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Carol Burnett Remembers Friend Beverly Sills

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Carol Burnett Remembers Friend Beverly Sills

Carol Burnett Remembers Friend Beverly Sills

Carol Burnett Remembers Friend Beverly Sills

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Beverly Sills, the most popular American opera singer of recent decades, has died. Entertainer Carol Burnett shares her memories of her professional relationship and friendship with Sills.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The death of Beverly Sills robbed this country of the most popular American opera singer of recent decades and also of one of the most gifted arts administrators we've known. Many people also lost a personal friend, and one of those people is actress and comedienne Carol Burnett. She and Sills were friends and they also performed together.

(Soundbite of a musical)

Ms. BEVERLY SILLS (Opera Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. CAROL BURNETT (Actress; Comedienne): Good-bye.

Ms. SILLS: (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. BURNETT: To our little table.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. SILLS: (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. BURNETT: Good-bye.

Ms. SILLS: (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. BURNETT: To the past.

Ms. SILLS: (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. BURNETT: (Singing) All alone. I'm so all alone.

Ms. SILLS: (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. BURNETT and Ms. SILLS: (Singing in foreign language)

SIEGEL: Carol Burnett, Beverly Sills was someone you performed with, also a very good friend of yours, I guess.

Ms. BURNETT: Yes.

SIEGEL: Tell us about her.

Ms. BURNETT: Well, it's very seldom that you have something like this with somebody. You don't get a lot of those kinds of friends in life. Bubbles and I talked to each other quite often. And no matter what she was going through, she was always cheerful.

SIEGEL: Now, I should say here that when - for example, when I interviewed Beverly Sills as I would ask her whether it was miss, miss, Ms. Sills? Oh, just call me Bubbles, was the answer. That was always the response to what she wanted to be called.

Ms. BURNETT: Well that was her personality.

SIEGEL: Bubbles.

Ms. BURNETT: Bubbles.

SIEGEL: Now, one of the things one hears in that very funny duet that we heard a bit of, is both the difference between you and Beverly Sills and how you sang and what you sang, but also the similarity that you're both singing for people to make them listen, to make them happy.

Ms. BURNETT: Yes. I think that was probably one of my favorite specials of all the specials I've done. We laughed. I tell you, we laughed for two weeks. And the opening was quite remarkable. It was called "We're Only an Octave Apart."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BURNETT: And it was brilliant because I started out about, you know, our voices aren't that different. There were only eight notes on the musical line. You know, what's the difference between your voice and mine? And I'm singing this and then she comes out an octave higher, of course, with that gorgeous voice. And I just stared at her.

And the audience just settled down, you know. And then we - tapped danced at the end of it. Bubbles have taken tap when she was a kid and I'd never tapped dance so we both kind of had to learn, relearn. And it was a fun time. We tapped dance with 20 boy dancers. And when it was over, we both cried. We wanted to do it all over again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BURNETT: We had such a good time.

SIEGEL: This was a quite an emotional roller coaster, this special, of laughing and crying quite at the same time.

Ms. BURNETT: Yeah but good - the good kind.

SIEGEL: How did she describe her own role as a, well, one the great figures of American high culture, you know, the great soprano of her day, who was obviously known beyond the opera house? Did she see herself as an emissary of opera to a broader popular culture, for example?

Ms. BURNETT: If she did, it would be to spread the good word, not to the effect of, say, standing up there and saying, look at me and how important I am. She would never do that. She would help people, as I say, to spread the good word about opera and to make it so that everybody would want to go see it and not be afraid of it.

I guess people would say she was a diva. But what is the definition of diva? You know, sometimes it has a bad connotation. Oh, she's a diva, you know? I would not say she was diva in that sense of the word. What is the definition of diva, Robert? Do you know?

SIEGEL: I'm trying to think right now. Diva. Is it from some kind of goddess thing? Is that where diva comes from? I don't know.

Ms. BURNETT: Well, if that's the case, she was down-to-earth goddess.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Well, first, on the lost of your friend, our condolences.

Ms. BURNETT: Thank you. I - this is a big one for me.

SIEGEL: Well, thank you very much for talking with us about Beverly Sills.

Ms. BURNETT: Thank you. And say a prayer, okay?

SIEGEL: Okay. It's Carol Burnett speaking to us from Santa Barbara, California, about her friend, the late Beverly Sills.

Our remembrance of Beverly Sills continues at npr.org where you can video of the opera star and listen to some of her performances.

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Soprano Beverly Sills: A Silvery Voice, Silenced at 78

Soprano Beverly Sills: A Silvery Voice, Silenced at 78

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

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Sills Sings

"Willow, where we met together" from 'The Ballad of Baby Doe'

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"Regnava nel silenzio … Quando rapito in estasi" from Donizetti's 'Lucia di Lammermoor'

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"Se pieta di me mon senti," from Handel's 'Julius Caesar'

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

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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.

Carol Burnett on 'All Things Considered'

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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.