Sills Operatic Debut: 1947 or 1951?

Verifying Beverly Sills’ Official Operatic Debut: 1947 or 1951?

In Beverly Sills’ obituaries, her official operatic debut is noted as an important entry among her significant career events. The debut is also included in most reference books about her, as well as in her own autobiographies and in hundreds of her media interviews and performance program bios. The year of the debut has always been listed as 1947, but now, with more access to information and sources online, the correct year has been verified as 1951. This misinformation came about from a single press release that set the incorrect date in stone for all subsequent references published and has continued up to the present. However, extensive research has produced multiple sources that confirm the correct date, while finding no independent sources for the incorrect date. A detailed report on this verification follows.

References to Sills’ operatic debut first began to appear in newspaper and magazine articles in the early 1950s. The common element in all these was that it took place in a production of “Carmen” by the Philadelphia Civic Opera Company. The other details often varied and were sometimes contradictory, particularly concerning which role she sang in the opera. However, up through the mid-1960s, whenever the debut was mentioned, there was never a year attached, only a listing of the debut within an overview of her career thus far.

After 1966, the year in which Sills had her “overnight stardom” at New York City Opera in Handel’s “Julius Caesar,” her bios in performance programs and media articles began listing her debut as Frasquita (and sometimes as Micaela) in “Carmen” at age 17 with the Philadelphia Civic Opera. This appears to have originated from a nine-page press release in mid-1967 from Sills’ newly-acquired publicity agent, Edgar Vincent, who continued in that role throughout the rest of her singing career. The year of debut was not mentioned in that release, but Sills would have been 17 on May 25, 1946. The only stage performances she sang in 1946 after that were the Shubert tour of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas and a run of “The Merry Widow” in Detroit. Therefore, if shere were 17 at her operatic debut, it would have to have been sometime between January and early May, 1947.

At BeverlySillsOnline.Com, we have documented over 1,400 different performances by Sills, confirming them in newspaper interviews and reviews, performance programs, and annals of various opera companies. In all that research, there is no evidence of a performance of “Carmen” with Sills in the cast by any company in any year in the late 1940s.

On the other hand, what can be fully confirmed is a performance by Sills as Frasquita in a production of “Carmen” in Philadelphia, presented by the Philadelphia Civic Grand Opera Company on February 14, 1951. Through in-depth research, the accumulated evidence now clearly points to that 1951 “Carmen” as Sills’ actual operatic debut.

The Debut According to Sills’ Autobiographies

Sills’ two autobiographies contain contradictory statements about her operatic debut in Philadelphia. Here are the significant points from each book, which are fact-checked further below.

In Chapter 3 of Sills’ 1976 autobiography, “Bubbles” (pages 34-35), she states that in 1946 at age 17, she ended her career in operetta at her father’s insistence and began concentrating exclusively on operatic training with Estelle Liebling.  Sills then states she finally made her operatic debut in the role of Frasquita in “Carmen” for the Philadelphia Opera Company, conducted by Giuseppe Bamboschek. She identifies the leads as Winifred Heidt and Eugene Conley, whom Sills mentions were a married couple at the time. She does not give a date for the performance, but the chronology in her text implies it was after Sills was 19. Then Sills states she saw her first “Thaïs,” performed by the Philadelphia Opera Company with Florence Quartararo, a statement that will prove significant in verifying Sills’ actual debut date.

A decade later, in Chapter 3 of “Beverly,” Sills’ 1987 autobiography (pages 41-43), Sills recounts a somewhat different version of her debut. She mentions going back to studying opera with Liebling in 1946, stating that Liebling began sending her down to Philadelphia every Saturday to be coached for an hour by Bamboschek, whom Sills identifies as a conductor for the Philadelphia Opera Company. Sills says Bamboschek told her it would be helpful if she observed other singers in performance with the company, hiring her to understudy Florence Quartararo in “Thaïs.” Sills says that, after working as the understudy for only a couple of weeks, Bamboschek gave her a big break by casting her as Frasquita in the Philadelphia Opera Company production of “Carmen” in February 1947.

Opera Companies Active in Philadelphia in 1947 and 1951

There were only two opera companies in Philadelphia in 1947: the Philadelphia La Scala Opera Company (for which Giuseppe Bamboschek conducted) and the Cosmopolitan Opera Company. The Philadelphia Civic Grand Opera Company was not formed until 1950 and had seasons through 1955 (for which Giuseppe Bamboschek also conducted). When an opera company was mentioned in connection with Sills’ operatic debut in articles and magazines, it was usually stated as the Philadelphia Opera Company or the Philadelphia Civic Opera Company, both a slight shortening of the correct full name, the Philadelphia Civic Grand OperaCompany.

Performances of “Carmen” in Philadelphia in 1947 and in 1951

An invaluable resource for verification has been the work of the late Frank Hamilton, a highly respected, extremely conscientious compiler of operatic annals (including the definitive set for Maria Callas). One of his projects was an attempt to document every operatic performance occurring in Philadelphia. He spent years going through resources in libraries and opera company archives. He looked through the microfilm for every Philadelphia newspaper, as well as programs and documents from all the opera companies in the city. Much of the evidence presented here is confirmed in his “Opera In Philadelphia” annals for 1925-1949 and for 1950-1974.

Frank Hamilton’s annals have no listings for any performance of “Carmen” in February 1947 in Philadelphia by any company.Those annals also list no “Thaïs” productions by any company in 1947 in Philadelphia. This has now been independently verified by searches in online newspaper indexing services.

However, the Hamilton annals do list a performance of “Carmen” by the Philadelphia Civic Grand Opera Company in Philadelphia on February 14, 1951, in which Sills sang Frasquita, with Winifred Heidt as Carmen and Giuseppe Bamboschek conducting.The annals also list a “Thaïs” with Florence Quartararo on February 27, 1951, conducted by Bamboschek for the Philadelphia Civic Grand Opera Company. Therefore, Sills’ anecdote about understudying Quartararo for a few weeks before being cast in “Carmen” can only be true if placed in the context of Sills’ performance as Frasquita in “Carmen” on February 14, 1951, along with Quartararo’s performance on February 27, 1951, in “Thaïs.” Further confirmation comes from the February 28th, 1951, Philadelphia Inquirer review of that  “Thais,” which states it was the first Philadelphia performance of the opera since 1923.

Additional confirmation comes from Sills’ undated reference in “Bubbles” to Winifred Heidt (as Carmen) being married to Eugene Conley at the time of Sills’ debut. That could only be true for the 1951 performance, because the two singers did not marry until 1948.

Also of note is the 1984 book, “Within These Walls: A History of the Academy of Music in Philadelphia” by John Francis Marion. The 1951 “Carmen” performance by the Philadelphia Civic Grand Opera Company is noted on page 258, where Marion writes, “One reviewer happily mentioned a young singer, who would be world famous 20 years later. She wrote, ‘Beverly Sills…sang well as Frasquita….'”  It would seem odd, in this context, that Marion would not have included a reference to Sills having first sung Frasquita in “Carmen” at the Academy of Music in 1947 with the Philadelphia Civic Grand Opera Company, if Sills had actually done so.

Finally, the most concrete confirmation of the 1951 date comes from a Philadelphia Civic Grand Opera Company performance program for the January 30, 1951, production of “Don Pasquale.” An ad on the program’s back page announces the upcoming performance of “Carmen” by the company on Feb. 14, 1951, conducted by Giuseppe Bamboschek, with Winifred Heidt in the title role and Hallie Nowland as Frasquita. Two weeks later, the cast that performed that night was the same as in the ad, except for the role of Frasquita, which was sung by Beverly Sills. That performance fits Sills’ own description of getting a break from Bamboschek by his giving her the role at the last minute.

Additional Evidence from Sills’ Personal Scrapbooks

Additional evidence supporting the 1951 debut date comes from Sills’ personal scrapbooks (now housed in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.), which preserve almost every program, clipping, and photo concerning her singing career. Although virtually every other major event in her career is documented in great detail in these scrapbooks, there is no performance program, no review, no clipping, no photo, and no other reference to a 1947 “Carmen.” If Sills had made her operatic debut in “Carmen” in 1947, it seems odd that her scrapbooks would not have some reference to that signal event, especially that early in her career.

There are clippings in the scrapbooks about Sills’ performances in July 1947 as the lead in “The Merry Widow” in Berwyn, Pennsylvania. Those clippings mention her performance history up to that point, but nothing is stated about an operatic debut, an odd omission if such a debut was supposed to have happened in nearby Philadelphia earlier in that same year.

Unfortunately, the Sills scrapbooks have no coverage of the period from January 1948 through September 1951. A notation at end of the 1947 scrapbook states that no scrapbooks were kept for that missing period because Sills was concentrating on studying with Liebling and Sills had “few professional appearances in that span.”

Research confirms that, in that period, Sills had only a few short concert tours with the Liebling Singers, some minor recital performances, and the aforementioned Philadelphia “Carmen” in February 1951. It’s understandable, given her reduced schedule, that keeping a scrapbook might not have seemed worth the effort. However, it means the verified 1951 “Carmen” operatic debut is not represented in Sills’ scrapbooks, leaving it up for speculation what Sills might have annotated about that official operatic debut.

The Origins of the 1947 Debut References

The tradition of publicity agents stretching the truth for their clients to put the best spin on their accomplishments was still in play in 1967 when Edgar Vincent sent out the nine-page press release on Sills’ career up to that point. Touting her operatic debut as being at age 17 fits in with the listing of her earlier accomplishments, such as winning singing contests on the radio as a pre-teen and touring the East Coast in Gilbert & Sullivan operettas at age 15.

The misinformation was further perpetuated in 1987 by  Sills in “Beverly,” listing the debut date as February 1947. Sills “wrote” the book by using a tape recorder, into which she spoke her recollections on the go whenever she had a few minutes. It appears her recordings were transcribed verbatim without fact-checking, because “Beverly” has a number of  other verifiably incorrect statements about her performances, especially those in the early decades of her career.

How much Sills knowingly perpetuated the misinformation by repeating what Vincent set in motion in 1967 cannot be determined. However, it’s likely she was comfortable with the traditions of celebrity publicity, confirmed by numerous print and television interviews she gave perpetuating other misrepresented or unverifiable dates and anecdotes that made for entertaining press.

This debut date clarification is not put forth as a criticism of Sills or her management, but simply as a verification of her true operatic debut in its correct place in her performance chronology. While this clarification is likely to be of little significance to the general Sills fan, it should be of interest to biographers and researchers as a cautionary note when attempting to determine the facts of a celebrity’s life.

 [Revised September 23, 2023]

Biographical Books


Cover of the book BubblesBubbles
Macmillan, 1976, ISBN 0672522682, hardcover
Warner Books, 1977, ISBN 0446815209, softcover

Beverly ‘s autobiography, taking her life and career up through her debut at the Met in April 1975. Numerous photos, black and white as well as color, are placed throughout the 240 pages, which also include a useful index. There are no performance annals or discographies and Sills does not comment on many of her performances or recordings

Cover of book titled Beverly, an AutobiographyBeverly, An Autobiography
Bantam, 1987, ISBN 0553051733, hardcover
Bantam, 1988, ISBN 0553266470, softcover
Another life story by Sills covering much of the same ground as in Bubbles but with some different and additional stories. The book goes up through the first half of Sills’ tenure as head of the New York City Opera ending with the 1986 season. The book has a number of black and white photos, most of which are not in Bubbles. The 347 pages are well indexed but again no performance annals or discographies and many performances and recordings are not mentioned.

cover of book titled Bubbles, an EncoreBubbles, An Encore
Grosset & Dunlap, 1981, ISBN 0448120445, hardcover
Grosset & Dunlap, 1981, ISBN 044812037, softcover

This is a reprint of Bubbles, with an additional chapter of 40 pages appended at the end. Written by Harvey E. Phillips, the chapter covers the rest of Sills’ career through her retirement from singing. There are additional photos and there is a separate index for the new chapter.

Cover of book titled On My OwnOn My Own
Bantam Audio Publishing 1987, ISBN 0553457438, audiobook

Issued to complement Beverly, An Autobiography published in the same year, it is not a reading from her book, but an interview done exclusively for the audiobook. There is a narrator connecting the different sections of the interview and there are two live musical numbers: “Non disperar” from Handel” “Giulio Cesare” and the “Portuguese Folk Song” that her teacher, Estelle Liebling, prepared for Sills.

Recommended Biographical Resources

Picture of cover of book The American Opera Singer: the lives and adventures of America's great singers in opera and concert Davis, Peter G.
The American Opera Singer: the lives and adventures of America’s great singers in opera and concert from 1825 to the present
Doubleday, 1997, ISBN 0385474954, hardcover
Anchor Books, 1999, ISBN 0385421745, softcover

Peter G. Davis, the longtime music critic for New York Magazine, fills nearly 600 pages with an overview of the American opera singer, from opera’s arrival in America in the early 1800’s to the end of the 20th century. The majority of the book is Davis’s opinion about the strengths and weaknesses of a number of famous American singers, from Richard Tucker and Lawrence Tibbett to Eileen Farrell and Dorothy Kirsten. His strong opinions are often blunt and unflattering. Davis’s portrayal of Beverly Sills is especially harsh, characterizing her as an overly ambitious, calculating performer, who sang beyond her abilities and took on roles unsuited for her. Her biggest fans probably will not agree with a lot of what Davis writes, but it is a good springboard for discussion about her art and an intriguing alternative viewpoint.

Picture of book cover for The Magic of Beverly SillsGuy, Nancy
The Magic of Beverly Sills
University of Illinois Press, 2015, ISBN 978-0-252-03973-7, hardcover

Not a biography but an overview of Sills’ art and popularity. The book contains material from interviews of Sills’ colleagues, family, friends and fans, all to get at what made Sills’ career such a success. There are chapters on her audio and video recordings and an in-depth analysis of her “Anna Bolena” from live recordings as an example of her attention to detail and characterization.

Picture of the cover of book Strange Child of Chaos: Norman TreigleMorgan, Brian
Strange Child of Chaos: Norman Treigle
iUniverse, 2006, ISBN 0595388981, softcover

The first biography of the bass-baritone who was often the partner in Beverly Sills’ greatest triumphs. The 300-page book includes many references to Sills within the main biographical text, as well as in the full set of annals of all Treigle’s performances, which include all his performances with Sills.

Picture of book cover for First and Lasting ImpressionsRudel, Julius and Paller, Rebecca
First and Lasting Impressions
Univ. of Rochester Press, 2013, ISBN 978-1-58046-434-5, hardcover

Rudel conducted for the New York City Opera between 1944 and 1980 and was the company’s general director from 1957 to 1979. In this memoir, he devotes many pages to his long-term association with Sills and the company. There’s not much new information about Sills, but his insights on their many successful premieres, including “Giulio Cesare” and “Roberto Devereux,” make for fascinating reading.

Cover of The New York City Opera: the lives and adventures of America's great singers in opera and concert from 1825 to the presentSokol, Martin
New York City Opera: An American Adventure
Macmillan, 1981, ISBN 0026122804, hardcover

This 562-page book is a history of the New York City Opera, from its first performance on February 21, 1944 through its 1981 spring season. Within the narrative that makes up the first part, all of Sills’s major roles and performances are covered. The second part is a complete set of performance annals for NYCO in its New York appearances (no tour information is included).

Picture of cover of book The Music Went 'Round and AroundVacha, John
The Music Went ‘Round and Around
Kent State University Press, 2004, ISBN 0-87338-798-8, soft cover

The book is a history of Cleveland’s Musicarnival from its first summer season in 1954 to its last in 1975. There are eight pages of description of the five productions Beverly Sills sang there (Die Fledermaus in 1955, The Merry Widow and Carmen in 1956, Tosca in 1957 and The Ballad of Baby Doe in 1958). Also included are two photos of Sills (Carmen and Baby Doe) and a Cleveland Press drawing of her rehearsing Tosca.

Picture of cover of book Mad Scenes and Exit AriasWaleson, Heidi
Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America
Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company, 2018, ISBN 9781627794978, hardcover
Picador, 2019, ISBN 9781250230720, softcover

Waleson’s well-researched, evenly-balanced history of the New York City Opera reveals the significance of Sills’ contributions as the reigning star of the company at the height of popularity and also as general director for the company after she retired from singing.

Interviews and Profiles

picture of book cover Portraits in PrintBenedict, Helen
Portraits in Print
Columbia Univ. Pr., 1991, ISBN 0231072260, hardcover
Columbia Univ. Pr., 1991, ISBN 0231072279, softcover

Experienced interviewer and journalist Helen Benedict profiles ten well-known figures in the arts (Beverly Sills, Susan Sontag, Joseph Brodsky, Paule Marshall, Bernard Malamud, Jessica Mitford, Robert Treuhaft, Leonard Michaels, Bertrand Bard, and Isaac Bashevis Singer), which were originally published in other newspapers and magazines. Benedict adds additional commentary before each profile and adds a postscript to each detailing how the interviews were arranged and any particularly interesting points about the interview itself.
The 14-page Sills profile, subtitled “Undaunted and Undefeated,” was done in 1985 and emphasizes her family life, both her mother’s influence while growing up and her attempts to have a “normal” family life with her husband and children, despite her career and the children’s disabilities.

Picture of book cover Sopranos Mezzos Basses and Other FriendsChapin, Schuyler
Sopranos, Mezzos, Tenors, Bassos, and Other Friends
Crown, 1995, ISBN 0517588641, hardcover

Chapin, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera House from 1972-1975, has written personal essays about 30 singers and musicians he has worked with and/or known. The essays are short (5 to 10 pages) and are only impressions, not full career overviews. Each is accompanied by unusually dramatic photos by James-Daniel Radiches. The Sills essay covers 8 pages and has two contrasting photos of her.

Picture of cover of book Singular Voices: Conversations with Americans who made a differenceDiamonstein, Barbaralee
Singular Voices: Conversations with Americans who made a difference
Harry N. Abrams, 1997, ISBN 0810926989, softcover

This 206-page book contains interviews with 17 leaders, pathfinders and prominent contributors to American life, who speak with candor about their professional and personal lives. Besides Beverly Sills, the list includes a wide range of personalities, such as Edward Albee, Jimmy Carter, Gloria Steinem and Elie Wiesel.

picture of cover for book Great Singers on Great SingingHines, Jerome
Great Singers on Great Singing
Doubleday,1982, ISBN 0385146388, hardcover
Limelight Editions, 1982, ISBN 0879100257, softcover

Operatic basso Jerome Hines interviews 40 famous singers and two doctors about the technique of singing. Chapters are from 5 to 10 pages long and often include printed lines of music for examples of exercises. The Sills chapter is 10 pages, in which she addresses breathing, chest voice, mask, and scales.

picture of cover of book ReverberationsJacobson, Robert
Morrow, 1974, ISBN 0688028756, hardcover
Vision Press, 1974, ISBN 0854784535, hardcover (UK)
Morrow, 1976, ISBN 0688078753, softcover

Robert Jacobson, former editor of Opera News, profiles 35 musicians active at the time of publication, including singers, pianists, and conductors. Profiles run 6 to 12 pages. The Sills interview (pp. 207-216) is a composite of two separate interviews, one from the winter of 1968 and one from early 1970, and goes into detail about the Giulio Cesare debut and the singing of all the Contes d’Hoffmann roles, as well as Callas’s influence on her.

picture of cover of book DivasSargeant, Winthrop
Coward, Mcann & Geoghegan, 1973, ISBN 0698104897, hardcover

Journalist Winthrop Sergeant interviews 6 world-renowned singers (Sutherland, Horne, Sills, Nilsson, Price and Farrell), giving overviews of their careers and personal insights into their talents. Each chapter is accompanied by 6-8 black and white photos. The 30-page Sills chapter recounts mostly routine facts and dates but does include some family anecdotes and some insights into Sills’s approach to characterization.

picture of cover of book Lead TimeWills, Garry
Lead Time: A Journalist’s Education
Doubleday, 1983, ISBN 0-385-17695-3, hard cover
Marriner, 2004, ISBN 0-618-44690-7, soft cover

A collection of essays by noted journalist Garry Wills. He devotes an 18-page chapter to Sills and her career, beginning with a backstage view of Sills in a performance of Anna Bolena.

picture of cover of book Wood, Silver and Gold: a flutist's lifeWion, John
Wood, Silver and Gold: a flutist’s life
JohnWion.Com/Lulu, 2007, ISBN 978-1-4303-2039-5

John Wion was the principle flutist for the New York City Opera orchestra from 1965 to 2002. His memoirs include references to Sills as performer and administrator throughout that period. He comments on specific Sills roles and includes anecdotes about her and her colleagues.

Recordings Commentary

Picture of book cover American Opera Singers and Their RecordingsMcCants, Clyde T.
American Opera Singers and Their Recordings
McFarland, 2004, ISBN 0786419520, softcover

McCants writes about the recordings of 53 singers. In Sills’ entry, he covers all of her commercially issued recordings, briefly analyzing what’s best about them while noting the changes in her voice over the 20-year span of recorded legacy.

Picture of book cover The Assoluta Voice in Opera, 1797-1847Riggs, Geoffrey
The Assoluta Voice in Opera, 1797-1847
McFarland & Company, 2003, ISBN 0-7864-1401-4, hardcover
ISBN 0786440775, softcover

Riggs, a writer for musical journals, magazines and newsletters, gives the history and characteristics of the bel canto style in opera, including examples from recordings. In more than 20 pages, the author provides detailed descriptions and analyses of the Sills recordings of Anna Bolena, Norma and Roberto Devereux.

Biographies for Young Readers

image of cover of Beverly Sills by Mona KerbyKerby, Mona
Beverly Sills: America’s Own Opera Star
Viking Kestrel, 1989, ISBN 0670822515, hardcover
MK Publications, 2017, revised ed., ISBN 9780999379042 or 9781734664362, softcover

The author used the two Sills autobiographies and 20 magazine articles to put together this brief overview of Sills’ life, totaling 56 pages. It emphasizes what Sills accomplished as an American woman, with special focus on her formative years. Although the book repeats some of the misremembered dates and performances Sills put in her books, it’s a good introduction to Sills’ art and popularity for elementary and middle school readers. The hardcover edition is illustrated with simple line drawings, but the revised softcover edition uses photographs, which gives a better feel for her personality.

image of cover of Beverly Sills: Opera SingerPaolucci, Bridgit
Beverly Sills: Opera Singer
Chelsea House Publishers, 1990, ISBN 1-55546-677-X, hardcover

Written for middle school and high school readers, this 112-page book is a compact biography of Sills, taken mostly from Sills’ autobiographies, but also magazine and newspaper articles, as well as interviews with the author. There are a number of good black and white photos of Sills in costume and with family members. As with the Kerby biography, this book repeats some dates and events misremembered by Sills in her own books, but this more substantial biography is also a good introduction to Sills’ life and career.

Brief biography

The best and most accurate brief biography is the one at Wikipedia

Many other short biographies of Sills can be found online. Most, however, have conflicting dates, achievements and life events. We recommend using any of these with caution, checking any points against the Wikipedia entry and our site before accepting their accuracy.

We also caution against relying on printed biographies, including Sills’ own autobiographies, for accurate dates and achievements, especially those concerning her career before 1951.  Many inaccuracies have been perpetuated in numerous sources, giving the misinformation the weight of authority.

Our goal is to correct inaccuracies as we discover them and to verify, in primary sources, the dates, venues and achievements of Sills’ career.