She may have retired a decade ago, but Beverly Sills remains one of the most famous opera stars in America. A coloratura soprano of the first magnitude, bearing the characteristic light, agile voice marked by elaborate embellishment, Sills achieved international fame after a long apprenticeship with the New York City Opera and other companies. For slightly more than a decade the effervescent and gracious Sills thrilled opera audiences worldwide with her passionate interpretations of opera’s finest roles. New York magazine correspondent Peter G. Davis remembered that when Sills “reigned as America’s Queen of Opera,” her performances were distinguished by “her wonderful freshness, warmth, spontaneity, generosity of spirit, inner glow, and intuitive artistry.”
Beverly Sills was born Belle Miriam Silverman in Brooklyn, New York, on May 25, 1929. Her parents were both immigrants from Eastern Europe. A nickname, “Bubbles,” stuck with her from birth because she was literally born with a bubble in her mouth. Sills was in fact a bubbly and attractive child who showed musical talent from an incredibly early age. She was only three when she sang a song to win the “Miss Beautiful Baby of 1932” contest in Brooklyn; by the age of six she was performing regularly on New York City’s WOR Radio.
Sills’s parents had a small collection of opera recordings and the budding diva memorized the arias in phonetic Italian before she was seven. Her mother decided to give her private lessons with Estelle Liebling, one of New York’s premier voice teachers. Liebling was impressed with the youngster’s innate ability and encouraged her to pursue more radio work. While most girls her age were skipping rope, Sills was busy in the radio studio, first as a member of the Major Bowes Capitol Family Hour and then as a principle in the musical soap opera Our Gal Sunday. Her first love was opera, however, so she “retired” from radio at the age of 12 to study her primary interest.
Almost immediately after finishing high school in 1945, Sills landed a position as a member of a Gilbert and Sullivan national touring company. Sills quickly assumed principal roles in the company’s operettas, including Countess Maritza and The Merry Widow, but the constant travel from city to city was exhausting. After less than two years she returned to New York and resumed her lessons with Liebling, determined to devote herself to grand opera.
Sills made her operatic debut with the Philadelphia Civic Opera in 1947, singing the part of Frasquita in Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Although she received good notices, she was not an overnight success, and soon found herself back in Manhattan, singing at clubs to make ends meet. In 1951 and 1952 she toured the
Born Belle Miriam Silverman, May 25, 1929, in Brooklyn, N.Y.; daughter of Morris (a life insurance broker) and Shirley (Bahn) Silverman; married Peter Buckeley Greenough (a newspaper publisher), November 17, 1956; children: Meredith, Peter Jr. Education: Studied voice privately under Estelle Liebling.
Coloratura soprano, 1945-80; director of New York City Opera, 1979-89. Made theatrical debut in autumn of 1945 with a Gilbert and Sullivan national touring company; took leads in operettas Rosemarie, Countess Maritza, and The Merry Widow. Made debut in grand opera with Philadelphia Civic Opera, February, 1947, as Frasquita in Carmen. Toured with Charles L. Wagner Opera Company, 1951-52. Joined New York City Opera, 1955, with debut October 29, 1955, as Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus. Made debut with Metropolitan Opera, April 8, 1975, as Pamira in The Siege of Corinth. Has also toured the United States, Europe, and the Far East. Retired from singing in 1980. Has made numerous recordings of full operas and arias for RCA, Deutsche Grammophon, Angel, Columbia, ABC, and other labels.
Awards: Handel Medallion for achievement in the arts, 1974; Emmy Award, 1975; Pearl S. Buck Women’s Award, 1979; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1980. Holds numerous honorary degrees, including those from Temple University, New York University, New England Conservatory of Music, and Harvard University.
country again, this time with the Charles L. Wagner Opera Company. The pace was still rigorous—Sills sang Violetta in Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata some 40 times and Micaela in Carmen more than 60 times in a single year. Her best notices from this period came for her San Francisco Opera performance as Helen of Troy in Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele.
Sills’s greatest ambition was to sing with the New York City Opera; she auditioned for the company numerous times before finally earning a position in 1955. Her debut there, as Rosalinde in Johann Straus’s Die Fledermaus, was an unqualified success; critics agreed that she showed great promise. Soon after, Sills married wealthy Cleveland newspaperman Peter Buckeley Greenough. In 1958 she earned the best notices of her career for her performance as Baby in the New York premier of Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe.
Between 1958 and 1961 Sills commuted to New York from her homes in Cleveland and Boston in order to appear in a succession of important operas. She was forced to curtail her professional activities, however, when it became clear that her children—born in 1959 and 1961—had special needs that demanded her constant attention. Sills’s daughter Meredith was discovered to have progressive deafness; her son Peter Jr. was diagnosed as autistic. Anguished, Sills decided to devote all her time to her children and did not return to the stage until the mid-1960s.
When she did return, in a Boston production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, she discovered that her work helped ease the anxiety about her children. She came back to the New York City Opera in 1966, just in time to open the company’s new home in Lincoln Center with a performance as Cleopatra in George Frideric Handel’s Julius Caesar. The performance was Sills’s first major triumph; it assured her prima donna status with the company, but more importantly it endeared her to the demanding New York audiences.
By 1969 Sills had become one of the most important coloratura sopranos in the United States. New Yorker critic Winthrop Sargeant wrote of her: “If I were recommending the wonders of New York to a tourist, I would place Beverly Sills at the top of the list—way ahead of such things as the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building.” Davis commented that Sills’s performances in a number of operas in the late 1960s “are among my most cherished operatic experiences. I imagine they are also fondly remembered by many other New York operagoers who felt that something precious vanished soon after the birth of Supersills.”
Sills was 40 when she reached opera’s pinnacle of success, and she pushed her voice to the limit in order to record and perform as often as her audience demanded. She was still at the top of her powers throughout the 1970s, and her enduring beauty and flair for theater brought throngs of new fans to classical opera. At her long overdue Metropolitan Opera debut in 1975 she was greeted with an eighteen-minute ovation. In Italy she was known as “La Fenomena” (the phenomenon) and “II Mostro” (the prodigy). Public television brought Sills into homes across America; she quickly achieved a height of fame exceedingly rare for stars of the stage—and almost unheard of for divas.
Davis noted, however, that age and a relentless professional pace began to take their toll on Sills’s vocal ability. “Sills’s depressing operatic performances during those final years of her career were worse than vocally disappointing,” the critic wrote. “They had degenerated into little more than mechanical personal appearances by a self-absorbed media heroine.” Sills herself was perfectionist enough to know that her work was suffering. In 1980 she retired from performing and accepted the challenge of running the company that had been her base for more than 20 years.
The task of managing the New York City Opera proved every bit as daunting as the most demanding vocal performance. When Sills took over in 1980 the company was five million dollars in debt. To make matters worse, the factory housing the company’s costumes burned down and critics panned key productions. Sills was nevertheless able to reverse the fortunes of the Opera, principally by charming funds from corporate donors. Sills also managed to increase attendance at the company’s productions by introducing supertitles—a screen with translations suspended over the stage. Today, wrote Kathleen Brady in Working Woman, “instead of being $5 million in the red, the company operates in the black with a $25 million budget and has eliminated the accumulated deficit.”
Sills gave up her professional responsibilities in 1989. She is now truly retired, living quietly with her husband of 35 years. She has received a number of prestigious honors, most notably the Presidential Medal of Freedom bestowed upon her by Jimmy Carter in 1980. She expresses no regrets about retiring, however. “I’ve done everything I set out to do,” she once said, “sung in every opera house I wanted to…. To go on past the point where I should, I think would break my heart. I think my voice has served me very well. I’d like to put it to bed so it would go quietly, with pride.”
Bubbles: A Self-Portrait, Bobbs-Merrill, 1976.
Beverly, Bantam, 1987.
Julius Caesar, RCA Victor.
The Ballad of Baby Doe, Deutsche Grammophon.
Bellini and Donizetti Heroines (arias), Westminster.
Lucia di Lammermoor, Angel.
The Tales of Hoffmann, Angel.
I Puritani Angel.
The Art of Beverly Sills, Volume 1 (arias), Angel.
The Art of Beverly Sills, Volume 2 (arias), Angel.
A Beverly Sills Concert, Angel.
Scenes and Arias from French Opera, Angel.
Mad Scenes, Angel.
Welcome to Vienna, Angel.
Current Biography Yearbook 1982, Wilson, 1983.
Sills, Beverly, Bubbles: A Self-Portrait, Bobbs-Merrill, 1976.
Sills, Beverly, Beverly, Bantam, 1987.
Esquire, September 1974.
High Fidelity, February 1969.
Life, January 17, 1969.
Newsweek, April 21, 1969; October 26, 1970; July 4, 1976;November 3, 1980.
New York, April 1, 1985; October 3, 1988.
New Yorker, March 1, 1969.
Opera News, September 19, 1970; April 19, 1975; October1980.
Time, November 22, 1971; April 7, 1975.
Working Woman, June 1987.
—Anne Janette Johnson
"Sills, Beverly." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/sills-beverly
"Sills, Beverly." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/sills-beverly
Beverly Sills (born 1929) was a child performer, coloratura soprano, and operatic superstar who retired from her performance career in 1980 to become general director of the New York City Opera Company and a prominent public figure.
Beverly Sills was born Belle Miriam Silverman in Brooklyn, May 25, 1929, during the era of Shirley Temple and other child stars. Her father, son of a Romanian immigrant, was an insurance salesman who wanted his daughter to become a teacher. Her mother, however, had different plans for her daughter, nicknamed "Bubbles." Sills was on the radio by age three singing "The Wedding of Jack and Jill" and winning a Brooklyn contest for "the most beautiful baby of 1932." At the age of four she was a regular on a children's Saturday morning radio program; at seven she sang in a movie and had already memorized 22 arias from Galli-Curci recordings. By 1938 she was a weekly performer on "Major Bowes' Capitol Family Hour," and by the age of ten she was one of the principal actors on the radio program "Our Gal Sunday." She performed in an ad for Rinso White soap and appeared on an early, prophetic television program called "Stars of the Future." She left radio work at age 12, wanting to pursue her love of the Opera.
When she graduated from Public School 91 in Brooklyn, Beverly Sills was voted "Prettiest Girl," "Fashion Plate," "One with the Most Personality," and the "One Most Likely to Succeed." She graduated from the Professional Children's School in New York City and had learned 20 operatic roles by the time she was 15 and 50 to 60 operas by the age of 19. She studied voice privately with her lifelong associate Estelle Liebling and eventually achieved professional competence on the piano as well, studying with Paolo Gallico.
Billed as "the youngest prima donna in captivity," Sills joined a Gilbert and Sullivan touring company in 1945. Two years later she sang her first operatic role, Frasquita in Carmen, with the Philadelphia Opera Company. In 1948 she toured college towns with a choir known as the Estelle Liebling Singers. In 1951 and 1952 she toured with the Charles L. Wagner Opera Company in the roles of Violetta in La Traviata and Micaela in Carmen. In 1953 Sills performed the title role in Manon with the Baltimore Opera and, with the San Francisco Opera, performed Elena in Boïto's Mefistofele, Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, and Gerhilde in Die Walküre.
Sills made her debut with the New York City Opera on October 29, 1955, singing Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus. The critics loved her and predicted great success for her career. Later in the season she sang Oxana in Tchaikovsky's The Golden Slippers. Eventually she would command a vast repertoire of 100 roles, actively performing 60 of them in 100 opera or concert appearances each year at the peak of her career. Sills' great memory allowed her not only to master her own enormous repertoire of roles but to grasp the other principal roles in the operas she knew as well. This accounts, in part, for her equal reputation as an actress as well as a specialist in the bel canto style of singing associated with both Sills and her Australian-born contemporary Joan Sutherland.
In 1956 Sills married Peter Bulkeley Greenough, associate editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a newspaper his family partially owned. She and her husband had two children but, unfortunately, one was born hearing impaired and the other developmentally disabled. Her disabled daughter required great care, and her developmentally disabled son had to be institutionalized when he was six. Beverly Sills carried two watches, one set to her son's schedule in the time zone where he lived, so that she could always know what he was doing. These tragedies would lead Sills into philanthropic work later in her career.
In addition to the bel canto repertoire, Sills performed modern American operas, including The Ballad of Baby Doe by Douglas Moore. She performed avant garde works such as Hugo Weisgall's opera, Six Characters in Search of an Author, in 1959 and, in 1965, the American premiere of Intolleranza 1960, by Luigi Nono. In 1963 she managed to perform all three roles in Puccini's trilogy of one act operas, Il Trittico. On July 8, 1966, she sang Donna Anna in Don Giovanni with the Metropolitan Opera, although her formal debut with the Metropolitan Opera did not actually occur until 1975, a fact which led to the growth and popularity of a number of small opera companies in America.
Another historic departure associated with Sills was her delayed appearance in the European opera capitals. Sills was able to rise to the top of her profession before touring Europe. She finally did so in 1967, a guest of the Vienna State Opera, and sang in Buenos Aires that year as well. In 1969 she sang Pamira in Rossini's Le Siège de Corinth and the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor at La Scala in Milan. She repeated her Lucia at Covent Garden, London, late that same year and went on to sing Violetta in Naples and at the Deutsche Opera in Berlin in January of 1970 and Constanza in The Abduction from the Seraglio in Israel in 1971, in addition to a recital in Paris that same year.
Sills became an operatic superstar in the fall of 1966 with the overwhelming success of her performance of Cleopatra in Handel's Julius Caesar at the Lincoln Center in New York City. The recording of this role, released in 1967, is among her many highly valued records. Sills' own favorite role was Elizabeth I in Donizetti's Roberto Devereux, which resulted in her being the subject of a TIME magazine cover story in 1971.
On October 27, 1980, Sills gave her last performance, one which the opera critics said was overdue as her voice had been deteriorating for some time. The very next day she assumed the general directorship of the New York City Opera. She displayed great administrative skill and public relations talent, appearing on popular television programs and in other ways representing opera to a wide, general audience and helping to pull the Opera out of both financial and public crisis. She is the author of three autobiographies which have enjoyed a large readership. She received honorary doctoral degrees from Harvard, New York University, Temple University, the New England Conservatory, and the California Institute of the Arts. In 1973 she was given the Handel Medallion, New York City's highest cultural award. Sills added philanthropy to her list of careers, and, in 1972, she was the national chairman of the Mothers' March on Birth Defects. She continued to be a highly visible, greatly active public figure in promoting opera and philanthropic causes well into the 1980s.
In 1989, Sills formally retired and remained in quiet seclusion with her husband for about five years. In 1994, she returned to public life as the chairwoman of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. At this point in her life, Sills says "I've done everything I set out to do … sung in every opera house I wanted to … to go on past the point where I should, I think would break my heart. I think my voice has served me very well."
For additional information, see Beverly Sills' three autobiographies: Beverly, an Autobiography (1987), written with Lawrence Linderman; Bubbles: A Self Portrait (1976); Bubbles: an Encore (1981). Articles on Beverly Sills appear in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (London, 1980) and in Baker's Biographical Dictionary (1978). She is also dealt with in W. Sargent Divas (1973), J. B. Steane The Grand Tradition (1974), and J. Hine Great Singers on Great Singing (1982). As a performer and a public figure, Beverly Sills is extensively treated in the periodical literature. Of particular interest is the TIME cover story of November 22, 1971. A selective list of other articles follows: Opera News (February 11, 1967); New York Times Magazine (September 17, 1967); Newsweek (April 8, 1968, and April 21, 1969); Opera News (September 19, 1970); J. Barthel: "Bel canto Beverly: at 46, a Superstar Makes Her Debut at the Met," New York Times Magazine (April 6, 1975); TIME (April 7, 1975); and D. Henahan: "A Tough New Role for Beverly," New York Times Magazine (September 23, 1979). □
"Beverly Sills." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/beverly-sills
"Beverly Sills." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/beverly-sills
Beverly Sills was a child performer, coloratura soprano (a light voice used in a very ornate type of singing), and operatic (in operas) superstar who retired from her performance career in 1980 to become general director of the New York City Opera Company.
Beverly Sills was born Belle Miriam Silverman in Brooklyn, New York, on May 25, 1929, during the era of Shirley Temple (1928–) and other child stars of the movies. Her father was an insurance salesman who wanted his daughter to become a teacher. Her mother had different plans, however. Sills was singing on the radio by age three. At the age of four she was a regular on a children's Saturday morning radio program. At seven she sang in a movie and had already memorized twenty-two opera arias (solos). She continued to perform on radio shows and did laundry soap commercials, which got her the nickname "Bubbles." She left radio work at age twelve to pursue her love of opera.
After Sills graduated from grammar school she attended the Professional Children's School in New York City. By the time she was nineteen she had memorized between fifty and sixty operas. She studied voice privately with her lifelong associate Estelle Liebling and eventually achieved professional competence on the piano as well, studying with Paolo Gallico.
Billed as "the youngest prima donna in captivity," Sills joined a Gilbert and Sullivan touring company in 1945. Two years later she sang her first operatic role with the Philadelphia (Pennsylvania) Opera Company. She toured with several different small opera companies starting in 1948.
Sills made her debut with the New York City Opera on October 29, 1955, singing Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus. The critics loved her and predicted great success for her career. Eventually she would command a vast repertoire of one hundred roles, actively performing sixty of them in one hundred opera or concert appearances each year at the peak of her career. Her great memory allowed her not only to master her own enormous repertoire of roles but also to understand the other principal roles in the operas she performed. This ability earned her a reputation not only as a singer on the stage but as an actress as well.
In 1956 Sills married Peter Bulkeley Greenough, associate editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. She and her husband had two children. Their daughter was born hearing impaired and their son was developmentally disabled. Their son had to be institutionalized (put in a hospital) when he was six due to the great amount of care he required. Sills carried two watches, one set to her son's schedule in the time zone where he lived, so that she could always know what he was doing. The tragedies with her children would lead Sills into philanthropic (helping others through work and donations) work later in her career.
On July 8, 1966, Sills sang Donna Anna in Don Giovanni with the Metropolitan Opera, but her formal debut with the Metropolitan Opera did not actually occur until 1975. Sills was able to rise to the top of her profession before touring Europe. She finally did so in 1967, a guest of the Vienna State Opera. She went on to sing in Buenos Aires, Argentina; La Scala in Milan, Italy; and Covent Garden, London, England. She also performed in Naples, Italy; Berlin, Germany; and Paris, France.
On October 27, 1980, Sills gave her last performance. Opera critics said it was overdue, as her voice had been deteriorating (weakening) for some time due, in part, to health problems. The very next day she assumed the general directorship of the New York City Opera. She displayed great management skill and public relations talent, appearing on popular television programs and in other ways representing opera to a wide audience. She helped pull the New York City Opera out of both financial and public crises.
Sills wrote three autobiographies. She received honorary doctoral degrees from Harvard University, New York University, Temple University, the New England Conservatory, and the California Institute of the Arts. In 1973 she was awarded the Handel Medallion, New York City's highest cultural award.
In 1972 Sills added philanthropy to her list of careers, becoming the national chairman of the Mothers' March on Birth Defects. She continues to be a highly visible active public figure, promoting both operatic and philanthropic causes.
In 1989 Sills formally retired and remained in quiet seclusion with her husband for about five years. In 1994 she returned to public life as the chairwoman of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. At this point in her life Sills says "I've done everything I set out to do … sung in every opera house I wanted to … to go on past the point where I should, I think would break my heart. I think my voice has served me very well."
For More Information
Paolucci, Bridget. Beverly Sills. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.
Sills, Beverly. Bubbles: An Encore. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1981.
Sills, Beverly, and Lawrence Linderman. Beverly, an Autobiography. New York: Bantam Books, 1987.
"Sills, Beverly." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sills-beverly
"Sills, Beverly." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sills-beverly
Beverly Sills, 1929–2007, American coloratura soprano, b. Brooklyn, N.Y., as Belle Silverman. Her childhood career as a radio singer (when she was first nicknamed
) led to voice studies with Estelle Liebling. She toured extensively in the United States and Europe before making her debut (1955) with the New York City Opera singing Rosalinda in Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus. She subsequently became the leading soprano with that company. In 1966 she first appeared as Cleopatra in Handel's Julius Caesar, the role that established her status as an American diva. In 1969 she made a triumphal debut at La Scala as Pamira in Rossini's Siege of Corinth, the role in which she also made (1975) her Metropolitan Opera debut. Among her other roles were Elvira in Bellini's I Puritani, all four female roles in Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann, and the title roles in Massenet's Manon and Donizetti's Maria Stuarda,Anna Bolena, and Lucia di Lammermoor.
One of the great American sopranos, Sills won fame not only for her light coloratura voice but also for her considerable acting ability. She also had an ebullient personality and did much to popularize opera, winning it a broader American audience. After she retired from singing in 1980 she remained active in the arts as an able administrator and fund-raiser. She was general director of the New York City Opera (1979–89), chairwoman of Lincoln Center (1994–2002), and chairwoman of the Metropolitan Opera (2002–5).
See her autobiographies (1976, rev. ed. 1981; 1987); biography by B. Paolucci (1990).
"Sills, Beverly." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sills-beverly
"Sills, Beverly." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sills-beverly
"Sills, Beverly." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/sills-beverly
"Sills, Beverly." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/sills-beverly