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]