Queen of Hearts

Classic Arts Features   Queen of Hearts
The soprano playing Marie in Houston Grand Opera's current Daughter of the Regiment pays tribute to one of her great predecessors in the role, the late Beverly Sills.

The baby girl born in 1929 with a bubble in her mouth is now gone. Belle Miriam Silverman, known as "Bubbles" to her family and Beverly Sills to opera fans the world over, passed away from lung cancer on July 2 this year.

How to commemorate a woman who was so much more than her career! Her life spoke to me and many others in so many different ways. In her, I saw everything I cherish and strive to be, as an artist and a human being.

Growing up in the '70s in the United States, it was hard for me to miss Beverly Sills. Her vivacious personality, her sense of humor, her frankness and her ability to deflate the myth of the overblown opera singer made her a regular guest on television talk shows and specials. She starred in eight operas on PBS, as well as memorable specials such as Sills and Burnett at the Met (with Carol Burnett), Profile in Music, which won an Emmy, and A Conversation with Beverly Sills. When asked by Dick Cavett what she thought of her colleagues' intelligence, she retorted with a giggle, "Let me explain it like this: if it's a summer engagement and you go down to the pool, all the baritones are reading the stock market pages and all the tenors are reading the comics." Never one to miss a beat, she once teased Johnny Carson, who was disparaging his own voice, reassuring him, "I think you have a nice voice … It's just not suitable for singing!" Her voice was matched only by her warm, unmistakable laugh.

Sills used her fame to further the many causes dear to her heart. Inspired by her own disabled children, she became National Chair of the March of Dimes' Mothers' March on Birth Defects. During her tenure, she helped raise over $80 million for the charity — and that was just one of many causes she supported.

She was adamant that the arts be available to everyone and placed a high value on ingenuity, gumption and frankness. As a singer and later as general director of New York City Opera, she championed American composers, new repertoire, and innovative approaches to direction. Ever practical, she was one of the first directors to use supertitles, saying, "Do I want to tell someone who has worked on Wall Street until 5:30 to study the libretto or take a course in German? Do I want people sitting in my audience with a libretto and flashlight?"

She made it a point of national pride to support young American artists. To this end, she made New York City Opera a showcase for young American talent during her tenure as general director. "I think the days of America's inferiority complex in the arts are over," said Sills. "You don't need a hard-to-pronounce name to succeed nowadays. It is much more difficult to raise funds for the arts now, but at least we're used to it in America — and initiative is something we can teach Europe. I'm a big believer in American know-how, and I also believe in the quality of American audiences. I don't think God kisses ears more passionately in Italy than he does in New York or Chicago."

The daughter of Romanian and Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, Sills started singing at age seven on Uncle Bob's Rainbow Hour and Major Bowes' Amateur Hour. Fifteen-minute lessons led to full-time studies with famed voice teacher Estelle Liebling, followed by a tour with the Liebling Singers. She later joined a national tour of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, sang and played in a private gentleman's club and toured with the Charles L. Wagner Opera Company. Eventually, Sills sang with regional opera companies and orchestras, culminating in her long-time relationship with New York City Opera.

She nearly retired at one point because of the challenges of raising two disabled children — her daughter was profoundly deaf and her son severely mentally retarded — but conductor Julius Rudel badgered her out of it. By the mid-1960s, critics, fans, and colleagues noted her new-found assurance and interpretive skills. Sills even admitted, "I had found a kind of serenity, a new maturity as a result of my children's problems. I didn't feel better or stronger than anyone else but it seemed no longer important whether everyone loved me or not — more important now was for me to love them. Feeling that way turns your whole life around: living becomes the act of giving."

In 1966, New York City Opera's Guilio Cesare catapulted her to international superstardom. She was on the cover of Time magazine a few years later. Discussing her sudden success after her Cleopatra, Sills declared, "If that was an overnight success, it was the longest night of my life!" She was to garner acclaim in numerous roles, but curtailed European engagements in order to take care of her children's needs.

Dubbed "Il Mostro," "La Fenomena," and "The Fastest Voice Alive," Sills was nevertheless a great singing actress, not content just to make a beautiful sound. "I'm a visual performer," she said. "I have to act, use facial expressions, get mood changes across." She took extra care to sing things that interested her dramatically, meticulously prepared them, chose her directors carefully and tried to challenge herself more each time she essayed a role.

It's difficult, with so many attributes, to admit that it was her voice I loved the most — silvery with an agility that boggles the mind, with high notes that spun, shimmered and hovered above you. Her voice had a touch of a cry in the sound that made me feel that she, too, was about to cry from the sheer beauty and emotion of the sound she gave us. Not bad for a self-professed "tough kid from Brooklyn." We will sorely miss Beverly Sills — the administrator, fundraiser, artist and human being — truly America's Queen of the Opera.

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