Beverly Sills (born 1929) was a child performer, coloratura soprano, and operatic superstar who retired from her performance career in 1980 to become general director of the New York City Opera Company and a prominent public figure.
Beverly Sills was born Belle Miriam Silverman in Brooklyn, May 25, 1929, during the era of Shirley Temple and other child stars. Her father, son of a Romanian immigrant, was an insurance salesman who wanted his daughter to become a teacher. Her mother, however, had different plans for her daughter, nicknamed "Bubbles." Sills was on the radio by age three singing "The Wedding of Jack and Jill" and winning a Brooklyn contest for "the most beautiful baby of 1932." At the age of four she was a regular on a children's Saturday morning radio program; at seven she sang in a movie and had already memorized 22 arias from Galli-Curci recordings. By 1938 she was a weekly performer on "Major Bowes' Capitol Family Hour," and by the age of ten she was one of the principal actors on the radio program "Our Gal Sunday." She performed in an ad for Rinso White soap and appeared on an early, prophetic television program called "Stars of the Future." She left radio work at age 12, wanting to pursue her love of the Opera.
When she graduated from Public School 91 in Brooklyn, Beverly Sills was voted "Prettiest Girl," "Fashion Plate," "One with the Most Personality," and the "One Most Likely to Succeed." She graduated from the Professional Children's School in New York City and had learned 20 operatic roles by the time she was 15 and 50 to 60 operas by the age of 19. She studied voice privately with her lifelong associate Estelle Liebling and eventually achieved professional competence on the piano as well, studying with Paolo Gallico.
Billed as "the youngest prima donna in captivity," Sills joined a Gilbert and Sullivan touring company in 1945. Two years later she sang her first operatic role, Frasquita in Carmen, with the Philadelphia Opera Company. In 1948 she toured college towns with a choir known as the Estelle Liebling Singers. In 1951 and 1952 she toured with the Charles L. Wagner Opera Company in the roles of Violetta in La Traviata and Micaela in Carmen. In 1953 Sills performed the title role in Manon with the Baltimore Opera and, with the San Francisco Opera, performed Elena in Boïto's Mefistofele, Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, and Gerhilde in Die Walküre.
Sills made her debut with the New York City Opera on October 29, 1955, singing Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus. The critics loved her and predicted great success for her career. Later in the season she sang Oxana in Tchaikovsky's The Golden Slippers. Eventually she would command a vast repertoire of 100 roles, actively performing 60 of them in 100 opera or concert appearances each year at the peak of her career. Sills' great memory allowed her not only to master her own enormous repertoire of roles but to grasp the other principal roles in the operas she knew as well. This accounts, in part, for her equal reputation as an actress as well as a specialist in the bel canto style of singing associated with both Sills and her Australian-born contemporary Joan Sutherland.
In 1956 Sills married Peter Bulkeley Greenough, associate editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a newspaper his family partially owned. She and her husband had two children but, unfortunately, one was born hearing impaired and the other developmentally disabled. Her disabled daughter required great care, and her developmentally disabled son had to be institutionalized when he was six. Beverly Sills carried two watches, one set to her son's schedule in the time zone where he lived, so that she could always know what he was doing. These tragedies would lead Sills into philanthropic work later in her career.
In addition to the bel canto repertoire, Sills performed modern American operas, including The Ballad of Baby Doe by Douglas Moore. She performed avant garde works such as Hugo Weisgall's opera, Six Characters in Search of an Author, in 1959 and, in 1965, the American premiere of Intolleranza 1960, by Luigi Nono. In 1963 she managed to perform all three roles in Puccini's trilogy of one act operas, Il Trittico. On July 8, 1966, she sang Donna Anna in Don Giovanni with the Metropolitan Opera, although her formal debut with the Metropolitan Opera did not actually occur until 1975, a fact which led to the growth and popularity of a number of small opera companies in America.
Another historic departure associated with Sills was her delayed appearance in the European opera capitals. Sills was able to rise to the top of her profession before touring Europe. She finally did so in 1967, a guest of the Vienna State Opera, and sang in Buenos Aires that year as well. In 1969 she sang Pamira in Rossini's Le Siège de Corinth and the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor at La Scala in Milan. She repeated her Lucia at Covent Garden, London, late that same year and went on to sing Violetta in Naples and at the Deutsche Opera in Berlin in January of 1970 and Constanza in The Abduction from the Seraglio in Israel in 1971, in addition to a recital in Paris that same year.
Sills became an operatic superstar in the fall of 1966 with the overwhelming success of her performance of Cleopatra in Handel's Julius Caesar at the Lincoln Center in New York City. The recording of this role, released in 1967, is among her many highly valued records. Sills' own favorite role was Elizabeth I in Donizetti's Roberto Devereux, which resulted in her being the subject of a TIME magazine cover story in 1971.
On October 27, 1980, Sills gave her last performance, one which the opera critics said was overdue as her voice had been deteriorating for some time. The very next day she assumed the general directorship of the New York City Opera. She displayed great administrative skill and public relations talent, appearing on popular television programs and in other ways representing opera to a wide, general audience and helping to pull the Opera out of both financial and public crisis. She is the author of three autobiographies which have enjoyed a large readership. She received honorary doctoral degrees from Harvard, New York University, Temple University, the New England Conservatory, and the California Institute of the Arts. In 1973 she was given the Handel Medallion, New York City's highest cultural award. Sills added philanthropy to her list of careers, and, in 1972, she was the national chairman of the Mothers' March on Birth Defects. She continued to be a highly visible, greatly active public figure in promoting opera and philanthropic causes well into the 1980s.
In 1989, Sills formally retired and remained in quiet seclusion with her husband for about five years. In 1994, she returned to public life as the chairwoman of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. At this point in her life, Sills says "I've done everything I set out to do … sung in every opera house I wanted to … to go on past the point where I should, I think would break my heart. I think my voice has served me very well."
Further Reading on Beverly Sills
For additional information, see Beverly Sills' three autobiographies: Beverly, an Autobiography (1987), written with Lawrence Linderman; Bubbles: A Self Portrait (1976); Bubbles: an Encore (1981). Articles on Beverly Sills appear in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (London, 1980) and in Baker's Biographical Dictionary (1978). She is also dealt with in W. Sargent Divas (1973), J. B. Steane The Grand Tradition (1974), and J. Hine Great Singers on Great Singing (1982). As a performer and a public figure, Beverly Sills is extensively treated in the periodical literature. Of particular interest is the TIME cover story of November 22, 1971. A selective list of other articles follows: Opera News (February 11, 1967); New York Times Magazine (September 17, 1967); Newsweek (April 8, 1968, and April 21, 1969); Opera News (September 19, 1970); J. Barthel: "Bel canto Beverly: at 46, a Superstar Makes Her Debut at the Met," New York Times Magazine (April 6, 1975); TIME (April 7, 1975); and D. Henahan: "A Tough New Role for Beverly," New York Times Magazine (September 23, 1979).