I believe that I only heard Beverly Sills sing live once, at the Metropolitan Opera about 1979 (or perhaps early 1980) in a new, beautiful production of Donizetti’s comic opera Don Pasquale. By that point in her career, her voice had faded, but she held the stage like no other. I still remember her first “entrance”, as she came into view rolling around on a stage turntable revealing her sitting on a wicker divan smoking a cigarette in a very long cigarette holder. There was an audible gasp of delight from the audience before the diva had even sung a note.
Beverly Sills was, as has been noted by the many tributes today, the embodiment of opera for American audiences. The New York Times obituary is typical. There is, of course, a whole generation of listeners too young to have heard her sing; they were born after she retired from singing in 1980. But they remember her as the plump lady with the bright red hair who appeared on countless TV cultural TV shows as the host. Even this past Spring she was still doing backstage interviews during the Met’s HD video broadcasts. There is no other opera singer of our era who comes close to the public popularity of Beverly Sills, other than perhaps Luciano Pavarotti. (Renee Fleming is giving it the old college try, but a lot of venues open to Sills–for example, the late night talk shows–are no longer options for the new generation.
Much has been made of Beverly Sills’s devotion to the New York City Opera, as her “home” company. After she retired from singing, she became the General Director of NYCO, before she moved on to be Chairwoman of Lincoln Center, and finally, Chairwoman of the Metropolitan Opera. All through her life she had a series of personal tragedies, including two seriously disabled children, who would have made another woman give up. She has stated that her work is what kept her going.
Of all of her roles, the one that will be in my mind as the ultimate “Beverly Sills role” was that of Baby Doe in Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe, so I was delighted to find this video clip of her singing the beautiful “Willow Song” in the prime of her career. The quality of the video itself is not that great, but you can get a glimpse of Beverly Sills’s artistry. That artistry and Beverly Sills’s indefatigable spirit were a blessing on the world.