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Beverly Sills: 1929-2007

Soprano brought opera home

July 03, 2007|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

Beverly Sills, whose sparkling coloratura soprano and warm, spunky personality made her an international opera celebrity and whose experience as a mother made her a passionate advocate for children with special needs, died Monday in her Manhattan home. She was 78.

Sills, a nonsmoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer last month, according to Edgar Vincent, her longtime manager.

Dubbed "America's Queen of Opera" by Time magazine, the Brooklyn-born Sills, widely known as "Bubbles," was an American success story. She rose to stardom without receiving what was considered mandatory -- training in Europe. Moreover, she made her career essentially outside the sacred portals of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, paving the way for generations of wholly American-trained singers to succeed in the field without Met certification.

Her repertoire eventually encompassed more than 70 roles, and she recorded 18 full-length operas and several solo recital discs. Her "Manon" received the Edison Award for best operatic album of 1971, and her Victor Herbert album won a Grammy Award in 1978.

Sills also gave opera a human face through television appearances: Her optimism, wit and lack of diva temperament endeared her to general audiences as much as her technically accomplished, emotional and insightful dramatic interpretations won her the affection of opera aficionados.

She had a silvery, lyric soprano that she employed intelligently in creating a character, narrowing the sound to evoke a younger woman or widening and deepening it to reflect greater maturity. She sang more than the usual number of coloratura embellishments -- including perfect trills -- with ease, agility, accuracy and clarity, always in the service of a role.

Sills needed contact with an audience. She was far more comfortable onstage, where she could amplify her characterizations with subtle facial expressions and physical gestures, than making recordings.

In later years, she was troubled by an increasingly wide vibrato but almost always compensated for any vocal lapses with dramatic insights.

Singing, in fact, was only the first, if longest, part of her career. After she retired from the stage at 50, she spent a decade as an exceptionally capable administrator of New York City Opera, turning around the financially beleaguered company that gave her a career and to which she remained faithful as her reputation soared. Later, she assumed the volunteer post of chairman of Lincoln Center in New York City, which she held from 1994 to 2002, and then accepted the volunteer post of chairman of the Metropolitan Opera. In both positions, she proved a master fundraiser.

Spurred by the births of a daughter who was deaf and a son who was mentally disabled, Sills also served for many years as chair of the board of the March of Dimes Foundation and national chairwoman of the organization's Mothers' March on Birth Defects.

Her rise to fame was not meteoric. She joined New York City Opera in 1955 after repeated unsuccessful auditions that began in 1951. But after making her company debut as Rosalinde in Johann Strauss' "Die Fledermaus," she sang leading roles there over the next 25 years in works by Handel, Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti, Mozart, Offenbach, Thomas and Verdi, as well as modern repertory, including the title role in Douglas Moore's "The Ballad of Baby Doe." She also sang in the U.S. premiere of Luigi Nono's avant-garde "Intolleranza" in 1960 for the Opera Company of Boston.

What Sills regarded as the turning point of her career came in 1966, when she performed the fiendishly difficult role of Cleopatra in Handel's "Giulio Cesare," opposite bass-baritone Norman Treigle in the title role, to open City Opera's new home at Lincoln Center.

She wrote in her 1976 autobiography, "Bubbles: A Self-Portrait": "It was -- and I don't mean to be immodest, but after all these years I am a pretty good judge of performances -- one of the great performances of all time in the opera house."

After that, she confirmed her success, singing the Queen of Shemakha in Rimsky-Korsakov's "Le Coq d'Or," the title roles in Massenet's "Manon" and Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" and the three heroines in Puccini's "Il Trittico."

Reviewing her "Manon" for the New Yorker in 1969, critic Winthrop Sargeant wrote: "If I were recommending the wonders of New York to a tourist, I would place Beverly Sills at the top of the list -- way ahead of such things as the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building."

Sills was born Belle Miriam Silverman on May 25, 1929, to Russian Jewish immigrants Sonia and Morris Silverman. She acquired the nickname "Bubbles" because she was born with a bubble in her mouth, and it was as Bubbles Silverman that she debuted on the radio show "Uncle Bob's Rainbow House" as a 3-year-old, the same year that she won a Brooklyn contest as "the most beautiful baby of 1932."

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