As opera’s premier coloratura soprano, Beverly Sills became an international celebrity in the 1970s. Born Belle Miriam Silverman on May 25, 1929, she grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Her father hoped she would become a teacher, but her mother had different plans for Bubbles, Belle’s childhood nickname. When she was three, her mother entered her in a talent contest, in which Bubbles won the title “most beautiful baby in Brooklyn” for 1932. At six, she was regularly performing on New York radio. At the suggestion of the family friend, her mother gave Bubbles the stage name Beverly Sills. In her radio performances, Beverly often sang popular songs. Her own tastes, however, ran to opera. Listening to her parents’ small collection of opera records, she began memorizing Italian arias when she was only seven. Her mother soon had Beverly studying with Estelle Liebling, one of New York’s most well-regarded opera teachers. At 12, Beverly decided to retire from radio to devote herself completely to her opera studies. By the time she graduated from New York’s Professional Children’s School, Beverly Sills had mastered some 60 operas. In 1945, she joined a touring company that specialized in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas but found the constant traveling grueling. Two years later, she returned to New York, hoping to carve out a career in grand opera.
In 1947, Sills sang her first operatic role, appearing as Frasquita in Carmen with the Philadelphia Opera Company. For several years, she played nightclubs and toured with several small opera companies before landing an audition with the New York City Opera. In 1955 she made her debut with the company in Die Fledermaus to unanimous acclaim. Sills also made her name in modern American operas. She received some of her best notices in Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe (1958). Sills later maintained, “[M]y vintage years . . . began with Baby Doe.”
Sills married newspaper editor Peter Greenough in 1956. The couple had two children, both of whom suffered from medical problems. Their daughter, Muffy, was progressively hard of hearing, and their son, Peter, was autistic. In the early 1960s, Sills left the public arena to care for her children. With Greenough’s encouragement, however, she soon returned to opera, having her greatest triumph to date as Cleopatra in the New York City Opera’s 1966 production of Julius Caesar. The role brought Sills to the top ranks of American opera stars.Among opera aficionados, Sills was hailed for her natural acting ability. She was also blessed with an excellent memory that allowed her to develop an astouding repertoire. At her height, she had mastered more than 100 roles. Also unusual for an American opera singer, Sills was well-established before making her European debut. Starting in 1967, she began appearing at major opera houses abroad, extending her reputation around the world. Sills, however, did not make her formal debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera until 1975. Her performance was greeted with an 18-minute ovation. By this time, she was also well-known through her frequent appearances on public television arts programs. She won an Emmy in 1975 for hosting Profiles in Music.
Amidst complaints that her voice was deteriorating, Sills gave her final performance on October 17, 1980, in La Loca.With no regrets, she gave up $8 million worth of performing contracts to retire at the top of her game. The day after she left the stage for good, she started a new career as the director of the New York City Opera. At the time, the company was more than $5 million in debt and on the verge of financial collapse. Sills immediately proved herself an able administrator and skilled public relations expert. Using her celebrity, she found corporate sponsors to rescue the company from its financial crisis. She also shook up its repertoire, adding new works and reinterpretations of classics to make the company more exciting to avid operagoers. Sills also pioneered the use of projected “supertitles” to help make foreign-language operas more accessible to opera newcomers.
In 1989 Sills retired from the New York City Opera directorship. However, she continued to ork actively with the March of Dimes and the Multiple Sclerosis Society, charities with which she had long been associated. Sills also served on the corporate boards of Warner Communications, Macy’s, and American Express. Sills returned to work in 1994 as the chairman of New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. The first performing artist to serve on its board, she threw herself into fund-raising and promotion, most visibly as the host of Live from Lincoln Center. In a 2000 interview, the opera great explained her love of working behind the scenes: “Unlike a great many famous singers, the stage wasn’t my only life. Perhaps that is why when I left it, I had just as much enthusiasm for doing other things.”
Sills, Beverly, and Lawrence Linderman. Beverly: An Autobiography. New York: Bantam Books, 1987.
Winokur, L. A. “Catching Up With Beverly Sills.” Wall Street Journal, November 6, 2000, p. 5.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
The Ballad of Baby Doe. Deutsche Grammophon, CD set, 1999.
Beverly Sills in Gaetano Donizetti’s ‘The Daughter of the Regiment ’ (1974). Video Artist International, VHS, 1992.
Beverly Sills in Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’ (1976). Video Artists International, VHS, 1992.
The Three Queens. Deutsche Grammophon, CD set, 2000.