Beverly Sills (May 25, 1929 – July 2, 2007) was an American operatic soprano whose peak career was between the 1950s and 1970s.
Although she sang a repertoire from Handel and Mozart to Puccini, Massenet and Verdi, she was known for her performances in coloratura soprano roles in live opera and recordings. Sills was largely associated with the operas of Donizetti, of which she performed and recorded many roles. Her signature roles include the title role in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, the title role in Massenet’s Manon, Marie in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, the three heroines in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann, Rosina in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata, and most notably Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux.
After retiring from singing in 1980, she became the general manager of the New York City Opera. In 1994, she became the chairwoman of Lincoln Center and then, in 2002, of the Metropolitan Opera, stepping down in 2005. Sills lent her celebrity to further her charity work for the prevention and treatment of birth defects.
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. 1939 at the age of 10, Sills was the winner of CBS Radio’s Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour. Bowes then asked her to appear on his Capitol Family Hour. Her first appearance was on November 19, 1939, the 17th anniversary of the show, and she appeared frequently on the program thereafter.
In 1945, Sills made her professional stage debut with a Gilbert and Sullivan touring company playing twelve cities in the US and Canada.
On July 9, 1946, Sills appeared as a contestant on the radio show Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. She sang under the pseudonym of “Vicki Lynn”, (although she did not ultimately win).
In 1947, she made her operatic stage debut as the Spanish gypsy Frasquita in Bizet’s Carmen with the Philadelphia Civic Grand Opera Company. 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. In a step outside of the repertoire she is commonly associated with, Sills gave four performances of the title role of Aida in July 1954 in Salt Lake City. 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. As early as 1956 she performed before an audience of over 13,000 at the Lewisohn Stadium with the noted operatic conductor Alfredo Antonini in an aria from Bellini’s I puritani. Her reputation expanded with her performance of the title role in the New York premiere of Douglas 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.
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.
Peak singing years
In 1966, the New York City Opera revived Handel’s then virtually unknown opera seria Giulio Cesare (with Norman Treigle as Caesar), 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 The Golden Cockerel, 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.
In 1969, Sills sang Zerbinetta in the American premiere of the 1912 version of Richard Strauss’s 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. Home video-taped copies circulated among collectors for years afterwards, often commanding large sums on Internet auction sites. 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.
Sills’s now high-profile career landed her on the cover of Time in 1971, where she was described as “America’s Queen of Opera”. Her major overseas appearances include London’s Covent Garden, Milan’s La Scala, La Fenice in Venice, the Vienna State Opera, the Théâtre de Beaulieu in Lausanne, Switzerland, and concerts in Paris. In South America, she sang in the opera houses of Buenos Aires and Santiago, a concert in Lima, Peru, and appeared in several productions in Mexico City, including Lucia di Lammermoor with Luciano Pavarotti. On November 9, 1971, her performance in the New York City Opera’s production of The Golden Cockerel was telecast live to cable TV subscribers.
During this period, she made her first television appearance as a talk-show personality in May 1968 on Virginia Graham’s Girl Talk. She opened in The Daughter of the Regiment at the San Francisco Opera a month later.
Following Sir Rudolf Bing’s departure as director, Sills finally made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera on April 7, 1975 in The Siege of Corinth, receiving an eighteen-minute ovation. Other operas she sang at the Met include La traviata, Lucia di Lammermoor, Thaïs, and Don Pasquale.
Sills was a recitalist, especially in the final decade of her career. She sang in mid-size cities and on 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 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, Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow and Gian Carlo Menotti’s La Loca, an opera commissioned in honor of her 50th birthday. La Loca was the first work written expressly as a vehicle for Sills and was her last new role, as she retired the following year. Her farewell performance was at San Diego Opera in 1980, where she shared the stage with Joan Sutherland in a production of Die Fledermaus.
Although Sills’ voice type was characterized as a “lyric coloratura”, she took a number of heavier spinto and dramatic coloratura roles more associated with heavier voices as she grew older, including Bellini’s Norma, Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia (with Susanne Marsee as Orsini) and the latter composer’s “Three Queens”, Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Elisabetta in 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 popularized opera through her talk show appearances, including Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, David Frost, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, and Dinah Shore. Sills hosted her own talk show, Lifestyles with Beverly Sills, which ran on Sunday mornings on NBC for two years in the late 1970s; it won an Emmy Award. In 1979 she even appeared on The Muppet Show. Down-to-earth and approachable, Sills helped dispel the traditional image of the temperamental opera diva.