uring the mid-1970s, the landscape of American popular
culture periodically witnessed something that in retrospect
seems utterly implausible. Sitting in for Johnny Carson as host
of "The Tonight Show," making chitchat with the various stars,
starlets and other celebs of the day, was Beverly Sills.
Yes, an opera singer. In America's living room, behind that
familiar desk in Burbank, disguised as a regular person --
which, let's face it, is what she was.
Sills, who died Monday at 78, achieved much during a long and
varied career. She left behind the memories of many great
performances, some (though not enough of them) documented
on recordings. She helped reshape the cultural map of New
York City through her leadership of the New York City Opera
and Lincoln Center.
But her most distinctive achievement was at once simpler and
more sweeping. By her very example, she got an entire nation
to rethink what it meant to be a classical singer -- and by
extension, what opera itself could mean in a nation where it
was still an exotic cultural transplant.
There were plenty of American opera singers before Sills, of course, from Rosa Ponselle
and Lawrence Tibbett to countless other stars of the major opera houses. But nearly all of
them adopted the mannerisms and self-presentation
of their Old World counterparts.
The lesson was clear, and it's an idea whose remnants have still not fully died out: Opera
is something that Europeans do. You can do it too, if you can pass for European.
It was left to Sills, with her plainspoken, folksy manner and unapologetic Brooklyn roots,
to turn that truism on its head. Everything about her proclaimed proudly that yes, an
artist could sing Donizetti and still be American to her very bones.
What Leonard Bernstein did for orchestra conductors, Sills did for opera singers. She
showed that the supposed
conflict between American populism and high art was in fact a
And that, in turn, had a profound effect on the way opera was perceived by people who
might otherwise have
regarded it with suspicion or indifference. The business of dressing
up in costumes and telling an improbable story by
singing it in a foreign language will
always take a little salesmanship, especially in a country where the form is not a
our native cultural heritage.
But Sills helped demystify opera for American audiences. In part through the very simple
technique of showing up on television and being herself, she reclaimed it for what it truly
is -- a branch of show business.
Sills' example has been lasting in some ways, but unfortunately not in others. American
singers no longer have to
look to Europe for their cues on how to behave in the world
(though some, like Renée Fleming, do it anyway) or how to interpret the music they sing.
Along with Sills, singers like Marilyn Horne, Frederica von Stade and Samuel Ramey
bring a distinctively American
brand of energy and eloquence even to the standard works
of the French, Italian and German repertoire. And a whole generation of younger artists,including singers such as Dawn Upshaw, Thomas Hampson, Susan Graham, Deborah
Voigt and David Daniels, take that kind of approach practically for granted.
But at the same time, the popular perception of opera has backslid since Sills' heyday. The
idea of opera among
those who don't know it well has reverted to that old caricature of
the foreign singer bestowing something exotic and sentimental on benighted audiences.
The cause is obvious and summed up in three words: the Three Tenors. It was that
regrettable marketing juggernaut, more than anything else in the past 20 years, that
undid the good work of Sills and
What Sills had helped make plain and accessible, the Three Tenors made gaudy,
incomprehensible and remote. To
the public, their endless arena concerts and television
spectacles said that America couldn't produce opera on its own after all, but had to import
it from elsewhere.
In the actual opera houses of the United States and the rest of the world, of course, that
canard is easily disproved. American singers -- intelligent, hardworking, impeccably
trained -- are at the forefront of the international opera scene.
But try telling that to the folks who are getting their impressions of that scene from the
Today, a singer of Sills' caliber would face a daunting challenge just to get booked on "The
Tonight Show" as a
guest, let alone as a guest host. And it's not merely because our
notions of celebrity have changed but also because the popular sense of what an opera
singer looks and sounds like has changed. In the post-Three Tenors world, the
operatic guest for Jay Leno would be the blind Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli -- the Vanilla
Ice of opera singers.
Does it matter? Maybe not. The opera world continues to hum along nicely without much
help from television talk
shows, glossy magazines or the E! Channel. And in the end, Sills
will be remembered far more for her artistic
accomplishments than for anything she did
on late-night TV.
Still, it's worth recalling a time when opera seemed so much more integrated into the
cultural landscape -- less like the "irrational entertainment" described by Samuel Johnson
and more like one form of art among many. And it's worth extolling the homespun,
straightforward diva who helped make that possible.