Opera Diva Beverly Sills Dies at 78

Beverly Sills, world-renowned opera singer, died from lung cancer at the age of 78. With a silvery voice that soared high, and an irrepressible personality, Sills became an opera superstar.

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(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BEVERLY SILLS (Opera Singer): (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

One of the country's great operatic voices fell silent last night. Soprano Beverly Sills died from lung cancer at her home in Manhattan. She was 78 years old. With a silvery voice that soared high and an irrepressible personality, Beverly Sills became an opera superstar. It was a dream that she seemed to be preparing for from the beginning.

NPR's Tom Huizenga reports.

TOM HUIZENGA: She was born Belle Miriam Silverman in New York, and Beverly Sills, as she would eventually rename herself, had her first taste of stardom at age three when she was named Brooklyn's Miss Beautiful Baby of 1932. At age four, she was a regular on the "Rainbow House" radio show, and at seven she sang in a film.

(Soundbite of movie, "Uncle Sol Solves It")

Ms. SILLS: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

HUIZENGA: As a child performer, Sills was billed as Bubbles. It was a nickname that matched her effervescent personality and one that stuck with her from the start.

Ms. SILLS: Well, I was born with a big spit-bubble in my mouth and the doctor had to break it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SILLS: So the doctor said, I guess we're going to have to call this one Bubbles.

HUIZENGA: Sills was always a go-getter. She was voted most likely to succeed in high school, and in her early years she sang on cruise ships and one-nighters on the Borscht Belt circuit in the Catskills.

Although she made her operatic debut in 1947 in Philadelphia, her career finally got off the ground when a reluctant impresario at the City Opera of New York signed her on in 1955. She wasn't getting a lot of attention in those early years, but Washington Post critic Tim Page says that's when Sills' voice was in its prime.

Mr. TIM PAGE (Critic, The Washington Post): The voice itself had quite a bit of luster. It was a very attractive voice. What made it special, I think, was the freedom that she had. She could just sort of go anywhere with the voice. And it was one of those voices that just sort of grabbed you. There was a real personality there.

HUIZENGA: Sills used her personality to great effect when she took on the title role in a brand-new opera, "The Ballad of Baby Doe," by Douglas Moore.

(Soundbite of opera "The Ballad of Baby Doe")

Ms. SILLS: (Singing) With all, when we met (unintelligible). With all, when I'm not with you. With all, it defines to you (unintelligible). I tell him I am willing to…

HUIZENGA: "The Ballad of Baby Doe," from 1959, might have been a success for Sills, but stardom was still a long way off. She was working hard essentially as the house soprano at the City Opera, always dreaming of singing at the larger Metropolitan. Sills found her breakthrough role in 1966 when she talked her way into singing Cleopatra in Handel's "Julius Caesar" at the City Opera.

Ms. SILLS: I always had a theory that people became a superstar because they could do one thing better than anybody else in the world. I think there was an aria in "Julius Caesar" called "Se Pieta," and I used to think that I sung that better than anybody.

(Soundbite of opera "Julius Caesar")

Ms. SILLS: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

HUIZENGA: Sills' performance in "Julius Caesar" turned her into a sensation almost overnight. A New Yorker magazine critic at the time said if I were recommending the wonders of New York to a tourist, I would place Beverly Sills at the top of the list.

But Sills might have pushed herself a little too hard. She finally got her invite to sing at the Met, but by then, in 1975, the voice was already showing signs of wear and tear. In 1980, Sills retired from singing at age 51. She said it was the perfect time to go out — on the top.

Ms. SILLS: There is a kind of desperation, I think, at staying at something too long. And I was never a desperate woman. I wanted people to say it's too early, rather than when is that woman ever going to quit.

HUIZENGA: Tim Page says Sills did stay too long, and that her recordings, mostly made later in her career, leave a slim legacy of the great singer she was. Although Sills retired, Page says she was never out of the spotlight.

Mr. PAGE: In some ways she became more famous after she stopped singing because she introduced all these television programs and she went on to be a big advocate for the arts. You know, somebody 40 or younger will basically remember Beverly Sills as this kind of happy homemaker, nice lady with the red hair and the friendly manner and sort of as a celebrity, rather than as the very serious artist that she was.

HUIZENGA: Sills went on to be a serious arts administrator, taking on significant roles as the director of the New York City Opera and chairwoman of both Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera.

But great administrators are rarely remembered. Great opera singers are. And Sills was first and foremost an opera singer, with an expressive flexible voice that soared beautifully above an orchestra.

(Soundbite of opera)

Ms. SILLS: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. SILLS: I want to be remembered as Beverly Sills, the opera singer. My entire life was spent in preparing for that career, and I was very lucky that the preparation paid off.

(Soundbite of opera)

Ms. SILLS: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

HUIZENGA: Beverly Sills was the face of opera for Americans, whether she was portraying queens and courtesans on stage, guest-hosting "The Tonight Show," or lifting opera companies out of debt. She did it all with a voice that rang out and a smile that bubbled.

Tom Huizenga, NPR News.

(Soundbite of opera)

Ms. SILLS: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

YDSTIE: You'll find video of Beverly Sills appearing on "The Ed Sullivan Show," along with arias from "The Ballad of Baby Doe" and two of her other signature operas, at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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Soprano Beverly Sills: A Silvery Voice, Silenced at 78

Soprano Beverly Sills

Soprano Beverly Sills (in 1970) is remembered for her high flying trills and her thoughtful interpretations of operatic roles. Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Getty Images
Soprano Beverly Sills

After she retired from the opera stage, Sills took on key executive rolls in arts institutions in New York. Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Getty Images

Remembering 'Bubbles'

With her bubbly personality and quick wit, it's no surprise that Sills became close friends with comedienne and actress Carol Burnett. The two performed together at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in a Television show called "Sills and Burnett at the Met," mixing music and comedy. Hear Burnett's remembrance of Sills, in conversation with Robert Siegel.

One of this country's great operatic voices has fallen silent: Soprano Beverly Sills, with her soaring, silvery voice and irrepressible personality, died of cancer this evening. She was 78.

She was born Belle Miriam Silverman in New York, and Beverly Sills, as she would eventually rename herself, had her first taste of stardom at age 3, when she was named Brooklyn's "Miss Beautiful Baby 1932." At age 4, she was a regular on the Rainbow House radio show, and at 7 she sang in a film.

As a child performer, Sills was billed as "Bubbles," a nickname that matched her effervescent personality — and one that stuck with her from the very beginning.

"I was born with a big spit-bubble in my mouth, and the doctor had to break it," she once said. "So the doctor said, 'I guess we're going to have to call this one 'Bubbles.'"

Sills was always a go-getter. She was voted most likely to succeed in high school, and in her early years she sang on cruise ships and did one-nighters on the Borscht Belt circuit in the Catskills.

Although she made her operatic debut in 1947, in Philadelphia, her career finally got off the ground when a reluctant impresario at the City Opera of New York finally signed her in 1955. She wasn't getting a lot of attention in those early years, but that's when Sills' voice was in its prime, according to Washington Post critic Tim Page.

"The voice itself had quite a bit of luster," Page says. But "what made it special ... was the freedom that she had; she could just go anywhere with the voice. She also brought real dramatic intelligence to her roles. "

The singer used that dramatic sense and her sparkling personality to great effect in 1959, when she took on the title role in a brand-new opera, Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe, based on the true story of a Colorado silver magnate, the young bride he falls for, and the scandals and tragedies they survive.

Baby Doe was a success for Sills, but stardom was still a long way off. She was working hard, essentially as the City Opera's house soprano, always dreaming of singing at the larger Metropolitan Opera. She found her breakthrough role in 1966, when she talked her way into singing Cleopatra in Handel's Julius Caesar at the City Opera.

"I always had a theory that people became a superstar because they could do one thing better than anybody else in the world," she said. "I think there was an aria in Julius Caesar called 'Se Pieta,' and I used to think I sung that aria better than anybody."

Sills' performance turned her into a sensation, almost overnight. A New Yorker magazine critic at the time said, "If I were recommending the wonders of New York to a tourist, I would place Beverly Sills at the top of the list."

But Sills might have pushed herself a little too hard. She finally got her invite to sing at the Met in 1975, but by then her voice was already showing signs of wear and tear. In 1980, at age 51, she retired from singing. She said it was the perfect time to go out — on top.

"There is a kind of desperation, I think, at staying at something too long," she said. "And I was never a desperate woman. I wanted people to say 'It's too early,' rather than 'When is that woman ever gonna quit?' "

Tim Page says Sills did stay too long, and that her recordings, mostly made later in her career, leave a slim legacy of the great singer she was.

And although Sills retired, Page says, she was never out of the spotlight.

"In some ways she became more famous after she stopped singing, because she introduced all these television programs and she went on to to become a big advocate for the arts," Page says. Americans age 40 or younger, he says, "will remember Sills as this happy homemaker, nice lady from Queens with the red hair and the friendly manner, and sort of as a celebrity, rather than as the serious artist that she was."

Sills did go on to be a "serious" arts administrator, taking on significant roles as director of the New York City Opera and chair of both the Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera. She was an organized person who seemed to have a natural ability to charm money out of donors.

Great administrators are rarely remembered, though — and Sills wouldn't have wanted to be remembered as one in any case.

"I want to be remembered as Beverly Sills, opera singer," she said once. "My entire life was spent in preparing for that career, and I was lucky that the preparation paid off."

It did indeed: Sills was first and foremost an opera singer, with an expressive, flexible voice that soared beautifully above an orchestra.

But her later career made her the face of opera for Americans — whether she was portraying queens and courtesans on stage, guest-hosting the Tonight Show, or lifting opera companies out of debt. She did it all with a voice that rang out and a smile that bubbled.

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