When asked to reflect on her challenging life and remarkable career, in a 2005 Time interview, Beverly Sills used the oft quoted Yiddish quip “Man plans, God laughs,” to summarize some of her own feelings about her tumultuous and amazing life.
If God is laughing it is because he is so pleased with himself for creating such a fine creature as Beverly Sills. I am nearly 50 years old and truly missed most of Ms. Sills’ operatic triumphs as a coloratura. Along with Callas and Sutherland there were no better Bel Canto canaries in the post war revival of Bel Canto.
As a young opera buff in training, I got to see two of my idols in the 1970’s- Beverly Sills in a production of Rossini’s “The Siege of Corinth” at the Met and Leontyne Price in recital at Cornell University. For a budding opera queen these were cherished moments. But by the time I familiarized myself with Ms. Sills- her voice was already declining. But she never declined. She was one tenacious woman- Diva, General Manager of the New York City Opera, Chair of Lincoln Center and Chair of the Metropolitan Opera. WOW- What a career!
Her family issues make me think of Beethoven. Beethoven was a composer who became deaf and couldn’t hear some of his late compositions played by the orchestras he conducted; he could only hear the music in his head. Beverly Sills too was dealt an ironic and profoundly sad blow. Her daughter was deaf and her son profoundly retarded. When I hear recordings of Sills in her prime I cannot help but think how difficult it must be to have such an amazing gift that your children will either never hear or never comprehend. To add to the level of this tragedy was that she and her husband found out about their daughter’s deafness and their son’s disability within a 6 week time frame. I cannot imagine how that sort of thing shakes one’s universe. In that 2005 interview for Time, Ms. Sills said “I have never considered myself a happy woman. How could I, with all that’s happened to me. But I’m a cheerful woman. Work keeps me going.”
Not long ago I heard a recording of what is considered by many to be Sills’ most triumphant role as Cleopatra in Handel’s “Giulio Ceasare” and I was mesmerized; tears rolled down my face in awe of the artistry and beauty.
I was not aware, until I read a lengthy New York Times obituary yesterday how Sills got that role. She had been a handful of artists that came together to keep the New York City Opera afloat and when the role came up- she wanted it and felt that she deserved it. She had political capital and planned on using it. But- she was turned down by Julius Rundel, the New York City Opera General manager who she had been instrumental in convincing the Board of Directors to hire and who had coaxed her back into singing after the tragic news about her children. She wanted that role and told Rundel that if she did not get it that her husband Peter Greenough (a wealthy Boston Brahmin descendant of John Adams) would bankroll a concert at Carnegie Hall where she would sing five arias from the opera and said “Your going to look sick.” Now that is the personification of Diva behavior and thank God she evoked that inner Diva!
It seems fateful that Sills sang that role. The New York City Opera was considered a second tier company and was not on the radar of the international opera circuit. However at the same time Sills played Handel’s Cleopatra at New York City Opera across the brand new Lincoln Center plaza at the Metropolitan Opera Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra” was being sung to open the new opera house. As fate would have it – critics there for the Met’s opening crossed over to the City Opera and heard a performance that was then feted throughout the world as remarkable. This is one of those amazing true legends of opera history in which opera fans like me revel.
After Sills retired from singing she became a formidable administrator in the arts for the City Opera, Lincoln Center and finally the Met. This again is another one of those opera stories that brings a grin to my face. During the tenure of the Met’s leader- the legendary Rudolf Bing – Sills never sang at the Met. Bing was a snob about the City Opera and about American singers in general. It was not until 3 years after Bing departed that Sills made her very late Met début at the age of 36. I chuckle when I think that the house where Bing closed her out was the same house that she eventually ran!
Beverly Sills (Bubbles Sliverman) was a child star who appeared on such shows as Major Bowes and was the daughter of a consummate stage mother. I think that this background gave her tenacity and a common touch that allowed her to connect with the general public.
Face it- before Beverly Sills, opera prided itself on its inaccessibility to the general public in this country (not so true in Italy where fights break out in bars over diva allegiance). Sills had fun with opera. Her hamming it up with Carol Burnett, appearing with Kermit on the Muppets and hosting the Tonight Show were gigs that would have made most Divas faint in horror. But not Sills- her background and her being an all-American Diva (all her training was in the USA) touched audiences. She brought opera to people. Beverly Sills single handedly kept the arts afloat during difficult times and brought a new generation to opera- like me.
I often remember the collaboration between Sills and legendary opera conductor Sarah Caldwell. It was hearing about some of Caldwell’s productions that really peaked my interest in opera. Of course it didn’t hurt that I was impressed by women taking on opera in ways they never had before. Sills and Caldwell exerted their influence as business women not just as artists.
I will end by taking the quote that started this tribute and making it my way of remembering Beverly Sills. “The woman sang and God applauded”.