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AN APPRECIATION

La Sills sang and spoke to all of us

As singer, administrator, celebrity and mom, Beverly Sills really knew how to captivate an audience.

July 04, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

She wasn't Bubbles. Bubbala? Maybe to her grandmother. She was La Sills. She deserved the accolade as much as any diva ever had. But she was also down to earth, a New Yorker. "Beverly" was acceptable.

Everyone, of course, knew that she was nicknamed Bubbles because she was born with a bubble in her mouth. She titled her autobiography "Bubbles: A Self-Portrait." She joked about the nickname on talk shows.

Still, I never once heard anyone refer to Sills, who died of cancer Monday at age 78, as Bubbles the way, say, we casually called Bernstein "Lenny." It would have made her sound insubstantial, frivolous, an airhead. Everyone understood that Sills was none of these things.

I was a fan. I fell for her in the late '60s just as she was making it big and I was getting into opera. At first, it seemed odd that I responded the way I did. A student, I was deep into the deep stuff -- the late Beethoven string quartets and "The Art of the Fugue." I avidly dissected Webern's gnomic 12-tone-row structures and devoured each new Stockhausen piece that came along.

I also waited hours in line for standing room at the San Francisco Opera to hear Sills sing every performance of Massenet's "Manon."

Sills had a beautiful, silvery voice. In her prime, she displayed a wonderfully agile coloratura. But neither quality was one of a kind. There are many gorgeous voices out there today. And many more virtuosic ones. Sills was a good actress. Today in opera there are better, and certainly more daring, ones.

Yet no one else sounded like Sills or had her stage presence. She was exactly right for her time, just as, say, the Beatles were for their time. And I think it is no coincidence that I was first smitten with Sills around the time that "Sgt. Pepper" was released, 40 years ago. Neither Sills nor the Beatles needed the analyzing required for proper appreciation of late Beethoven or Stockhausen. Sills, like the Beatles, simply spoke my language.

I suppose what I responded to in Sills was her impurity. Her vocal cords were not like her rival Joan Sutherland's -- a perfect set seemingly disembodied from larynx, throat, flesh, blood and brain. Sills could have too much vibrato. She could slur a phrase. But her shimmering sound was utterly, amazingly human.

Her life had storybook qualities of fame and glamour, but nothing was offered her on a silver platter. She built her career painstakingly in America, and she had only about 10 really good years. She lived them, and sang them, to the full. I remember once she collapsed onstage in Washington, D.C., because she had been doing too much. She may have married into money, but she was hardly cut out to be a Boston Brahmin housewife. Nothing compensated for her son's autism and her daughter's deafness.

But everything mattered. Whether in good voice or not, Sills made every performance I heard her sing come alive, and that was what I loved most about her. If I didn't share her taste, so what? I was perfectly content to hear her fall apart as Lucia night after night.

Not sharing her taste, though, would matter, I feared, after Sills retired from singing in 1980 and assumed the directorship of New York City Opera. But she surprised me. She took it in the direction of lesser-known and American work. More than that, she saved the company from bankruptcy.

She worked exceptionally hard to get it back on its feet. She didn't necessarily pick operas that I was passionate about, although she did take a few chances, such as premiering "X," Anthony Davis' powerful but controversial opera about the life of Malcolm X.

As head of the board of Lincoln Center, Sills helped bring about the Lincoln Center Festival, perhaps the most significant forum for international performance in Manhattan. Much of the programming, I suspect, she found problematic. She once told me that she thought festival director John Rockwell's idea to present Morton Feldman's six-hour string quartet was "screwy," and that no one would come.

I said I considered it a great work. "Just don't encourage John," she said, and then burst into a warm, raucous laugh. That became her mantra every time I ran into her.

I don't imagine she was an easy person to report to. She could be tough as nails when she needed to be (although she had the capacity to put on the charm like nobody's business). She expected people to overcome obstacles as readily as she had her whole life, which is why she opposed building a new home for City Opera. Everyone complains about the acoustics in the dead State Theater, but she pointed out that she had no problem when she sang there. It's true. She managed to make herself be heard.

A stage animal, Sills had a great sense of timing. She understood the cardinal rule of leaving the audience wanting more. She did that in every opera I saw her in and always at her recitals. She did that at Lincoln Center in each of her administrative roles.

Her manager sadly said that Sills didn't have much time for preventive medicine, which is why her cancer was discovered way too late. But even that makes sense.

Not only did she live by that cardinal rule. She died by it.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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