Beverly Sills, a Fond Remembrance

On July 2, the most famous American opera singer of her time passed away, surrounded by her family. She brought immense pleasure to millions of opera lovers—and proved that singers who studied in the United States can reach the top ranks of the classical music industry, both at home and abroad.

Born Belle Miriam Silverman in Brooklyn in May 1929, she came from an artistic but rather unassuming background. Her father, an insurance salesman, was born in Odessa, now part of Ukraine. Her mother was a musician from Bucharest, Romania. Little Belle grew up in a fertile, multicultural atmosphere, where she heard and learned to speak Yiddish, Russian, Romanian, French, and English.

By the age of 7, she was appearing on New York City radio shows, and soon changed her professional name to Beverly Sills. She began to study voice with Estelle Liebling, with whom she would work for much of her singing career. Liebling, a pupil of Mathilde Marchesi and a proponent of the Garcia Method, gave Sills the basis for her technique. In the fall of 1939, 10-year-old Sills won the Major Bowes Amateur Hour’s weekly competition. She was rewarded with an appearance on another Bowes program, The Capitol Family Hour, which invited the articulate and talented youngster back for numerous appearances.

Still in her teens, Sills made her professional stage debut on a two-month tour with a Gilbert and Sullivan repertory company. She describes the rigors of the company’s one-night stands in her 1987 autobiography, Bubbles, A Self Portrait, but she also describes her burgeoning fondness for comedy, and her delight in performing the title role in Patience. For her opera debut, in 1947, Sills sang Frasquita in Georges Bizet’s Carmen with the Philadelphia Civic Grand Opera.

Four years later, Sills was touring again, this time as Violetta in Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata with the Charles Wagner Opera Company. The following year she sang Micaela in Carmen with the same touring group. She was working hard and not earning much money, but she was honing her craft and readying herself for opportunities to come. She did not make her debut in a major opera house until 1953. That year she sang Elena (Helen of Troy) in Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele and Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni at San Francisco Opera.

Sills had been auditioning for opera companies in New York during this time, but she was consistently rejected. On Oct. 29, 1955, however, she finally got a contract from New York City Opera and made her debut in that company’s production of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus.

The following year, Sills married Peter Greenough, a journalist at the Cleveland Plain Dealer whose family owned the paper. In 1960, Greenough and Sills moved to Boston, where he wrote first for the Boston Herald and later for the Boston Globe. The couple had two children: Meredith (Muffy), in 1959, and Peter Jr., in 1961. With small children at home, the soprano declined offers from abroad so that she could spend more time with them. As a result, she sang many roles with New York City Opera, and her first portrayal of Jules Massenet’s Manon was at Sarah Caldwell’s
Opera Company of Boston.

In 1966, Sills portrayed Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare at New York City Opera and received rave reviews that echoed throughout the opera world. During that summer, she gave her first performances with the Metropolitan Opera. She sang Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, not in the house, but in the parks. She received some future offers from the Met, but they were not to her liking and she did not appear with the company
again until 1975.

After Giulio Cesare, Sills did not need the Met to establish her fame. She was already famous and New York opera audiences came to see her sold-out performances at New York City Opera. There, between 1969 and 1972,
she sang Gaetano Donizetti’s three British queens: Elizabeth I in Roberto Devereux, and the title roles of Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena. Her magnificent portrayals have been recorded for posterity and are still available. You can even see some excerpts on YouTube. She also repeated her portrayal of Manon, sang Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and interpreted all three leading female roles in Jacques Offenbach’s Les Contes D’Hoffmann, all with NYCO.

Sills made her debut at La Scala singing Pamira in Gioacchino Rossini’s L’Assedio di Corinto on April 11, 1969, and her ecstatic reception in Italy was heard around the globe. As a result, her picture graced the cover of Newsweek shortly thereafter. The Americanborn—and, more importantly, Americantrained-opera singer had conquered the musical world.

When Sills returned home, many different opportunities presented themselves, among them a guest appearance on Virginia Graham’s television show, Girl Talk. Other TV show producers soon found that Sills was an interesting, quick-witted guest who could do comedy even when she was not singing. Her appearances with Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, Mike Douglas, Dinah Shore, and Carol Burnett helped popularize opera across the country. Her face became familiar, not only to operagoers, but also to television viewers in cities with little or no live opera. During this time she also concertized extensively, performing with major orchestras and singing recitals in many college towns.

In 1980, Beverly Sills officially retired from the opera stage, but like many older singers, she merely switched to working in another aspect of her art. When she was feted with a gala farewell at the New York City Opera on Oct. 27, she was already preparing to take over as general manager of that company. Sills headed NYCO for nine years, pulling the company out of a deficit and leaving it with a surplus. She remained a member of its board of directors until 1991, when she joined the Metropolitan Opera Board. Three years later, she became chair of Lincoln Center, a position she retained until 2002.

Sills was chair of the Metropolitan Opera until 2005, when she resigned so she could spend more time caring for her seriously ill husband. Peter Greenough died in September of 2006, shortly before the couple was to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. A cancer survivor since 1974, Sills was hospitalized in late June of 2007 with a virulent strain of lung cancer. She passed away on July 2 after a long and immensely productive life.

American singers and all women in the arts have much for which to thank Beverly Sills. In leading the way, she blazed a wide and glorious path for others to follow.

Maria Nockin

Born in New York City to a British mother and a German father, Maria Nockin studied piano, violin, and voice. She worked at the Metropolitan Opera Guild while studying for her BM and MM degrees at Fordham University. She now lives in southern Arizona where she paints desert landscapes, translates from German for musical groups, and writes on classical singing for various publications.