everly Sills, the bubbly redhead from Brooklyn who rose to iconic
status as one of the most beloved and best-known American opera
divas of her generation, died Monday of cancer. She was 78.
The singer died at her New York home, according to her longtime
manager, Edgar Vincent. Sills, a non-smoker, suffered from
inoperable lung cancer.
Sills was hardly the first female American opera singer to forge a
major reputation in opera houses throughout the world. Her light,
flutelike voice was perhaps less remarkable than the vivacious and charming persona
But she was among the handful of
solidly trained operatic artists of her
era, along with Luciano Pavarotti and
Placido Domingo, who could bridge
the gap between popular culture and
high art through their outsized talent
and the charismatic force of their
personalities. And after her singing
career, she maintained a high profile
as an opera administrator.
Always ambitious, Sills was helped up
the career ladder by a high-powered
publicity machine that effectively sold
her smiling, spunky, all-American-girl
image to millions who would not
ordinarily have been interested in
opera. Because she was a celebrity
who happened to sing opera, she
made many operatic converts the
Composer Ned Rorem once called
Sills "a smart singer of dumb music" --
his way of praising the intelligence and
conviction the singer brought to her
light lyric specialties. The "dumb
music" Rorem was referring to was the
bel-canto queens of Rossini, Bellini
and Donizetti, opera roles Sills felt
represented her at her artistic peak
even if their vocally demanding music
also shortened her career.
Her operatic role, many critics felt, was
that of the spoiled, pleasure-loving
Manon in Massenet's opera of the
same name, which she sang to
universal acclaim at the New York City Opera, her American home base from 1955. City
Opera became the site of her greatest successes until she retired from singing in 1979 to
take the reins as the company's general director.
Her tenure was considered only a mixed success artistically, although Sills succeeded in
turning the $6 million deficit she had inherited into a $6 million surplus.
Somehow, only the critics really cared that her bright, agile, technically secure soprano
lacked dramatic weight and, near the end of her singing career, would turn shrill and
wobbly under pressure. When she switched on that famous smile and quick wit, in opera,
concerts and many appearances on television shows such as Johnny Carson's "The
Tonight Show" and "The Carol Burnett Show." Sills lived up to her childhood nickname of
Bubbles. She could do no wrong.
Although celebrated elsewhere, she never sang with Lyric Opera of Chicago. When
someone asked Carol Fox, the company's indomitable general manager during Sills'
heyday, why she never engaged her, Fox haughtily replied, "Why should I get Sills when I
can get Joan Sutherland?"
Sills did, however, perform on numerous occasions with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra,
notably in a series of concert opera performances conducted by James Levine at Ravinia
during the early 1970s. There she sang the title roles in Verdi's "La Traviata," Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" and Bellini's "Norma," along with Konstanze in Mozart's "Abduction from the Seraglio." The soprano often praised the intimate festival atmosphere and found
singing there "a joy," she said.
Sills was just another house soprano at City Opera until she caused a sensation as
Cleopatra in a bowdlerized but effective production of Handel's "Julius Caesar" that
launched her as the house's prima donna in 1966. There she reigned supreme, taking time
out to score debuts in Vienna, Milan and London and make a series of best-selling
Slow to jump aboard the Sills bandwagon, the Metropolitan Opera belatedly engaged her
for her Met debut in 1975, in Rossini's rarely heard "The Siege of Corinth." Although her
voice already was in decline, she had a respectable success. That opera served as the
highly sentimental coda to a remarkable career that spanned more than 70 roles.
Sills ran City Opera until 1989, after which she became chairwoman of the board at New
York's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. In 2002, the Metropolitan Opera asked her to
sit on its board. She served as board chairwoman until she resigned two years ago for
health and family reasons.
Her cheery, motherly tones, enjoining radio listeners to support the Met broadcast series,
were a familiar fixture of the live Saturday afternoon performances from the Met. As
recently as last season, she hosted several of the Met's new high-definition movie theater
Born Belle Silverman in 1929, her first singing appearance was at the age of 3 on radio's "Major Bowes Amateur Hour." She began serious vocal studies at 11 with Estelle Liebling,
which led to her operatic debut (as Frasquita in Bizet's "Carmen") in 1947 with the
Philadelphia Civic Grand Opera Company. For several years, she worked with touring
opera companies, gave song recitals in the Midwest and sang with the San Francisco
Sills received many awards, including the Kennedy Center Honors in 1985, and 14
honorary degrees. She was the author of two autobiographies, "Bubbles: a Self-Portrait" (1976, revised and reissued in 1981) and "Beverly" (1987).
Survivors include a daughter, Muffy. Sills' husband of nearly a half-century, journalist Peter
Greenough, died last September.
Beverly Sills' greatest hits, on CD and DVD:
Massenet : "Manon." The singer said that if she is remembered for anything, it will be for
her performance of the title role. It perfectly suited her voice and temperament, and the
recording is a triumph.
Handel: "Julius Caesar." The role of Cleopatra was Sills' ticket to operatic superstardom.
She sings it gloriously in this 1967 "original cast" recording from the New York City Opera.
Moore: "The Ballad of Baby Doe." Sills always considered Baby Doe the role she most
fully inhabited. The 1959 recording captures the voice of the young Beverly at her freshest.
Strauss: "Ariadne auf Naxos." In this U.S. premiere performance of the original 1912
version of the opera, Sills sings the role of Zerbinetta, whose music is longer, more ornate
and more fiendishly difficult to sing than in the revision. She tosses it off with blithe ease.
"The Art of Beverly Sills." A well-planned two-disc survey of arias drawn from various
complete opera sets, including the singer's signature trio of Tudor queens.