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Beverly Sills: 1929-2007

Soprano brought opera home

July 03, 2007|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

She also appeared on other radio shows, among them "The Major Bowes Capital Family Hour" and "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts."

Sills began her vocal studies at age 7 with Estelle Liebling, who had been Italian soprano Amelita Galli-Curci's voice coach. At 10 she got a part on the radio show "Our Gal Sunday" and also sang on radio commercials for Rinso White detergent. She made her opera debut in 1947 singing Frasquita in Bizet's "Carmen" with the Philadelphia Civic Opera.

When her father, a life-insurance broker, father died of lung cancer that year, Sills began to sing in clubs to make ends meet. From 1951 to 1952, she toured the country with the Charles L. Wagner Opera Company, reportedly singing Violetta in Verdi's "La Traviata" about 40 times and Micaela in "Carmen" more than 60 times. Her first major role in a major company was Helen of Troy in Boito's "Mefistofele" with San Francisco Opera in 1953.

It was on a New York City Opera tour in 1955 that she met Peter Greenough, associate editor of the family-owned Cleveland Plain Dealer, whom she married a year later.

The couple had two children: a daughter, Meredith ("Muffy"), who was born deaf in 1959, and Peter Jr. ("Bucky"), born in 1961, who has autism. Greenough had three children from a previous marriage. To tend to her children, Sills began to curtail her professional activities.

With her husband's encouragement, however, she returned to the stage in the mid-'60s, rejoining City Opera for her breakthrough performance as Cleopatra. She went on to debuts in Vienna in 1967 and at London's Covent Garden in 1970.

Her 1969 debut at La Scala in Milan, Italy, in Rossini's "The Siege of Corinth," drew rapturous international praise, with Italian audiences dubbing her "La Fenomena" (the Phenomenon).

Long kept out of the Metropolitan Opera because of general manager Rudolf Bing's condescension toward her and City Opera, Sills made her overdue Met debut only after his retirement. Her performance in "The Siege of Corinth" in 1975 earned her an 18-minute ovation. But she sang there only five seasons.

L.A. saw her in the '60s and '70s, when she sang at the Hollywood Bowl and with City Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Winding down her career, she created the title role in Gian-Carlo Menotti's "La Loca" in San Diego in 1979. But by the end of that decade, critics were noting a fall-off in her vocal ability, and she recognized that her work was suffering.

"I've done everything I set out to do," she said at the time, "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. I'd like to put it to bed so it would go quietly, with pride."

She made her farewell performance in 1980, sharing the stage with Joan Sutherland in a San Diego Opera production of "Die Fledermaus."

For the next stage of her career, Sills reportedly walked away from nearly $8 million in unsigned contracts to take over City Opera. The company was struggling financially, with $5 million in debt. In 1985, as things were beginning to turn around, the warehouse containing nearly all the company's costumes and scenery burned to the ground.

"There were days when I could hardly talk myself into coming to the office," Sills later told Time magazine. "There would be a big meeting on Tuesday morning, and I would be told there was no money for the Friday payroll."

Still, she was able to reverse the company's fortunes, revamping the production schedule, revitalizing the repertoire with new and unusual works and introducing for the first time in an American opera house the use of supertitles -- translations projected on a screen above the stage -- which made opera accessible to wider audiences.

By the late '80s, the company had eliminated its deficit and was operating in the black with a $25-million budget. She relinquished her duties in 1989. Looking ahead, she said, "I don't think a young, vital company should be led by a 65-year-old woman."

Five years later, she came out of retirement to become chairman of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, making her the first performing artist to serve on its board. She remained until 2002.

Although she again planned to retire, she was coaxed back to action later that year to become chairman of the Metropolitan Opera, where she worked until 2005.

Sills also starred in several operas broadcast on television, including "The Daughter of the Regiment," "The Barber of Seville," "La Traviata" and "Manon." She co-starred with Carol Burnett in a TV special, "Sills and Burnett at the Met," and hosted and appeared on "The Tonight Show" numerous times. She won four Emmys for her interview show, "Lifestyles With Beverly Sills," which ran twice weekly on NBC over a two-year period in the late '70s.

Her awards included the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980 and a Kennedy Center Honor in 1985.

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