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September 21, 1986|BEVERLY SILLS and JUDITH MICHAELSON | Judith Michaelson is a Times staff writer. FO

To reach the offices of Beverly Sills in the basement of the New York State Theatre at Lincoln Center, you follow row upon row of black tiles. The general director of New York City Opera--"Bubbles" to her fans--is a formidable presence. In her middle 50s, she stands ramrod-straight and speaks with a voice of command. Sills sticks to her schedule in a way that would do an admiral proud. Only a back screen, holding memorabilia from her singing career, is a reminder of operatic glories. After a conversation about her company's role at the PerformingArts Center, Sills is asked about her own changed role. "I can't remember the prima donna anymore," she says, before rushing off to watch a rehearsal. "It's a switch that took place a long time ago. I find ex-prima donnas very boring people."

Many, many years ago when I was still singing, there was a young man named Stuart Warkow who was the manager of Carnegie Hall. And one day (two years ago) he called--he was now a consultant for new performing arts centers--and asked if he could come to see me with a gentleman named Len Bedsow. I said, "Sure."

We reminisced and had a nice time giggling. Len told me he had agreed to be temporarily a kind of program chairman of this new performing arts center that would be opening out in California, in Orange County. And he gave me details of the generosity of the people in the community who, with strictly private funding, were erecting this rather spectacular-looking edifice. He said that they were interested in having our opera company come back to California and be part of their opening-year festivities and that we would be the first opera company to perform in the center.

We said we would not be available to come till January, because our own season (at Lincoln Center) closes at the end of November.

We made suggestions of repertory. And as the next step we submitted a budget to the board. And then I was asked if I would come out for a combination business meeting and topping-off ceremony (of the center). A few months later, Henry Segerstrom (chairman of the center's fund drive) asked if I would come and talk to the board about running a performing arts center. So we came out with our final budget and repertory. It was all agreed to on that day. We talked about the need to commit a long time in advance if you want good attractions. We talked about acoustics and discussed the kind of cultural impact the board would want to have on the community.

Then we had a very good lunch with the board.

Orange County seemed to want us so badly. As I've said, the last time we appeared in Los Angeles I was asked if I felt awful that we were not going back to Los Angeles. I said, "No, I never enjoy going where we're not wanted." And we don't. I think the press in Los Angeles has been very anxious for Los Angeles to have its own opera company.

And I agree they should have that. They are not having that. They are instead importing. What did they import? Hamburg or Munich? . . . Berlin! And, incidentally, a great many of those artists in the so-called Berlin opera appearances were New York City Opera artists . . . . Now, if Los Angeles wants to have a star-studded company, well, the first thing they need, of course, is a resident opera orchestra and a resident opera chorus of a very high professional level, such as the one we offered them. Then, I guess, they can import stars.

Of course, we all love going out to California. The climate is so nice, and it's a lot of fun to go into a new performing arts center. We enjoy touring. From an administrative point of view, there are certain guarantees of employment that must be offered our people, and this certainly helps to meet those guarantees. So all around, it's very positive.

When we were talking about repertory, I offered them a choice of five or six things. One of the women on the board said to me, "Oh, I've seen you do these things in New York, and they're all so wonderful, I couldn't make up my mind which ones we should choose." At which point the board members said, "OK, Beverly, why don't you make the choice? What do you think would be the most suitable for a gala opening season?" So the choices were based on that.

We'll rotate "Carmen" and "Madama Butterfly" the first week. Then we will play "Candide" the whole second week.

"Candide" is one of the most brilliant things we do. I don't think we've ever played to anything but a sold-out house. This is the opera-house version of it; it's not the same as the Broadway version that was seen. It was played on Broadway with a 24-piece orchestra and a microphone in the pit, and we're using our full 65-piece orchestra--the orchestration arranged by Leonard Bernstein himself. We're not making something bigger for the sake of making it bigger.

So you'll be hearing music that you never heard on Broadway. And then, of course, it is totally cast by New York City Opera. We have not imported anybody. Our opera company is doing it. And it's gotten unanimous acclaim.

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