fund'' -- with which she bought whatever stocks she liked, including Merck & Co. and QVC Inc. She invested in baby-product companies with the assumption there would always be a ready supply of users and did well with disposable diapers. When Whoopee was closed down in 1994, it was worth more than $1 million, 15 times what she had started with.

I don't know if anyone did a tally of the money she raised for medical research and music, her twin causes. In the mid-1990s she had raised $80 million for the March of Dimes charity, she told me, and left the City Opera with an endowment of $5 million.

The last time I saw her was in the fall at Le Cirque in the Bloomberg complex in mid-Manhattan, where she was lunching with several lacquered women who were probably lighter by a million or two by the time the baked Alaska wobbled into view.