July 3, 2007

THE UN-DIVA:

Beverly Sills, people's diva, dies: Soprano bridged cultures (Mark Feeney, July 3, 2007, Boston Globe)

Beverly Sills, whose radiant soprano and vibrant personality made her "America's Queen of Opera," as Time magazine called her in 1971, died last night. She was 78.

It had been revealed a few days ago that Ms. Sills was gravely ill with inoperable lung cancer. The singer, who never smoked, died about 9 p.m. at her Manhattan home, said her manager, Edgar Vincent.

Ms. Sills, who retired from the stage in 1980, sang some 70 roles in her career. The two opera companies with which she was most closely associated were the New York City Opera and the Opera Company of Boston, headed by Sarah Caldwell. Ms. Sills was a mainstay of the latter throughout the 1960s.

Both companies were operatic underdogs, which contributed to Ms. Sills's democratic, one-of-us image, as did the fact she spent most of her career performing in the United States. Her friendly, extroverted manner helped popularize opera in this country. This was equally true during her performing career and then as an administrator at City Opera, New York's Lincoln Center, and the Metropolitan Opera. [...]

Ms. Sills recorded 18 operas and several recitals, twice winning Grammy Awards. Still, the recording studio never meant as much to her as the stage. "I like the audience," she told Opera News in 1975, "and I'm not thrilled by the sight of a microphone."

Perhaps her most memorable stage performance came when she finally made her Met debut, in Rossini's "The Siege of Corinth." Rudolf Bing, the Met's famously autocratic director, had said of Ms. Sills a few years before, "I have heard her sing, but not lately, and I can't remember in just what." She made her debut after Bing resigned. When the curtain rang down that night, Ms. Sills received 26 curtain calls and the standing ovation lasted 18 minutes and 20 seconds.

She was only 50 when she sang onstage for the last time. "I wanted people to say, 'You left too soon,' not 'You left too late,' " she said in a 2002 Globe interview. She professed never to regret the decision. "Since I retired," she added, "I've been singing nothing but 'Happy Birthday,' and now even my family doesn't ask me to do that."

Retirement from the stage did not mean retirement from opera. Ms. Sills served as general director of City Opera from 1979 to 1989; chairwoman of New York's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts from 1994 to 2002; and chairwoman of New York's Metropolitan Opera from 2002 to 2005. Ms. Sills was the first woman to hold each of those positions.

"While I no longer do what made me famous," Ms. Sills said in her 1985 Christian Science Monitor interview, "I'm still pretty much of a driving force in the same area."

Ms. Sills received the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1980. A Kennedy Center honoree in 1985, she was a recipient of the National Medal of Arts in 1990. She also won two Emmy Awards.

"Oh, I always knew I was going to be an opera star," Ms. Sills said in that Monitor interview, "not just an opera singer, an opera star. The moment I saw Lily Pons on the stage, I knew that." She was 8.


MORE:
BEVERLY SILLS: 1929-2007: Famed soprano Beverly Sills dies (Chris Pasles, July 3, 2007, LA Times)

Beverly Sills, whose sparkling coloratura soprano and warm, spunky personality made her an international opera celebrity and whose experience as a mother made her a passionate advocate for children with special needs, died Monday in her Manhattan home. She was 78.

Sills, a nonsmoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer last month, according to Edgar Vincent, her longtime manager.

Dubbed "America's Queen of Opera" by Time magazine, the Brooklyn-born Sills, widely known as "Bubbles," was an American success story. She rose to stardom without receiving what was considered mandatory — training in Europe. Moreover, she made her career essentially outside the sacred portals of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, paving the way for generations of wholly American-trained singers to succeed in the field without Met certification.

Her repertoire eventually encompassed more than 70 roles, and she recorded 18 full-length operas and several solo recital discs. Her "Manon" received the Edison Award for best operatic album of 1971, and her Victor Herbert album won a Grammy Award in 1978.

Sills also gave opera a human face through television appearances: Her optimism, wit and lack of diva temperament endeared her to general audiences as much as her technically accomplished, emotional and insightful dramatic interpretations won her the affection of opera aficionados.


A Voice That Carried Weight (Tim Page, 7/03/07, Washington Post)
The record companies did not do well by Sills. Her great fame dated from the 1966 New York City Opera production of Handel's "Giulio Cesare," when the world suddenly awakened to the fact that there was a distinctly American diva in our midst, with a voice that was sweet, healthy and versatile, and a temperament that was suited to both daffy pyrotechnics and hefty dramatic roles.

Unfortunately, like many another so-called overnight success, Sills had then been working hard for quite some time -- 1966 was her 11th season with the City Opera, and there was radio before that -- and, during the years when her voice was at its freshest, she was invited to make only one recording, a complete performance of Douglas Moore and John Latouche's "The Ballad of Baby Doe" in 1959.

And so admirers were delighted in 2006 when Video Artists International discovered and released on DVD a telecast of Richard Strauss's "Ariadne auf Naxos" from January 1969. The late Erich Leinsdorf conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra and there were winning performances from Claire Watson, John Reardon, Robert Nagy as Bacchus, and a very young Benita Valente.

But Sills absolutely stole the show, with the joyous, flighty celebration of unfettered hedonism that Strauss created for his character Zerbinetta. It is the coloratura aria to end all coloratura arias -- all trills, arpeggios and stratospheric leaps -- and it goes on forever. Still, when sung with Sills's radiant good humor and triumphant virtuosity, it calls to mind nothing so much as a Fourth of July sparkler that not only refuses to burn out but throws off ever brighter, bolder light as its time elapses.

For those who remember Sills mostly as a personality, through her decades as an arts administrator and her appearances on talk shows, let this remarkable "Ariadne" provide posterity with palpable evidence of what the excitement was all about.


Posted by Orrin Judd at July 3, 2007 7:24 AM
Comments

Here's cultural literacy for you: I only recognize the name because when I was a kid I heard that line from the Dragnet film and asked my mom who she was:

“By the time I got back Muzz was singing like Beverly Sills.”

Posted by: Matt Murphy at July 3, 2007 10:24 AM

Actually, I'd call the great Eileen Farrell the Un-Diva. While voice faculty at Indiana University, she had a "Ban Opera" sign on her studio door. She was also one of the funniest people I've ever met.

Posted by: rightwingprof [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 4, 2007 12:51 PM
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