everly Sills, the ebullient opera star who enchanted audiences
worldwide with her silvery soprano and outgoing personality
before embarking on a second career as an arts administrator and
supporter, died Monday of lung cancer. She was 78.
Sills died at her Manhattan home with her family and doctor at her
side, her manager, Edgar Vincent, told the Associated Press.
During a vocal career that began in childhood and extended
through the 1970s, Ms. Sills combined sparkling vocal tone, lithe
technique and a charismatic stage presence to produce operatic
performances of charm and brilliance.
Her signature performances -- including the title roles of
Massenet's "Manon" and Douglas Moore's "Ballad of Baby Doe" and particularly the doomed heroines in the bel canto works of
Donizetti and Bellini -- elicited some of Ms. Sills' most triumphant
But her success as an operatic celebrity was only partly attributable to her musical skills. She
also cultivated a folksy, plainspoken demeanor that helped her create a distinctly American
public persona as what music critic Peter G. Davis has called a "populist prima donna."
At a time when operatic luminaries had an increasingly difficult time capturing the public
imagination, Ms. Sills -- a brash New Yorker widely known by her childhood nickname,"Bubbles" -- seemed to embody the approachable face of the fine arts.
She was a regular presence on television, both in broadcast opera productions and as a guest
(and occasional substitute host) on "The Tonight Show." She hosted television specials,
including one with her friend Carol Burnett, and appeared on "The Muppet Show." In a 1971
cover story, Time magazine proclaimed her "America's Queen of Opera."
Following her retirement from the stage in 1980, Ms. Sills remained in the public eye as
general director of the New York City Opera until 1989, and from 1994 to 2005 as
chairwoman of the board of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
"She was so down-to-earth, so approachable and so human," said San Francisco Opera
General Director David Gockley. "And because she was a star, she brought people who had no interest in opera into the opera. They loved Beverly the personality, and so they wanted to
see Beverly the singer."
Ms. Sills was named Belle Silverman after she was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on May 25, 1929.
She began singing along with opera recordings as a toddler, and under her mother's
prodding, began singing regularly on the radio. At 10, she sang Verdi's "Caro nome" on"Major Bowes' Amateur Hour" for a nationwide audience.
She made her professional debut in 1947 with the Philadelphia Civic Grand Opera Company,
and was hired in 1953 to appear with the San Francisco Opera in a variety of roles.
That episode in her life proved bittersweet. As Ms. Sills recounted in "Bubbles: A
Self-Portrait," the first of two autobiographies, she arrived in San Francisco expecting to be
met and driven to the home of general director Gaetano Merola.
But Merola had died the day before, in the middle of conducting a performance of "Madama
Butterfly" in Stern
Ms. Sills with her two suitcases made her way by public
transportation to the Merola house, where she'd been expecting to stay, only to learn the sad news. Strapped for cash, she wound up in a fleabag hotel on Market Street.
"It was the loneliest week I have ever spent," she wrote. "For a long time afterwards,
whenever I heard the name San Francisco, I would feel cold shivers up and down my spine,
Despite the adversity, she sang lead roles in Mozart's "Don Giovanni" and Boito's "Mefistofele" and was a last-minute replacement as one of the Valkyries in Wagner's "Die
Ms. Sills did not appear in San Francisco again until 1970, when she gave a triumphant solo
recital at the War
Memorial Opera House. In The Chronicle, music critic Robert
Commanday wrote, "Miss Sills is surely a voice of the
era, whose gifts will be held in history's
remembrance. Unlike many vocal greats, cherished for particular attributes and specialized
repertoire, her artistry is fully formed. She is a complete musician."
The next year, Ms. Sills opened the opera season in "Manon." She then returned nearly every season until 1977, when she made her last company appearance as Elvira in Bellini's "I
During this time, she had forged what would prove to be her most lasting affiliation, with the
New York City Opera.
She made her company debut in 1955 in "Die Fledermaus" and
continued to sing a wide range of both traditional and contemporary roles.
But her breakthrough came in 1966, with a sensational performance as Cleopatra in
Handel's "Giulio Cesare." That was followed by a series of bel canto revivals -- most notably
the three Tudor queens in Donizetti's "Maria Stuarda," "Anna Bolena" and "Roberto
Deveraux," which she later called "the greatest artistic challenge and the finest
of my career."
Ms. Sills also sang at the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden and La Scala before retiring at
the age of 50. Among her recordings are classic performances of "Manon" and "Baby Doe," as well as a Grammy-winning disc of the music of Victor Herbert.
Ms. Sills is survived by her daughter, Meredith Greenough, known as "Muffy," and her son,
Peter Greenough Jr. Her husband, journalist Peter Greenough, died in September.
A discography and more than 20 hours' worth of excerpts from her recordings can be found
online at www.beverlysillsonline.com.