Sometimes the hype, if anything, underplays the truth.
Deutsche Grammophon's December release of Donizetti's trilogy of operas about the Tudor queens, starring Beverly Sills, is a major musical event by any standards. It celebrates a career that was unique in American opera, a woman who brought to life "Anna Bolena," "Maria Stuarda" and "Roberto Devereux" as well as many other bel canto operas for millions. This is not just another reissue from the 1970s. It is one of the most exciting operatic releases of this or any other year.
"I have to tell you, and I don't mean to sound immodest, that the 'Devereux' is my finest achievement," Sills said recently.
"If I am remembered for anything it will be of course for my Manon, maybe for Cleopatra; but Elizabeth, the old queen in 'Devereux': that was the high point in my career. Everything I set out to do, I did. That is an opening night I will never, ever forget."
Curiously, perhaps inevitably, it was "Roberto Devereux" that divided the critics on the Sills instrument. Claims that the role was too heavy for her, that it ruined her voice, continue to this day: One New York critic earlier this month published a pre-emptive essay on the Three Queens release -- before the release, mind you -- again dredging up accusations that Sills was wrong for the role of Elizabeth I.
"I read the newspapers," said Sills, whose husband, Peter Greenough, was associate editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "All singers read their reviews, whether they say so or not. And of course it hurts when they say something cruel. But I knew my voice better than anyone, and 'Devereux' was Donizetti, the orchestration was light. It was exactly right for my voice. Did it take a toll? Sure. But that was because dramatically the role called for me to push down the voice a lot. That was my choice. I went into it with eyes wide open. I would do it all over again."
The charge, and the soprano's candid answer, echoes those made against great singers from Maria Callas to Renata Scotto. It is the charge that they are shattering expectations, surprising us. Sills was full of surprises.
She was also part of a particularly exciting time in opera. When Sills sang her three Donizetti queens at New York City Opera or the Kennedy Center -- sometimes in the same week -- she was not alone in this demanding repertory. Joan Sutherland, Renata Scotto, Leila Gencer, Montserrat Caballe and Elena Souliotis all were singing this music. Who today can match any of those women?
"It was so much fun," Sills recalled. "Joan with that pure voice, Montserrat always joking, with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth. And don't forget Jackie," she said, referring to fellow trill-seeker Marilyn Horne. "And at City Opera I had Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. God, the first time I saw Jose come toward me in 'Lucia' I thought I had never seen a more beautiful boy. And that voice!"
Sills shies away from calling it a golden age, but she said she was "very lucky to be part of those times. Very lucky." Does it alarm her that there seems to be no one around to keep bel canto alive these days? Sills is full of praise for Christine Goerke, a young soprano; and she diplomatically suggests that Lauren Flanigan -- who crashed and burned in "Roberto Devereux" at City Opera this season -- should be very careful what music she sings. But, though she has been impressed by the young bass Rene Pape and other male singers, Sills can't come up with a complete cast for "Devereux" today.
"I don't think my repertory is dead. But we can say that it is taking a little nap now," she said. "It will be back."
Born Belle Miriam Silverman in Brooklyn in 1929, Sills was nicknamed "Bubbles." She became interested in the stage early, winning the 'Miss Beautiful Baby" of 1932 in Tompkins Park. She sang in Rinso White commercials, learned to sing along with her mother's Galli-Curci recordings, eventually made her debut in 1947 as the Gypsy Frasquita in "Carmen," toured the country and landed her first major role: Helen of Troy in the San Francisco Opera's 1953 production of Boito's "Mefistofeles."
It was back home in New York that Bubbles became an opera star. Though marriage and family kept her virtually retired for some time, her 1966 portrayal of Cleopatra in Handel's "Julius Caesar" catapulted her and her company to international prominence. Hit after hit followed, and not just in the bel canto repertory: Puccini's "Il Trittico," Verdi's "La Traviata" and Gian Carlo's "La Loca" mingled with more obviously congenial operas including "I Puritani," "The Barber of Seville," "Lucrezia Borgia" and "The Merry Widow."
I was lucky to have seen Sills in all of these, and to this day I hear certain phrases from "Puritani" or "La Traviata" that re-create with Proustian intensity the magic that was Sills onstage.
"The funny thing is that I have great memories, but I don't stay home and play my old records," Sills said. "I never had the time. The day after I retired, I was in my office running New York City Opera. Then I went into the corporate world and was very successful. When I thought I might finally become a lady who lunches, Lincoln Center came to me and I couldn't say no."
Sills has received both the Kennedy Center Honors and the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her service to American culture. She has helped raise more than $70 million for the March of Dimes, working hands-on with the Mothers' March on Birth Defects. And she is still running Lincoln Center.
"Child, I'm 71 years old now. Seventy-one. I haven't sung in public for about 21 years, and, no, I don't miss performing," she said. "I don't really miss getting into the arena and facing the bull -- in every sense of the word, let me tell you. "
"But you know what I do miss? Having my coach come early in the morning, cracking the score open for the first time, seeing what I can do. I miss the discovery. But I stopped at the right time.
"I always love telling how at first it would take me 15 minutes to get into makeup as Manon, that young thing, and two hours to become old Elizabeth. Eventually it took me two hours to become Manon, and just 15 minutes to make up for the old queen -- and it still was tough to carry around that 55-pound costume with all those damned pearls."
Still, the old yearning hasn't gone away.
"If God gave me back my voice, say, for just three hours," Sills said, "I'd say: "Get me the old queen's costume. Quick!'"
The Three Queens
Deutsche Grammophon has just released a seven-CD set of Beverly Sills singing in the legendary New York City Opera Donizetti cycle of operas about the Tudor queens.
"Anna Bolena" has Sills in the title role, with Shirley Verrett, Stuart Burrows and Paul Plishka, conducted by Julius Rudel.
"Maria Stuarda" has Sills as Mary Stuart with the great Eileen Farrell as Elizabeth, with Stuart Burrows and Louis Quilico, conducted by Aldo Ceccato.
"Roberto Devereux," which Sills considers the finest achievement of her career, captures her portrayal of Elizabeth I, with Robert Ilsfalvy, Peter Glossop and Beverly Wolff, conducted by Charles Mackerras.