Soprano Beverly Sills Dead at 78

Treasured as much for her bubbling personality and administrative acumen as for her extraordinary voice, coloratura soprano Beverly Sills died of lung cancer on July 2. One of the finest high-flying sopranos of the latter 20th century, she leaves behind a rich legacy of recordings and an opera scene revitalized by her tireless efforts on behalf of American singers.

To lovers of the human voice, there was no one like Sills in her prime. That prime was relatively brief, extending from her assumption of the title role in New York City Opera's production of Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe in 1958 to breakthrough performances as Cleopatra in Handel's Julio Cesare in 1966 and subsequent triumphs in Rossini's The Siege of Corinth, Massenet's Manon, and Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor and Roberto Devereux. Her assumption of the extremely demanding role of Queen Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux (photographed below by Carl Fischer), one of a Donizetti trilogy of Tudor queen roles she undertook at NYCO in the early 1970s, contributed to her rapid vocal decline, and her retirement, in 1980, at the relatively early age of 51.

Sills's vocal magic was rooted in part in a mesmerizing, iridescent head voice whose searing intensity cut right to the heart. Her indescribably beautiful top notes, seemingly fragile yet capable of riding above a full orchestra, shimmered in the air as if produced by some uncanny, disembodied presence. The best of her studio and live recordings, set down between 1959 and 1971, only begin to convey the extraordinary emotional impact of those pure, translucent highs. That they arose from the same being who could sing in a hollow, grief-stricken chest voice and a mature, hardly virginal midrange further contributed to their wonder.

Sills was also a consummate actress. I first saw her live at NYCO in 1971, in an astounding performance of Roberto Devereux. In her opening scene, when she leaned across a table and emitted the first of many extraordinary coloratura runs, I was stunned by the pathetic intensity of her performance. Both voice and gestures seemed to transmit the pain of all women who have suffered at the hands of men. Although the 1975 DVD of Roberto Devereux (VAI) finds her voice in diminished condition, it remains one of the great opera videos of the 20th century.

But Sills was hardly all pain. Listen to her three 1968 recordings of the coloratura showpiece "O luce di quest' anima," from Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix. One, filmed in color for The Bell Telephone Hour, finds her emitting awesome coloratura runs with the delighted ease of a young child scampering up and down a slide in a fun house. Performances in Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment and Rossini's The Barber of Seville found her equally gay, even when the voice itself was no longer in happiest estate.

Sills, née Belle Miriam Silverman, was born in Brooklyn on May 25, 1929. Her nickname, "Bubbles," coined when the doctor who delivered her noticed that the newborn was blowing a bubble from her mouth, stuck on more than a surface level. A few years after her radio debut on Uncle Bob's Rainbow House at age four, she won a role on a radio soap opera, Our Gal Sunday, and sang in a Rinso-White TV commercial. Even at the height of her performing career, the public knew her best as the smiling, droll, down-to-earth Diva who bubbled her way through TV stints with Carol Burnett, Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson, Danny Kaye, Dinah Shore, and Miss Piggy.

Behind the smile was a history of hard work, unwavering determination, and personal pain. Her marriage to Peter B. Greenough, who died last year after a prolonged illness, produced two children with disabilities. The discovery that her daughter had profound hearing loss, and that her son was suffering from severe autism that resulted in his eventual institutionalization, led her to retire briefly in 1961. Asked later in life about her smiling disposition, she acknowledged that, given all she had gone through, she considered herself cheerful rather than happy.

Shortly before retiring from singing in 1980, Sills became acting codirector and then general director of New York City Opera. While rescuing the financially strapped company, she continued a crusade on behalf of American opera singers that had begun with her own decision to base her career in the US. From 1994 to 2002 she served as "chairman" of Lincoln Center, then moved on to become chairperson of the Metropolitan Opera. She resigned in January 2005 in order to give more attention to her failing husband and her own health.

Sills's determination is legendary. Once she delivered an ultimatum to Julius Rudel, then general director of NYCO: either give me that role of Cleopatra in Julius Caesar that you've promised to Phyllis Curtin, or my husband will rent out Carnegie Hall, where I'll sing five of Cleopatra's arias and make you 'look sick.' " Rudel relented, and Sills became an international celebrity overnight. Another time, faced with a La Scala seamstress who three times refused to fulfill an agreement to redo Sills's costume in the right color, she ensured that she'd get what she needed by cutting the offending costume in pieces before the seamstress's eyes.

For those wishing to experience Sills at her finest, her earliest complete opera recording, The Ballad of Baby Doe (DG), finds the extraordinary beauty and heartbreaking pathos of her singing transcending the set's sonic limitations. Three years later, on a 1962 CBC broadcast clip included on the indispensable DVD Beverly Sills: Made in America (Deutsche Grammophon), her phenomenally free, effortless high D at the climax of Doe's "Willow, where we meet together" is worth its weight in tears. My friend Mike, who to this day cannot listen to Sills's recording of Doe's final aria, "Always through the changing" (DG), without sobbing, remembers a night that the Corner Grocery Store bar in San Francisco's Castro District played the aria. "Everyone stopped talking," he reports. "The boys at the bar, the men at the pool table. All was quiet."

Other representative samples of Sills in her prime include complete recordings of Julio Cesare (RCA Victor), Manon (DG), Roberto Devereux (DG, studio; Melodram, live), Lucia di Lammermoor (DG), and L'Assedio di Corinto (Opera D'Oro, preserving Sills's phenomenal 1969 La Scala début, alongside Marilyn Horne at her butch best). I also recommend the aria and song compilations on DG; The Singers: Beverly Sills (London/Decca); and various pirate recordings. Favorite standalone recordings include "Breit' über mein Haupt" (R. Strauss), "Ruhe sanft" (Mozart, especially the live version from 1968), "Vorrei spiegarvi, o Dio" (Mozart), "Vilia" (Lehár), and "Mariettas Lied" (Korngold). Forget about historical correctness and tempo indications; no one performs these pieces like Beverly Sills. Also check out the tantalizing video clips (in compromised sound) scattered around the pages of YouTube.