n the mid-1970s, Beverly Sills was a ubiquitous presence on American TV. I recall watching her
in action on one of several occasions when Johnny Carson asked her to be guest host of "The
Tonight Show." Sills invited three gal pals as guests: comedian Carol Burnett, singer and TV host
Dinah Shore and pop chanteuse Eydie Gorme. The four got into a tiff over who was whose best
Watching Sills schmoozing with her friends on television, hearing her sing comic duets with
Burnett one moment and lyrical Donizetti arias the next, had a major impact on American culture.
Millions of viewers who had assumed that opera was an elitist art form for bloated divas
pretending to be lovesick adolescents experienced little epiphanies before their TV sets. In her
day, Sills was not just the best-known, best-loved and highest-paid opera singer in the business.
She was the public face of opera, and the performing arts in general, throughout America.
Yet as we remember Sills, who died Monday night at 78, we must be careful not to dwell too
much on Sills the media force. She would not have had such authority as a proselytizer for the
fine arts had she not been an excellent singer and formidable artist. Sadly, her time at the top
was relatively brief.
Of course, she started in the business early. Look her up on YouTube and you can find a link
showing Bubbles Silverman as a 7-year-old radio darling, singing an Italian song by Luigi Arditi in
a short segment from a movie titled "Uncle Sol Solves It." Already present are hints of the
coloratura agility and the communicative energy that later generations of opera buffs associate
with Beverly Sills. Photos and recordings also exist of Bubbles singing a commercial jingle for
Rinso White soap on Major Bowes' radio show.
But in her early 20s she struggled, even spending a couple of years in a touring company where
one season she sang 63 consecutive one-night stands as Micaela in "Carmen." After finally being
invited to join the New York City Opera in 1955, Sills spent the next 10 years giving what many
company insiders thought were some of the greatest performances of her career. But only City
Opera loyalists heard her.
Her breakthrough into international stardom did not come until 1966, with her portrayal of
Cleopatra in the City Opera's landmark production of Handel's "Giulio Cesare." Just 14 years later,
at 51, she retired from singing. Sills' Metropolitan Opera debut came shockingly late in her career. For years the company had
been led by the Austrian-born Rudolf Bing -- later Sir Rudolf Bing -- who barely disguised his
patronizing attitude toward American singers. So it was sweet justice that she ended her
influential career in arts administration as the chairwoman of the Met's board.
When she announced her retirement in 2005 from administration and even from fundraising,
except for some charity work, I met with her at her elegant apartment overlooking Central Park
for an interview. After my questions were answered and the tape recorder was turned off, she
said that during her career she had tried to be careful about not fraternizing with critics. But now
she was out of the business, she said. "So why don't you and I just have lunch sometime, just for
fun?" she asked.
A few months later we did. We met at Fiorello's, across from Lincoln Center, where a table had a
special plaque reading "Reserved for Beverly Sills," for whenever she wanted it. Over lunch, we
talked not as critic and diva but as two veteran opera buffs, sharing enthusiasms and gossip.
During the lunch, two middle-age women stopped by our table. One asked Sills, "Are you who I
think you are?" Sills smiled at her warmly and said, "I hope so."