Beverly Sills

From New World Encyclopedia

Beverly Sills
Born May 25, 1929, Brooklyn, New York
Died July 2, 2007, New York, New York
Genre(s) Opera, Classical Music
Occupation(s) Opera singer; Arts administrator
Instrument(s) Voice
Years active Opera singer 1933-1980
Arts administrator 1979–2005

Beverly Sills (May 25, 1929 – July 2, 2007) was perhaps the best-known American opera singer in the 1960s and 1970s. She was famous for her performances in coloratura soprano roles in operas around the world and on recordings. After retiring from singing in 1980, she became the general manager of the New York City Opera. In 1994, she became the Chairman of Lincoln Center and then, in 2002, of the Metropolitan Opera. Sills lent her celebrity to further her charity work for the prevention and treatment of birth defects.

At its 1981 commencement ceremonies, Barnard College awarded Sills its highest honor, the Barnard Medal of Distinction. She was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame in 2007.[1] She was also a recipient of the highly prestigious Kennedy Center Honors.

For the creative artist it becomes important to understand the power of ones art in influencing the society in which one lives and works. Hence the power of music must be used with a certain moral and ethical responsibility. During her distinguished and multi-faceted career, Beverly Sills was a committed advocate of the arts and especially opera. As a singer, director, teacher and administrator she demonstrated an indefatigable vitality to place art and culture in the forefront of civic concerns. This advocacy made her a natural leader in the quest for a greater awareness of the importance of art in society. She once said, "You may be disappointed if you fail, but you are doomed if you don't try."

Sills underwent successful surgery for cancer in 1974, but succumbed to an aggressive form of lung cancer on July 2, 2007. She was 78 years old.

Life and career

Sills was born Belle Miriam Silverman in Brooklyn, New York to Shirley Bahn (née Sonia Markovna), a musician, and Morris Silverman, an insurance broker.[2] Her parents were Jewish immigrants from Odessa and Bucharest, Romania. Retrieved October 9, 2007.[3] She was raised in Brooklyn, New York, where she was known, among friends, as "Bubbles" Silverman. As a child, she spoke Yiddish, Russian, Romanian, French and English.[4]

Early career

At the age of three, Sills won a "Miss Beautiful Baby" contest, in which she sang "The Wedding of Jack and Jill." Beginning at age four, she performed professionally on the Saturday morning radio program, "Rainbow House," as "Bubbles" Silverman. Sills began taking singing lessons with Estelle Liebling at the age of seven and a year later sang in the short film Uncle Sol Solves It (filmed August 1937, released June 1938 by Educational Pictures), by which time she had adopted her stage name, Beverly Sills. Liebling encouraged her to audition for CBS Radio's Major Bowes' Amateur Hour, and on October 26, 1939 at the age of 10, Sills was the winner of that week's program. Bowes then asked her to appear on his Capital Family Hour, a weekly variety show. Her first appearance was on November 19, 1939, the seventeenth anniversary of the show, and she appeared frequently on the program thereafter.[5]

In 1945, Sills made her professional stage debut with a Gilbert and Sullivan touring company produced by Jacob J. Shubert. In her 1987 autobiography, she wrote, "The Shubert tour… was exhausting. In two months, we played Providence, Boston, Hartford, Montreal, Toronto, Detroit, Cleveland, Madison and Milwaukee, Grand Rapids, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati…. We performed seven different G&S operettas: The Mikado,, The Pirates of Penzance H.M.S. Pinafore, The Gondoliers, Patience, Iolanthe, and Trial by Jury. Gilbert and Sullivan were gifted, funny writers, and I could always count on certain songs of theirs to bring down the house…. I played the title role in Patience, and I absolutely loved the character, because Patience is a very funny, flaky girl. My favorite line in the operetta occurs when someone comes up to her and says, "Tell me, girl, do you ever yearn?" And Patience replies, "I yearn my living." I played her as a dumb Dora all the way through and really had fun with the role…. I made her into a bit of a klutz, as well. My Patience grew clumsier and clumsier with each performance, and audiences seemed to like her all the more for it. I certainly did. I found that I had a gift for slapstick humor, and it was fun to exercise it on stage."[6] Sills sang operettas for several years.

In 1947, she made her operatic stage debut as the Spanish gypsy Frasquita in Bizet's Carmen with the Philadelphia Civic Opera. She toured North America with the Charles Wagner Opera Company, in the fall of 1951 singing Violetta in La traviata and, in the fall of 1952, singing Micaëla in Carmen, On September 15, 1953, she made her debut with the San Francisco Opera as Helen of Troy in Boito's Mefistofele and also sang Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni the same season. On October 29, 1955, she first appeared with the New York City Opera as Rosalinde in Johann Strauss II's Die Fledermaus, which received critical praise. Her reputation expanded with her performance of the title role in the New York premiere of Douglas Stuart Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe in 1958.

On November 17, 1956, Sills married journalist Peter Greenough, of the Cleveland, Ohio newspaper The Plain Dealer and moved to Cleveland. She had two children with Greenough, Meredith ("Muffy") in 1959 and Peter, Jr. ("Bucky") in 1961. Muffy was profoundly deaf and Peter was severely mentally disabled. Sills restricted her performing schedule to care for her children.

In 1960, Sills and her family moved to Milton, Massachusetts, near Boston. In 1962, Sills sang the title role in Massenet's Manon with the Opera Company of Boston, the first of many roles for opera director Sarah Caldwell. Manon continued to be one of Sills' signature roles throughout most of her career. In January 1964, she sang her first Queen of the Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute for Caldwell. Although Sills drew critical praise for her coloratura technique and for her performance, she was not fond of the latter role reportedly. Some have said they observed that she often passed the time between the two arias and the finale addressing holiday cards.

Peak singing years

In 1966, the New York City Opera revived Handel's then virtually unknown opera seria Giulio Cesare (with Norman Treigle as Cæsar), and Sills' performance as Cleopatra made her an international opera star. Sills also made her "unofficial" Met debut in its "Opera in the Parks" program as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, though nothing further came of this other than offers from Rudolf Bing for roles such as Flotow's Martha. In subsequent seasons at the NYCO, Sills had great successes in the roles of the Queen of Shemakha in Rimsky-Korsakov's Le coq d'or, the title role in Manon, Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, and the three female leads Suor Angelica, Giorgetta, and Lauretta in Puccini's trilogy Il trittico. She also began to make recordings of her operas, first Giulio Cesare (1967) then Roberto Devereux (1969), Lucia di Lammermoor (1970), Manon (1970), La traviata (1971), Maria Stuarda (1971), The Tales of Hoffmann (with Treigle, 1972), Anna Bolena (1972), I puritani (1973), Norma (1973), The Siege of Corinth (1974), Il barbiere di Siviglia (1974-75), I Capuleti e i Montecchi (1975), Thaïs (1976), Louise (1977), Don Pasquale (1978) and Rigoletto (1978).

During this period, she made her first television appearance as a talk-show personality on "Virginia Graham's Girl Talk," a weekday series syndicated by ABC Films. An opera fan who was Talent Coordinator for the series, persuaded the producer to put her on the air and she was a huge hit. Throughout the rest of her career she shone as a talk show host.

In 1969, Sills sang Zerbinetta in the American premiere (in Concert Version) of the 1912 version of Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos with the Boston Symphony. Her performance of the role, especially Zerbinetta's aria, "Grossmächtige Prinzessin," which she sang in the original higher key, won her acclaim. (The televised performance is now available on VAI.) The second major event of the year was her debut as Pamira in Rossini's The Siege of Corinth at La Scala, a success that put her on the cover of Newsweek magazine. Her now high-profile career landed her on the cover of Time magazine in 1971, labeling her as "America's Queen of Opera." The title was appropriate because Sills had purposely limited her overseas engagements because of her family. Her major overseas appearances include debuts at London's Covent Garden, Milan's La Scala and in Naples, the Vienna State Opera, Lausanne in Switzerland, and concerts in Paris. In South America, she sang in the opera houses of Buenos Aires and Santiago, and appeared in several productions in Mexico City, including Lucia di Lammermoor with Luciano Pavarotti.

In April 1975 (following Sir Rudolf Bing's departure as director), Sills made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in The Siege of Corinth, receiving an 18-minute ovation. Other operas she sang at the Met include La traviata, Lucia di Lammermoor, Thaïs, and Don Pasquale (directed by John Dexter). Sills also continued to perform for New York City Opera, her home opera house, essaying new roles right up to her retirement, including the leading roles in Rossini's Il turco in Italia, Lehár's Die lustige Witwe and Gian Carlo Menotti's La loca, a role written especially for her. In a later interview Bing stated that his refusing to use Sills and preferring to exclusively use Italians such as Renata Tebaldi, due to the idea that American audiences expected to see Italian stars, was the single biggest mistake of his career.

In a 1997 interview, Sills said of Sir Rudolf, "Oh, Mr. Bing is an ass. [W]hile everybody said what a great administrator he was and a great this, Mr. Bing was just an improbable, impossible General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera…. The arrogance of that man." [7]

Although Sills' voice type was characterized as a "lyric coloratura," she took on a number of heavier roles more associated with heavier voices as she grew older, including Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia (with Susanne Marsee as Orsini) and the same composer's Tudor Queens, Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux (opposite Plácido Domingo in the title part). She was admired in those roles for transcending the lightness of her voice with dramatic interpretation, although it may have come at a cost: Sills later commented that Roberto Devereux "shortened her career by at least four years."

Sills was a frequent recitalist, especially in the final decade of her career. She sang in many mid-size cities and on numerous college concert series, bringing her art to many who might never see her on stage in a fully staged opera. She also sang concerts with a number of symphony orchestras. Sills was perhaps a more important force for popularizing opera than any other singer of her era through her many appearances on talk shows, including those with Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, Mike Douglas and Dinah Shore. Sills even had her own talk show, "Lifestyles with Beverly Sills" on NBC. And in 1979 she appeared on The Muppet Show.

Some of her stage performances have been commercially distributed on video: La fille du régiment (1974), Roberto Devereux (in Tito Capobianco's production, 1975), La traviata (1976), Il barbiere di Siviglia (conducted and directed by Caldwell) and Manon (1977). Yet to be published are performances of The Magic Flute (1966), Le coq d'or (1971), Die lustige Witwe (1977), Il turco in Italia (1978) and Don Pasquale (1979).

Later years and death

In 1978, Sills announced she would retire on October 27, 1980, in a farewell gala at the New York City Opera. In the spring of 1979, she began acting as co-director of NYCO, and became its sole general director as of the fall season of that year, a post she held until 1989, although she remained on the NYCO board until 1991. During her time as general director, Sills helped turn what was then a financially struggling opera company into a viable enterprise. She also devoted herself to various arts causes and such charities as the March of Dimes.

From 1994 to 2002, Sills was chairman of Lincoln Center. In October 2002, she agreed to serve as chairman of the Metropolitan Opera, for which she had been a board member since 1991. She resigned as Met chairman in January 2005, citing family as the main reason (she had finally had to place her husband, whom she had cared for over eight years, in a nursing home). She stayed long enough to supervise the appointment of Peter Gelb, formerly head of Sony Classical Records, as the Met's General Manager, to succeed Joseph Volpe in August 2006.

Peter Greenough, Sills' husband, died on September 6 2006, at the age of 89.[8] They would have had their 50th wedding anniversary on November 17, 2006.

She co-hosted The View for Best Friends Week on November 9, 2006, as Barbara Walters' best friend. She said that she doesn't sing anymore, even in the shower, to preserve the memory of her voice.

She appeared publicly on the big screen during HD transmissions live from the Met, interviewed during intermissions by the host Margaret Juntwait on January 6, 2007 (I puritani simulcast) and then, briefly, on April 28, 2007 (Il trittico simulcast).

On June 28, 2007, the Associated Press and CNN reported that Sills, a non-smoker at the time, was hospitalized as "gravely ill," from lung cancer. With her daughter at her bedside, Beverly Sills succumbed to cancer on July 2, 2007 at the age of 78.[9]

Recordings and broadcasts

During her operatic career, Sills recorded eighteen full-length operas. She also starred in eight opera productions televised on PBS and participated in such specials as A Look-in at the Met with Danny Kaye in 1975, Sills and Burnett at the Met, with Carol Burnett in 1976, and Profile in Music, which won an Emmy Award for its showing in the US in 1975, although it had been recorded in England in 1971.

For many years, Sills was the host of PBS broadcasts from Lincoln Center and was sought after for speaking engagements.


Miss Sills believed that great art could improve the quality of life for anyone who had the desire and discipline to participate, either as an artist or an appreciator. This is concomitant with the views of other great artists and philosophers (Bach, Brahms, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, e.g.) who believed that music possessed an innate ability to raise consciousness and in so doing assist in contributing to the betterment of social conditions from a moral and ethic perspective.


  1. Long Island Music Hall of Fame Official site: ( October 9, 2007.
  2. Film Reference. Biography Beverly Sills.[1]Retrieved October 9, 2007.
  3. International Herald Tribune-Culture[2]July 3, 2007. Retrieved October 9, 2007.
  4. Ibid.
  5. The dates of the first Bowes appearances are incorrect in most printed sources about Sills.
  6. Beverly Sills Beverly: An Autobiography, (1987): 29-32
  7. Brian Morgan. Strange Child of Chaos: Norman Treigle, (iUniverse, 2006): 176-177)
  8. New York Times, Obituaries [3]September 8, 2006. Retrieved October 9, 2007.
  9.[4]"Beverly Sills, People's diva dies."Retrieved October 10, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Paolucci, Bridget. Beverly Sills. NY: Chelsea House Publishers, 1990. ISBN 155546677X
  • Sargeant, Withrop. Divas. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1973. ISBN 0698104897
  • Sills, Beverly. Bubbles: A Self-Portrait. 1976. ISBN 0446815209
  • Sills, Beverly and Lawrence Linderman. Beverly: An Autobiography. New York: Bantam Books, 1987. ISBN 0553051733

External links

All links retrieved October 1, 2023.


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