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Obituaries & Tributes Articles - Beverly Sills

Chicago Tribune, July, 2007, by John von Rhein

ritics are supposed to be stony-hearted, but I have a soft spot in mine for Beverly Sills. She was one of the first opera singers to turn me on to opera, and some of my happiest early memories of opera in the theater are because of her.

Her death Monday was a double loss for us all. Not only did America lose one of its most cherished vocal artists and musical personalities, but Sills' passing pointed up the sobering fact that there is nobody in classical music today remotely capable of duplicating the amazing hold she had on a previous generation of Americans, even those who couldn't have cared less about opera.

Los Angeles, where I went to high school and college during the 1960s, didn't have any homegrown opera to speak of back then. So when the New York City Opera came to town, as it did regularly in the days when Sills was among the company's house sopranos, it was a must-see event and everybody turned out for it.

Those touring performances afforded a chance to catch Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and Tatiana Troyanos on the brink of superstardom, and there you could also catch Sills in her vocal prime, singing roles that were soon to be indelibly associated with her -- Massenet's Manon, Moore's Baby Doe, the mad Lucy in Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," among others.

Sills sang better then than she ever did later on. I was struck by the smiling ease with which she sailed through the most florid coloratura passages, by her flawless diction, kewpie-doll beauty and, most of all, by the warmth this natural-born singing actress radiated on stage. How could you not fall in love with her? How could you not succumb to the delights of opera at the same time?

America desperately needs its legends, and Sills met all the qualifications for being a stereotypical Legend in Her Own Time. She embodied the American dream that anyone, from anywhere, can achieve anything if he or she works hard enough.

Cleopatra put her on the map

The saga of how a former child star from Brooklyn, nee Belle Silverman, sang and tap-danced her way up from radio to the opera stage to become America's diva is secure in the annals of American mythology. Sills' rise from humble origins, years of struggle and family tragedy to triumph as a singer and opera administrator touched millions who wouldn't have been caught dead in an opera house.

Sills achieved her big breakthrough in 1966 when she dazzled everyone with her seductive performance as Cleopatra in a brilliant production of Handel's "Julius Caesar." Suddenly everybody was noticing her. From the late '60s through the '70s, Sills dominated the American scene to a greater extent than any other classical singer since Enrico Caruso.

A compulsive talker, she recounted her against-all-odds rise to the top with millions in countless TV talk show appearances. She sang and danced with puppets, Muppets and Carol Burnett. She hosted her own talk shows. She was one of the very few opera singers ever to grace the covers of both Time and Newsweek. When Sills went to Congress to push for greater government funding for the arts, lawmakers listened. She could have run for high office and won.

Hers was a light, soubrettish lyric coloratura soprano she pushed into heavier vocal territory through old-fashioned American determination. If one compared her with her contemporary rivals in the bel canto repertory, she lacked the technique of Joan Sutherland, the dramatic intensity of Maria Callas, the tonal beauty and color of Montserrat Caballe. The murderously difficult vocal lines of Donizetti's Tudor queens (Elizabeth I, Mary Stuart, Anne Boleyn) were a palpable stretch for her.

But Sills made these regal heroines her own through sheer determination, winning you over with her impeccable musicianship, rock-solid rhythm, textual incisiveness and flair for creating believable characters.

Among American singers of her generation, Sills was sometimes likened to Leontyne Price, whose career was roughly
contemporaneous with hers. But the resemblances were superficial. Both divas became heroines to ordinary Americans. But Price left a deeper artistic imprint on a wider repertory, including the heavier lyric-spinto parts in Italian opera that Sills prudently avoided. And while Price enjoyed an international career, Sills' career was confined almost entirely to America.

Sills' voice began to fail around the time of her belated if much-hyped Metropolitan Opera debut in 1975 -- as Pamira in Rossini's rarely heard "The Siege of Corinth," a role she hated because of the heroine's dramatic passivity. I attended the Met premiere and noted with dismay the shrill and wobbly decline of a once-shining instrument.

Go-to woman

The invitation to become director of the New York City Opera in 1979 came not a moment too soon for a go-to woman who realized late in life she still had much to give to the company that had given the girl from Brooklyn her start.

Sills set about stabilizing the city opera's finances. She boosted its reputation as a springboard for young talent. She carried the company through a devastating period in the 1980s when it lost conductors, directors, singers and stage personnel to the AIDS epidemic. On the other hand, the repertory became less adventuresome and performance standards fluctuated during her regime. As an administrator, Bubbles was no miracle worker.

It was probably just as well she eventually moved across the Lincoln Center plaza to become the center's board chairman and, later, to chair the board of the Metropolitan Opera, a post she resigned in 2005 for health and family reasons. Both Lincoln Center and the Met put to productive use her skills as a fundraiser and operatic pitchwoman, two more roles in which Sills was nonpareil.

In Sills' rather self-serving autobiography, "Bubbles" (1976, revised and reprinted in 1981), the soprano suggested that until she came along and changed everything, American opera singers were underappreciated at home and not taken seriously abroad.

That assertion would have come as a surprise to Rosa Ponselle, Geraldine Farrar, Eleanor Steber, Helen Traubel, Richard Tucker, Jan Peerce and Leonard Warren, not to mention Leontyne Price and Marilyn Horne, native-born artists who won enormous respect in the U.S. and enjoyed international careers far more impressive and long-lived than Sills'.

Nor was Sills the pioneer in female opera administration she proclaimed herself to be -- not unless one overlooks the pioneering achievements of Mary Garden in the early years of Chicago opera, or the towering legacies of Garden's latter-day successors, Lyric Opera's Carol Fox and Ardis Krainik.

Made high art popular

Rather, I would suggest Sills' greatest achievement, beyond her early vocal triumphs, was as a popularizer of high art, one who could sell opera to the masses without breaking faith with the classical cognoscenti.

But, then, America's cultural life was in a very different place back then.

Sills hit superstardom around the time when the CBS television network had Leonard Bernstein conducting symphonic concerts in prime time; when a thriving classical recording industry was eager to get behind gifted American artists with her sales potential; when popular culture didn't command quite as big a slice of the pie; when people still paid attention to serious music in sufficient numbers to register on the radar.

Nowadays, with classical music pushed to the margins of American culture, I wonder: If a Beverly Sills should miraculously appear out of nowhere, would anyone notice? Would anyone even care?

Which is why, I suspect, an artistic and cultural phenomenon such as Beverly Sills will not be seen again in our lifetime. That's sad.