Born Belle Miriam Silverman in 1929 in Brooklyn to immigrant parents she acquired the nickname “Bubbles” as a child. Its shadow stayed with her as a friendly reminder of her early days. She started singing when she was three and began vocal lessons at seven. She adopted her professional name Beverly Sills at nine. She won the week’s competition of Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour at 10 and became a regular on the show thereafter. In 1945 she made her professional debut in a Gilbert and Sullivan touring company.
Sills made her operatic stage debut as Frasquita in Bizet’s Carmen with the Philadelphia Civic Grand Opera Company in 1951. Numerous operatic engagements across the country followed. She even appeared as Aida, a role way outside her vocal type, in Salt Lake City. She first appeared with the New York City Opera, the company with which she was most strongly identified, in 1955. It was with this company that she became world renowned for the beauty and extraordinary technical skill of her singing. She even appeared on the cover of Time in 1971.
For some really bad reason, she was not engaged by the Metropolitan Opera until 1975 – three years after Rudolph Bing retired as its General Manager. Her debut role at the Met was in Rossini’s The Seige of Corinth an adaptation of his earlier opera Maometto II. She scored a huge triumph and appeared in La Traviata, Lucia di Lammermoor, Thaïs, and Don Pasquale with the Met. She continued to sing at the New York City Opera, her home base, until her early retirement in 1980.
After her singing career was over she became General Director of the New York City Opera until 1989. From 1994 to 2002, Sills was chairman of Lincoln Center. From October 2002 to January 2005, she served as chairman of the Metropolitan Opera.
Sills was the victim of a bad throw of the genetic dice. She had two children. Her daughter Muffy (died July 3, 2016) was profoundly deaf and had multiple sclerosis. Her son Peter, Jr. is severely mentally disabled. Sills restricted her performance schedule to care for her children. After caring for her chronically ill husband for eight years, she had to place him in a nursing home. Sills died in 2007 from lung cancer.
Sills vocal type is best described as a lyric coloratura. She took on heavier roles as her career progressed such as Norma and Donizetti’s Three Queens operas. What made her a great singer was the combination of beauty of tone, great vocal range and agility, and an ability to convey with sensitivity and expression the emotional content of the music she sang. The excerpts below will show why she was so widely admired and display the artistry that suffused her work.
O luce di quest’anima from Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix features her highly developed skill with ornamented music over an extended range. The aria is regularly done as a recital piece though the opera is infrequently performed. Another Donizetti aria is Quel sangue versato al ciel from Act 3 of Roberto Devereux. This is a much heavier role than those that comprised the bulk of Sill’s repertory. The emotional content of the music depicting Queen Elizabeth’s anguish over the death of her lover is one of Donizetti’s most affecting creations.
Another bel canto role was Elvira in Bellini’s last opera I Puritani. Son vergin vezzosa is an ensemble from the first act. The other singers are Heather Begg, Nicolai Gedda, Paul Plishka, and Richard van Allan. The florid style characterized by runs, trills, and high notes plays to Sills’s vocal strengths.
Sills had both the agility and pathos for Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata. The role was at the center of her repertoire. Here’s the finale of Act 1 starting with E strano. This is about as well as it’s possible to sing this music. A bravura performancee.
Meyerbeer’s Robert Le Diable was a sensation at its Paris Opera premiere in 1831. Chopin and Berlioz among a host of others thought it a masterpiece. Frequently performed in the 19th century, it faded from view in the 20th. Recently it has shown signs of a resurgence – we’ll see. Robert confesses to Isabelle that he is using witchcraft, but begs her not to reject him. She expresses her love for him and implores him to repent (Robert, toi que j’aime). It’s from Act 4. Sill’s singing though confronted with a different style from the contemporary Italian opera presented above is idiomatic and affecting.
A French opera that was a regular part of Sill’s performance schedule was the title role in Massenet’s Manon. N’est-ce plus ma main is the Act 3 erotic duet during which Manon seduces Des Grieux into leaving his religious order to return to her embrace. She’s joined by Nicolai Gedda in this recording.
Depuis le Jour is the only fragment of Gustave Charpentier’s opera Louise that still enjoys regular performance. Sill sang the opera numerous times with the New York City Opera. Her voice here has a richer sound than is heard in her bel canto performances. Her phrasing and articulation of the familiar tune are exemplary.
Sill’s scored a great success in the title role of Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe. Always through the changing is from Act 2. The aria takes place 30 years after the main story and concludes the opera. Interestingly, Sill’s English pronunciation is a little harder to distinguish than her singing in Italian, French, or German.
Rudolf Sieczyński’s song Wien, Wien, nur du allein is the only composition of his that has persisted. The nostalgic tribute to Vienna was written in 1914. Everyone sings it. Sieczyński wrote both the lyrics and music.
Erich Korngold’s opera Die Tote Stadt is receiving more attention today than it did in the 75 years after its initial success. The opera was first performed in 1920. Glück, das mir verblieb is a soprano-tenor duet in the first act and returns to end the opera when it’s sung by the tenor alone. Korngold’s great tune is sung at the slowest tempo I’ve ever heard it done.
Sill’s singing is at such a high level of artistry that she ranks with only a handful of America’s greatest opera singers such as Richard Tucker, Leonard Warren, Rosa, Ponselle, and Leontyne Price. A wonderful artist.