When Beverly Sills made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1975, almost a decade later than she should have, she stopped the show without opening her mouth. The instant she came on stage in Rossini's "The Siege of Corinth," the audience went wild. They knew that the soprano, born Belle "Bubbles" Silverman in Brooklyn, had pulled off a rare feat in the rarefied world of opera, and they wanted to show it. An American singer had made it to the top, had an international career, had been on the covers of NEWSWEEK and Time, years before scaling the operatic Everest, the Met. The company's general director, Viennese-born Rudolf Bing—referred to so often as autocratic that it could have been part of his title—had kept her out, but the ink was barely dry on his successor's contract when her debut was arranged. The morning after that "Corinth" premiere, a photograph of Sills taking a curtain call took up the entire front page of The New York Daily News. The hometown girl had definitely made good.
Sills died of cancer Monday night, at 78, and it's impossible to imagine a singer having that kind of impact now. Through formidable vocal and dramatic gifts, good humor and a will of titanium, she changed the face of opera in America. A frequent and hilarious guest on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show," she sang with Miss Piggy, Carol Burnett, and Danny Kaye, wanting people to know, she liked to say, "that opera singers don't have horns." Immeasurable numbers who had once evinced more interest in oral surgery than in opera suddenly embraced it.
Before she lost her baby teeth she was already singing on the radio ("I had 65 curls on both my chubby heads"). She began vocal studies at the freakishly early age of 7, when she had already memorized more than 20 arias from recordings her mother played. Sills stayed with that teacher, Estelle Liebling, for more than three decades, getting technique pounded into her. That resulted in the cornerstones of her vocal production, flexibility and breath control. At her peak in the 1960s and 1970s, she could float passages over a full orchestra; she could sing long runs in which each individual note was clear but which ran down a listener's back like melted chocolate. She had a trill that could wind a clock, and could color her voice from shimmering silver or almost transparent blue to dark red.
All this would have insured a good career, but what truly set Sills apart was her insistence on the marriage of text and music. Her Lucia wasn't jut mad, she was off-the charts mad; her Manon seduced not just a priest but 3,000 people in the theater. Sills's rock-solid technique made it possible for her to take on heavier roles than other lyric coloratura sopranos. If singing a meaty, fiendishly demanding part such as Queen Elizabeth I in Donizetti's "Roberto Devereux" cut a few years off her career, so be it. Neither Sills nor anyone who saw her as the aged, impassioned monarch (in one performance, she slapped a tenor so hard his false mustache fell off) would have traded it for something safer. She was a risk-taker, willing to sing lying on her back or with her back to the audience. In Rimsky-Korsakov's "Le Coq d'or," she wore a kind of harem outfit while doing a belly dance. "I figured a moving target was safest," she said. Sills was very funny, and very, very smart. There were singers with bigger, steelier, richer voices, but in her combination of talents and in her range of repertoire, she was just about peerless.
Her professional life was often triumphant; her personal life, far less so. She was happily married to Peter Greenough, a former newspaper columnist who died last year, for almost 50 years, but their daughter, Meredith, is profoundly deaf and their son, Peter Jr., is severely retarded and autistic. Before the births of her children, Sills had always been a good, dependable singer. But after taking a leave of absence to be with them, she came back a different artist. Her only worry-free moments, she said, were when she was onstage, and the stage was her liberator. She became artistically fearless, and she tore through the musical world. In 1974, she had a serious but successful cancer operation and returned to performing almost immediately.
Though Sills hadn't sung in the last 27 years, her recordings still sell well. In a way, she never really left the stage. After performing with the New York City Opera for 25 years, she ran the company for another 10; then became chairwoman of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and after that, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Opera. Just months before her death, she was still appearing regularly as a commentator on the Met's broadcasts and telecasts, and it's deliciously ironic that the company's $50,000 annual prize to a young singer is the Beverly Sills Artist Award.
"The arts are the signature of a civilization," she often said, exhorting anyone within reach—concertgoers, tycoons, the government—to open their checkbooks. She was a legendary fundraiser, not just for the New York City Opera and the Met, but for the Mother's March on Birth Defects and for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. Her brain was an Elias Sport Bureau of financial reports and balance sheets, and there's a joke about her fund-raising skills. The engines on a trans-Pacific flight have failed. "The good news is that I know an uncharted island and can land the plane there," the pilot tells his passengers. "The bad news is that no one will ever know we're there." Pandemonium ensues, but one businessman continues calmly reading his Wall Street Journal. A flight attendant asks if he heard the pilot's message. "Oh, yes," the man says. "But yesterday I made a $50,000 pledge to Beverly Sills. She'll find me."
Sills always said that she had a love affair with her audience, and she did. She ended her recitals with a folk song that she learned, at 10, from her teacher. "Time has come for me to leave you, 'tis the moment for good-byes," she sang. "You'll be forever in my heart." To which anyone who ever had the good luck to hear her can only say, right back at you, Beverly.