Sills, Beverly (1929—)

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Sills, Beverly (1929—)

American coloratura soprano, director of the New York City Opera, and chair of Lincoln Center, New York, who gained wide recognition for her superb handling of classic "bel canto" roles and her strong dramatic instincts. Name variations: (nickname) "Bubbles." Born Belle Miriam Silverman on May 25, 1929, in Brooklyn, New York, one of three children of Morris Silverman and Sonia Silverman; married Peter B. Greenough, on September 17, 1956; children: Meredith Greenough (b. 1959); Peter Greenough (b. 1961); stepchildren: three from husband's previous marriage.

Began singing on radio at age three (1932); began formal vocal studies at age seven (1936); made her operaticdebut in Philadelphia as Frasquita in Carmen (1947), followed by several years of touring with small repertory companies before appearing with the New York City Opera (1955); sang with New York City Opera (1955–70); debuted in Vienna as Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte (1967); debuted at Teatro alla Scale (1969), Covent Garden (1970); sang at most of the world's great opera houses before her formal debut at the New York Metropolitan Opera (1975); became general director of the New York City Opera (1979), rescuing it from financial insolvency and building its artistic reputation during her eight-year term; retired from the stage (1980); named chair of New York's Lincoln Center (1994); began hosting "Live From Lincoln Center" television series.

One day in 1982 the general director of the New York City Opera paid a visit to the New Jersey warehouse where most of the sets for the company's productions were stored. The purpose of the visit was to take an inventory of what was available for the financially troubled company's upcoming season, but for Beverly Sills it was one of the most powerful experiences of her professional life. Stacked against the cobwebbed walls were the collected memories of her career as America's best-known operatic performer, some of the sets still bearing notes she'd attached to them during rehearsals for her most famous roles, and every scratch and dent recalling the triumphs of her reign as the prima donna of the company she was now desperately trying to save from financial ruin. Even though she had not sung professionally for two years, the realization that she was no longer America's favorite opera singer finally settled in. "For the first time in more than twenty-five years," she later wrote of that warehouse visit, "I was sure no one would be shouting 'Brava, diva!'"

Opera had been Beverly Sills' life since childhood. Her earliest memories were of the arias of Lily Pons and Amelita Galli-Curci floating through her family's Brooklyn home. Both her parents came from cultured Eastern European backgrounds; Sonia Silverman , whom everyone called Shirley, had immigrated with her parents from Russia in 1917, while Sills' father Morris Silverman was from a prominent Rumanian family. Although Morris' job as an assistant manager for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in New York was not high paying, the Silvermans made sure that Beverly (born Belle Miriam Silverman in 1929) and her two brothers had the best that careful economies could buy. Her mother took her to her first opera at the age of eight—Delibes' Lakmé, sung by Shirley's idol, Lily Pons, at the old Metropolitan on 39th Street in Manhattan. "Someday," Shirley told her daughter, "you're going to sit at a table with a Frenchman on one side and an Italian on the other, and you're going to be able to converse with them." Belle could, indeed, rattle off phrases in French by the time she was five, as well as sing most of the major arias she heard on her mother's opera records.

It was, in fact, "Caro nome" from Verdi's Rigoletto that brought her first paying job at the age of seven on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, one of the nation's most popular radio shows of the day. She sang the aria for the Major himself at her audition, and when she performed it on the air shortly afterward, the studio audience's response sent the Major's "applause meter" spinning. It was her first appearance using the name Beverly Sills, suggested by a family friend who convinced her parents that a Jewish name would be a disadvantage in the show-business world. Sills became a regular on the show for the next three years, a skeptical Morris making sure the $65 she received every week went into a special savings account for Beverly's education. It was Major Bowes who saw to it that Sills was chosen to record the country's first commercial jingle, for Rinso laundry soap ("Rinso white, Rinso white, happy little washday song," Beverly trilled); and it was the Major who suggested to Shirley that formal singing lessons might be in order. While both mother and daughter were eager to follow the Major's advice, Beverly's father had no enthusiasm for such an outlandish idea. "My father wouldn't even acknowledge my dream," Sills says. "Singing simply wasn't a respectable profession."

Nonetheless, Shirley defied her husband by taking Beverly to audition for the woman who would become Sills' mentor and second mother for the next 34 years. Estelle Liebling was the last surviving pupil of legendary vocal teacher Mathilde Marchesi and, even better to Shirley's way of thinking, had taught Galli-Curci herself. But there was some confusion when mother and daughter arrived at Liebling's studio in mid-town Manhattan. Liebling assumed it was Shirley, not Beverly, who had come to audition. "I don't teach little girls," she sniffed. "I don't even know any little girls." But Sills' rendition of Arditi's Il Bacio, which Liebling had taught many years before to Galli-Curci, persuaded Liebling to offer Beverly a 15-minute lesson every Saturday morning. Soon, the lessons expanded to 30 minutes, then to twice a week. Liebling, like Shirley, insisted that Beverly's future lay well beyond her native Brooklyn. "You're going to be a cultured woman," she

sternly told her young pupil, and would often invite Sills to her elegant dinner parties attended by many of New York's cultural elite.

Liebling took great pains to develop Sills' talent as a coloratura soprano, in the manner of Maria Callas and, before her, Beverly's beloved Lily Pons. Sills was given precise lessons in French, since a coloratura's accent and diction must be flawless and able to withstand the soaring vocal embellishments that are a trademark of the bel canto style. Leibling also worked tirelessly to develop Sills' dramatic skills, with Liebling calling out "Text! Text! Text!" whenever she felt Beverly was merely singing the composer's music rather than paying attention to the meaning of the librettist's words. So profound was Liebling's influence on every aspect of Sills' life that "Miss Liebling" or "Estelle" were much too informal addresses for Beverly to use. Liebling was simply "Teacher." "Three-quarters of who I am came from my family," Sills says. "The other 25 per cent came from Miss Liebling."

After eight years of rigorous training, Liebling decided that Sills was ready for her first public appearances, and convinced her friend, the producer J.J. Shubert, to send Beverly out on a Gilbert and Sullivan tour of Shubert theaters in the East and Midwest in 1944. It was to be the first of many road tours with small repertory companies which Sills would undertake. Shubert, who liked to call her "the youngest prima donna in captivity," cast Beverly in the title role of Patience—a role Sills especially enjoyed for its comic opportunities. A second Shubert tour followed later that year, this time offering her singing roles in such operettas as The Merry Widow and Countess Maritza. Between these two tours, Sills graduated from New York's Children's Professional School and, much to her father's dismay, refused to accept a college scholarship to study law. Also that year, New York's opera lovers took note of the inaugural season of the New York City Opera, which Mayor Fiorello La Guardia promised would be "opera for the people."

In 1947, Liebling packed Sills off to Philadelphia to study bel canto with the artistic director of that city's Civic Opera, Guiseppi Bamboscheck, who gave her her first classic opera role in the company's production of Bizet's Carmen in 1947, in which Beverly sang Frasquita. Although it was a small role, Sills could now say with conviction that she was an opera singer. Unfortunately, the collective arms of the opera world did not seem to be opening wide to receive her. Instead, Sills earned her living by singing at resorts in New York's Catskill Mountains; at a private and discreet men's club in a New York City brownstone, in which a platform containing herself and a piano were wheeled from table to table, and in which the tips were routinely $100 bills; and on a cruise ship sailing between New York and Buenos Aires, on which she gave two concerts in each direction.

She had nearly turned down the cruise, for Morris, Sills was told, had fallen ill with tuberculosis. Urged by both her parents to accept the job, she discovered on her return some weeks later that Morris had died of lung cancer four days before the ship arrived in New York. He was only 53, and his death plunged the family into despair and, almost as bad, financial embarrassments, for Morris' will took more than a year to probate. With her two brothers away at school, Beverly and her mother were forced to move into a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. But her training continued, for Shirley would never allow her daughter's career to suffer.

Under Liebling's careful hand, Sills began building a repertoire of classic French roles—Massenet's Manon and Thaïs, Charpentier's Louise, and Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann, among them—and refined her understanding of them with a two-month study program at the Paris Opèra arranged by Liebling. On Sills' return from Paris, Liebling urged her to accept the role of Violetta for a touring-company production of La Traviata, which left New York in September 1951 and played 63 consecutive performances before the cast was given a night off. Despite the grueling schedule, the tour sharpened Sills' acting abilities and gave her a thorough understanding of the role she would sing more than a hundred times in her career.

Liebling, Estelle (1880–1970)

American soprano and vocal teacher. Born in 1880; died in 1970; studied with Mathilde Marchesi and Selma Nicklass-Kempner.

Estelle Liebling appeared with a number of European and American opera companies, including a stint with the Metropolitan Opera (1903–04). She also toured with John Philip Sousa's band, performing at over 1,600 concerts. By 1930, she had retired from touring and begun teaching. At one time affiliated with the Curtis Institute, she was also the longtime singing teacher of opera great Beverly Sills .

While she was now singing strictly opera, Sills' dream of becoming a diva seemed as far away as ever. A season with the San Francisco Opera in 1953 appeared to be going well for her, in which she made her debut singing Helen of Troy in Boito's Mefistofele and went on to sing Doña Elvira in Mozart's Don Giovanni. But the season ended abruptly when Sills' natural exuberance got her in trouble with the company's artistic director at the time, Kurt Adler, who had cast her as one of the eight Valkyries in Wagner's Die Walküre. As she and her sister goddesses were making their somber exit, Sills' horned helmet fell from her head and clattered to the stage; but instead of maintaining the inscrutable demeanor natural to a Valkyrie, Beverly ran to pick up the derelict headpiece and clapped it back on, much to the amusement and delight of the audience. Adler, fuming backstage, accused her of being drunk, while Sills proved with a sharp "Drop dead!" that she was nothing of the kind, and her employment with the company ended forthwith. She would not sing again in San Francisco for 18 years, on which occasion Adler left the offending helmet in her dressing room, filled with flowers and a note saying "Welcome home."

Throughout the early 1950s, Liebling had sent Sills to audition for the struggling young New York City Opera (NYCO), the company that had had its first season when Beverly was graduating from high school in 1944. By 1954, Sills had auditioned no less than seven times for the NYCO's director, Dr. Joseph Rosenstock, always taking care to dress modestly and sing her most comfortable bel canto roles from Donizetti, Rossini, and Bellini. When Rosenstock called her back an eighth time, Sills persuaded Liebling to find out why the man kept listening to her but never gave her a job. Rosenstock, Beverly learned, loved her voice but felt she had no "personality." Frustrated and angry at such treatment, Sills showed up for her eighth audition dressed in black mesh stockings, spiked heels, and a revealing blouse, with her hair hanging loose down her back. Since she had by now sung everything in her repertoire for Rosenstock, she launched into "La mamma morta" from Andrea Chénier, written for heavy-voiced, dramatic sopranos and hardly appropriate for a coloratura soprano. "I knew it was the wrong thing for me to sing, but I was very angry and I wanted him to know it," Sills remembers. "Believe me, he knew it." Rosenstock hired her for the company's 1955 fall season.

The City Opera at the time was housed in an old Shriners' temple on Manhattan's 55th Street, a venue never designed for grand opera. Although Mayor La Guardia's promise of "an opera company for the people" had been strictly followed by offering inexpensive seats (the most expensive ones costing two dollars), the result was also inexpensively mounted productions and short seasons—merely a week in the fall, and three weeks in the spring—and a chronically depleted treasury. Nonetheless, the company had boldly decided to mount Strauss' Die Fledermaus, and Rosenstock chose Sills to sing Rosalinda. Shirley made all of her daughter's costumes for the role, while adding a five-dollar white fox stole found at the Ritz Thrift Shop around the corner from the theater. Sills' performance, in which she stressed the comic proportions of the part, was the first that attracted widespread attention, after nearly 15 years of professional singing. The New York Times wrote that the City Opera had added "an accomplished singer to its roster" and told its readers that the production as a whole was "the best musical you can see in this city on or off Broadway." Rosalinda was the beginning of Sills' 25-year relationship with the City Opera, and of her long-awaited dream of opera stardom.

Don't think you're like every other girl in school, because you're not.

—Estelle Liebling to Beverly Sills, 1936

Sills toured with the company between its fall and spring seasons and, at a party given by the Cleveland Press Club, met the club's president, Peter Greenough. Greenough was the son of a wealthy Massachusetts family who owned the Cleveland Plain Dealer. At the time of their meeting, Greenough was in the midst of a lengthy and acrimonious divorce proceeding. He and Sills were immediately attracted to one another, although their courtship could not be described as being of operatic proportions, with several missed dates and unanswered phone calls before the relationship became serious and culminated in their marriage, in Estelle Liebling's studio, on September 17, 1956. The two remained devoted to one another, but the early years of the marriage were not without problems—from Greenough's conservative New England family, who disliked the fact he'd married a Jew, and from Sills' family, who disliked the fact she'd married a Gentile. Adding to the worry was the tension between Sills and Greenough's three daughters from his first marriage, who suddenly found themselves with a Jewish opera diva from Brooklyn for a stepmother. Both Beverly and her husband were ostracized for years by their friends and families, and it is a testament to the strength of their marriage that it survived.

Fresh from her triumphant debut season with the City Opera in New York, Sills saw her status among her peers rise again with her stunning performance in Montemezzi's notoriously difficult The Love of Three Kings, in which she sang the role of Fiora. Her old friend from the Philadelphia Civic Opera, Bamboscheck, had frantically called her on January 1, 1956, little more than a week before the opera's opening on the 9th, to say that his Fiora had fallen ill. "I didn't know anyone stupid enough to try it," he later said, "or smart enough to learn it." Although Montemezzi's work is essentially a long tone poem, with none of the characteristic arias and duets of standard opera, Sills learned the part by listening to recordings nearly constantly over a four-day period, then embarking on four days of hurried rehearsals before the production opened to critical acclaim. But it was the 1958 New York City Opera season that finally put Beverly Sills at the pinnacle of American opera.

Julius Rudel had assumed the directorship of the NYCO after Joseph Rosenstock's retirement in 1956, although the company's board of directors nearly closed the company down that year for lack of money before Sills prevailed on them to try one more year with reduced salaries and production staff. Rudel gave Sills the title role in Douglas Moore's modern opera, The Ballad Of Baby Doe, which would anchor the company's "All American Opera" season of 1958. The role was her biggest challenge, both musically and dramatically. "Baby's got a lot to sing," Sills has noted, "and her hardest aria comes at the very end. To sing the part, you need to sustain a high energy level all the way through." Then, too, the character of Baby Doe is hardly a sympathetic one. She is the "other woman" of Moore's opera, for whom a wealthy silver miner in 19th-century America abandons his wife and children. Sills knew that it would take all the dramatic technique she had learned from "Teacher" to keep the audience on her side. Keep them she did, all the way to the opera's tragic conclusion and Baby Doe's dying aria before the mouth of the silver mine in which her lover has just perished. New York's Herald Tribune was so enthralled with her performance that it placed a review on its front page, an unusual step for a mass-readership daily journal; and the rest of the opera press was equally rapturous. Baby Doe convinced Beverly, who had been thinking of retiring to a quiet life as Mrs. Peter Greenough, that her 25 years of work had finally paid off.

But events, as it happened, nearly proved otherwise. Sills became pregnant shortly after Baby Doe's premiere, and was forced into temporary retirement in mid-1959 to give birth to a daughter, Meredith, in August; and to a son—Peter, nicknamed Bucky—born in June 1961. Within a six-week period, Sills and her husband were told that Meredith suffered from total deafness, while Peter was severely autistic and would need to spend the rest of his life in an institution. "I was overwhelmed by the children's handicaps," Sills has said. "My behavior changed. I would not leave the house. I stayed home and got terribly domestic." Months of depression passed before she agreed to Peter's suggestion that she resume studying with Estelle Liebling. It was not until 1962 that she felt able to face the public and resume performing for the City Opera in New York, and it was opera that would complete her recovery.

In 1966, the City Opera moved into its new home at Lincoln Center and marked the occasion by opening the season that year with a production of Handel's Guilio Cesare. Although Rudel had gone outside the company to find his Cleopatra, Sills insisted that the role should be given to her—even threatening to quit the company if Rudel wouldn't agree. After much maneuvering and negotiating, Sills sang the role she had instinctively felt would re-launch her career, and brought the entire house to its feet with the aria which closes the work's second act, "Se pieta." "It was a joyous, healing experience for me," she remembers. "All those hours and years … of rehearsing and performing were my escape from being Beverly Sills." As if in confirmation, she was invited for the first time to sing at the world's greatest opera houses—La Scala in 1969, where her performance as Pamira in Rossini's Le Siège de Corinthe led Italian critics to call her "the new Callas"; at Covent Garden and Berlin's Deutsche Opera in 1970; and, finally, in 1975, a triumphant debut at the Metropolitan in a reprise of her Pamira. (She had already sung at a Met-sponsored outdoor concert production of Don Giovanni in 1966.) The nearly unanimous praise for her cited her "full-toned, perfectly poised, firmly centered" technique, even when she took on the more difficult bel canto roles, including all three of "Donizetti's queens"—Elizabeth in Roberto Devereaux, Anne in Anna Bolena, and Mary in Maria Stuarta. At her formal retirement in 1980, she was among the world's best-known, most accessible opera singers whose reputation reached throughout the entertainment industry and the nation's cultural life. Among those in attendance at her final appearance for the New York City Opera on the night of October 27, 1980, were Dinah Shore, Mary Martin, Carol Burnett , Burt Reynolds, Walter Cronkite, and a host of opera luminaries such as Renata Scotto , Placido Domingo, Sherrill Milnes, and Leontyne Price . Even more satisfying for Sills, the gala event raised more than $1 million for the opera company she now headed.

Appointed the general director of the New York City Opera in 1979, Sills assumed the position fulltime the morning after her farewell, descending from a flower-strewn stage to the subterranean administrative offices below the plaza of Lincoln Center. Her transition from diva to director was not without its skeptics, but Sills felt well prepared for her new role. "I had been in the theater for fifty years," she says, "and at this theater from the very opening night. What I didn't know, I learned." But even Beverly admitted that she probably wouldn't have taken the job if she had known the extent of the NYCO's debt in 1980—a monumental $5 million. "I was not prepared for the complexities of the financial state," she now admits. "And I could not reveal the true financial picture because no one puts money into a bankrupt organization. I had to keep the giggly, bubbly look that everyone expected from me." Sills knew better than anyone that it cost well over $100,000 to mount just one production at Lincoln Center in 1980, to say nothing of the competition from the better-known and better-endowed Metropolitan with which her company shared Lincoln Center. But she tackled the job with all the concentration and discipline with which she had prepared for her most difficult roles, deciding to set her sights on popularizing opera by going for a mass audience and a bigger box office instead of the more traditional, but smaller, audience of devotées who favored the Met for "serious" opera. With no money to hire an advertising agency, she designed the company's ads herself (one of them, for Faust, bearing the line, "Feel like hell? Come see Faust!"). She personally devised cost breakdowns for all the company's productions and saw to it that they were strictly followed; introduced new works by composers known more for their Broadway appeal, like Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd; and, to the horror of opera lovers everywhere, installed "supertitles," allowing audiences to read line-by-line English translations of a work's lyrics projected over the proscenium. She traveled tirelessly across the country on fund-raising expeditions, calling on some of her husband's wealthy business friends for help. In 1983 alone, Sills raised more than $9 million. When the warehouse in which the company's sets and costumes were stored burned to the ground in 1985, she managed to raise $5 million in four months to rebuild the company, which opened its 1986 season on schedule. In 1988, when she decided to step down, the New York City Opera was financially healthy and rated as one of the country's best repertory companies.

There were other honors along the way—honorary doctorates from Harvard and from New York University; the President's Medal of Freedom, awarded by Jimmy Carter in 1980; and her chair of the March of Dimes' Mother's March on Birth Defects, for which she has raised millions of dollars. In 1994, Sills was named chair of Lincoln Center, responsible for fundraising and policy-making, bringing new challenges which she accepted, at age 66, without hesitation. "I only know that I've always tried to go a step past wherever people expected me to end up," Beverly Sills said at the time. "I'm not about to change now."


Brady, Kathleen. "The Executive Superstar of the Opera," in Working Woman. Vol. 12. June 1987.

Jellinek, George. "Arias" (sound recording review), in Opera News. Vol. 60, no. 3. September 1995.

Sills, Beverly, with Lawrence Linderman. Beverly: An Autobiography. NY: Bantam, 1987.

Slonimsky, Nicolas, ed. Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. 8th ed. NY: Schirmer, 1992.

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York