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Music: Beverly Sills: The Fastest Voice Alive

20 minute read

IT was a crisis in the Brooklyn household of Morris Silverman. Ten-year-old Belle had announced that she wanted to become an opera star, “not an opera singer, but a star.” Papa was appalled. He had not objected to the piano and singing lessons for little Belle, or “Bubbles,” as the family called her. He had not even objected when she sang on the radio with Uncle Bob Emory’s Rainbow House, and later on the Major Bowes Capital Family Hour. After all, this was the era of Shirley Temple.

But a professional singer? That was too much. Papa, the son of a Rumanian Jewish immigrant, had worked his way up during the Depression to become a district assistant manager for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. Loving but stern, he was the kind of patriarch who had never even seen the inside of his wife’s kitchen. He had never seen the inside of the vocal world either, but he knew what he thought of it. He ruled: “Bubbles is going to college and become a teacher.” It was Mama, the one behind the lessons and the radio appearances, who stood fast. “The two boys will go to college and be smart,” she said. “This one is going to be an opera singer.”

A Late Bloomer

And so it came to pass. The two boys went to college, one to become an obstetrician on Long Island and the other the president of a publishing firm in Indianapolis. And Bubbles? Bubbles did indeed become an opera star, and a smart one at that. She became, in fact, one of the biggest opera stars the U.S. has ever produced. She sang leading roles at the world’s great opera houses, from La Scala to Covent Garden to San Francisco, commanded top fees of $10,000 for concert performances and made recordings that turned into classical bestsellers. She became a $300,000-a-year, one-woman industry and, at the same time, the finest singing actress since Maria Callas. And because she did so as a thoroughly home-grown talent, she revolutionized the U.S. opera scene. In short, she became Beverly Sills.

The transformation did not happen quickly. Beverly was 37 years old when she broke through to international prominence in a 1966 production of Handel’s Julius Caesar at the New York City Opera. She was 40 when she achieved La Scala. But, having bloomed late, she is at least blooming the way she does everything else—exuberantly. Her career surges ahead with ever growing momentum. Her itinerary looks like an airline route map, as she crisscrosses the globe to meet this year’s schedule of more than 100 operatic, concert and recital appearances. To friends who urge her to slow down, she shrugs: “I’m already 42; what am I saving it for?”

This month alone, she has already performed a trilogy of operatic queens at the New York City Opera that amply confirms her own regal gifts: Elizabeth I in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux (see cover), Shemakha in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or and Cleopatra in Julius Caesar. Starting this week she and the New York City Opera will recreate all three during a three-week guest stand in Los Angeles (planned for next spring is a new production by Beverly and the company of another Donizetti queen, Maria Stuarda). Early next month, she will give two performances of Lucia di Lammermoor in New Orleans, then fly to Israel for a month-long concert tour. After that, her appointment book lists dates as far ahead as 1975.

Has Beverly Sills left Bubbles Silverman behind? Far from it. What might be called the Bubbles dimension in Beverly Sills is the leaven that, added to her enormous talents, makes her the extraordinary personality and professional that she is. It keeps her the least pretentious of prima donnas—earthy, quick-witted, a little bit kooky. It gives her a natural, womanly radiance that suffuses any room or opera house she is in.

Moreover, it generates a zest and determination in the face of suffering, and she has known deep suffering. Her generous, open nature is also a vulnerable one; she has had to learn to steel it with stoicism. “People plan and God laughs,” she says. But she laughs too—a billowing, enfolding laugh that is all the more warming because it is born not of frivolity but of grit.

Beverly habitually arrives at rehearsals with her part fully memorized, her score shut and her mind open. “I can ask her to try anything onstage,” marvels Tito Capobianco, who has directed most of her successes at City Opera and whom Beverly regards as “her” director. She mugs, sings lying down, and once, in Buenos Aires, even danced the tango with six Argentine stagehands. All in the cause of easing tensions and clearing the way for creative work. “Beverly, was that an F and G in your part?” Conductor Aldo Ceccato once asked during a snarl-up in a recording session. “It could have been a K and L, the way I sang it,” she replied.

When she is not singing, she is talking. Speech, no less than song, pours out of her with the impetus of a natural force—gossip and insights, shopping lists and philosophy, sly jokes and probing questions. Once, her physician told her that she needed a tetanus shot. “What will happen if I don’t take it?” she asked. “You might not be able to talk for a few days,” he said. “Quick,” she cried, “give me the shot!”

Never one for warming up before performances (“I don’t want to leave the best part of me back in the dressing room”), Beverly has no fussy regimen for protecting her voice. The mere sight of her casually munching an apple between entrances would be enough to give most sopranos throat constriction for days. Stage fright is unknown to her; well-wishers, including many young people, throng her dressing room before as well as after a performance, and a relaxed Beverly makes small talk and long-distance phone calls right up until curtain time. “She has a completely unusual degree of security and professionalism,” says Conductor Erich Leinsdorf.

Where this really shows up is in her ability to cope when things go wrong onstage. Last month, while singing under the baton of City Opera Director Julius Rudel, she inadvertently skipped a few bars and hit a high A too soon. “I held up my hand, and she knew immediately what the problem was,” recalls Rudel. “So she held the note until I lowered my hand eight bars later. To make anything clear to her, a finger, an eyebrow, is enough.”

Even Beverly has her breaking point, however. Once, at a rehearsal in Manhattan, a conductor reprimanded her: “Don’t interrupt me when I’m speaking to somebody else.” Beverly said: “I’ll go you one better. I won’t sing when you’re conducting,” and stomped offstage. During the preparations for her La Scala appearance, she climaxed an argument with the wardrobe mistress by snatching a pair of scissors and snipping a costume into pieces. The onlooking cast and chorus burst into applause, an Italian tribute to a flare of real temperament.

Beverly is proud of her musicianship, partly because it is hard-earned. “I’m very good,” she says unselfconsciously. “When you do something for 30 years you get pretty proficient at it.” Those 30 years go all the way back to a now famous singing radio commercial: “Rinso White, Rinso Bright, happy little washday song.” That was Bubbles—or rather the young Beverly Sills, a stage name that was suggested by an agent for its theatrical ring. By now, Beverly knew where she was going; ahead of her was an apprenticeship given to few singers of any kind, much less to opera singers. Primped up in big bows and crisp pink dresses by Mama (who periodically brewed her own reddener for Bubbles’ auburn locks and brushed it in with a toothbrush), she set off to sing on the radio, at ladies’ luncheons and bar mitzvahs.

At 16, billed as “the youngest prima donna in captivity,” she joined the touring J.J. Shubert operetta company, starring in Gilbert and Sullivan the first season and in The Merry Widow and The Countess Maritza the second. More dubious engagements followed on the borscht circuit and at a private after-hours club in Manhattan, where she wheeled a piano around the room and performed light classics for tips that sometimes totaled $150 a night. In response to Papa’s pleas that she at least devote herself to grand opera, she signed with the Charles Wagner Opera Co., a provincial touring unit. Opera it was; grand it definitely was not. Beverly soon was riding up to 300 miles between dates in a rickety bus, acquiring stiff joints, bags under the eyes—and a pot of poker winnings. “I once sang 63 consecutive Micaelas in one-night stands of Carmen,” she recalls. “I will never sing Micaela again, for anyone, anywhere.”

Success Without the Met

Finally, in 1953, at the age of 24, she made her big-time debut with the San Francisco Opera, singing the secondary female role in Boito’s Mefistofele. By that time Papa had died, but Mama was there, having flown out and taken a hotel room with a kitchenette so that she could cook Beverly’s dinner before each performance. Two years later, after seven unsuccessful auditions, Beverly finally joined the New York City Opera, beginning the stint as a highly regarded utility singer that eventually led to her emergence in 1966. Conspicuously missing from the Sills dossier, then as now, was the name of the Metropolitan Opera. “I happened in a different way from Caruso, or Price, or any of the others,” says Beverly. “I made it without the Met. I am a revolutionary.”

The revolution she started has shifted the balance of U.S. operatic power somewhat away from the Met toward the smaller companies that shared in her development. It has also paved the way for future young American singers to build a career on native grounds without resorting to the borrowed prestige of Europe or the Met. Norman Treigle, the superb bass baritone who rose with Beverly in the New York City Opera, says, “Both of us were busting our cans in the beginning. We made a sort of pact that we were going to show what the American singer could do.”

What Beverly has shown since 1966 is that an American singer can take up where Maria Callas left off. Callas, now virtually retired, had a soaring, flexible voice that projected a matchless dramatic intensity. In the 1950s, among other roles, she almost singlehanded revived the ornate bel canto repertory of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini. (Bel canto, literally “beautiful singing,” more properly applies to the whole vocal art of making the fiendishly difficult sound easy.) It is this repertory that Beverly and her chief coloratura rival, Joan Sutherland (see box, page 81), have since then mastered. Beverly comes by the bel canto tradition not only through her admiration for Callas, but through years of study with the late Estelle Liebling. Miss Liebling was, professionally speaking, a direct descendant of the 19th century’s Mathilde Marchesi, the influential voice teacher of such fabled bel canto sopranos as Nellie Melba and Emma Eames.

The Sills voice is a rich, supple flute: it is precise, a little light, and floats with ease in the stratosphere above high C. More than anything, it is agile. “The unique thing about Beverly’s voice is that she can move it faster than anybody else alive,” says Conductor Thomas Schippers. Soprano Leontyne Price is “flabbergasted at how many millions of things she can do with a written scale.”

Desperate Need for an Audience

Beverly does not have the powerful top notes for roles like Tosca or Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, and particularly not for Wagnerian roles like Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung. But she is ideally suited to bel canto, and to the French lyric romanticism of Gounod and Massenet. In these areas she is unbeatable, and even among the diverse other sopranos in this age of great sopranos—Birgit Nilsson, Sutherland, Price, Marilyn Horne, Monserrat Caballé—she more than holds her own.

There is more to an opera performance than voice, of course. Beverly rightly describes herself as a singing actress, with equal stress on each word. That is why her live performances will always be more exciting than her recordings, successful as those recordings may be (the recent four-LP set of Massenet’s Manon has sold 25,000 copies in a market where sales of 10,000 for a single LP are considered substantial). “I’m a visual performer,” she says. “I have to act, use facial expressions, get mood changes across. It’s hard to share any of this with a microphone. I need an audience desperately.”

While preparing a performance of Bellini’s Norma for Sarah Caldwell’s Boston Opera last spring, Beverly worked especially hard on ways to indicate that Norma suffers from epileptic seizures. When she made her entrance in rehearsal, reports Miss Caldwell, “she did such a convincing job that several stagehands rushed out to help her up, thinking she was ill.”

Acting as compelling as that comes partly from shrewd instinct, partly from careful planning. Beverly, whose IQ is 155, reads voluminously into the backgrounds of her roles and thinks them through imaginatively. Behind her pigeon-toed bumpkin in the first act of Manon, for example, lies this Sills analysis: “She was born with a good bosom and a shock of unusual-colored hair, whatever the color. She probably has gone barefoot all week except Sundays. Mama has probably caught her in the hayloft with one of the farm hands and decided that this kid is too much for her to handle. So she sends her to the convent.”

Dual Tragedy

Beverly is also quick to sense which roles are unsuitable for her. Of the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, she says: “I threw out that broad very quickly. I realized she wasn’t for me when I found I could address 250 Christmas cards in my dressing room between her first act aria and her second act aria.”

For Roberto Devereux, Beverly’s researches convinced her that at the time of the opera’s action, Elizabeth I would have been a much older woman than is usually portrayed. Appearing at rehearsal one day made up as a 60-year-old, Beverly persuaded the company that she was right—including Director Capobianco. Onstage, that makeup lends a harsh poignance to the climactic moment when Elizabeth, her voice dry and pinched, sentences her recalcitrant lover Essex to death.

Beverly’s acting did not always have such bite, such depth. Where did it come from? Age and experience can account for some of it, but not all. To explain it, many of her friends go back to a story that began in Cleveland in 1955. Beverly was making her first tour with the New York City Opera. She met Peter B. Greenough, a tall, burly Boston Brahmin who was financial editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a paper partly owned by his family. Peter could do nothing right, or so it seemed. First he winked at her. “My God,” thought Beverly, “that’s not a very novel approach.” Next he sent her a mash note on the inside of a matchbook cover. Then, dining her in his 25-room house on Lake Erie, he lit a fire but forgot to open the chimney flue; the smoke routed them both, coughing and wheezing. “Mama,” reported Beverly when she got home, “I think I’ve met a man I finally can marry.”

There were complications: Peter was still in the process of divorcing his first wife, by whom he had had three daughters, one mentally retarded. “Also,” said Beverly, saving the worst for last, “he’s not Jewish.” Mama wept and cried out: “Why does everything have to happen to you?” But soon Peter, who is descended from John Alden on both sides of his family, was plying Mama with books, flowers and Yiddishisms—”A toast to MGM, meine ganze Mishpocheh [all my family].” In 1956 the couple were married in Estelle Liebling’s living room, standing on the same spot on the rug where Bubbles had stood for so many vocal lessons.

Their daughter Meredith (“Muffy”) was born three years later, and Beverly eagerly curtailed her operatic schedule to spend more time at home. Within a year, she and Peter began to suspect what was confirmed just before Muffy’s second birthday: the child was almost totally deaf. In a piece of Sophoclean irony, Muffy would never hear the sound of her mother’s singing.

At almost the same time, Peter and Beverly had a son, Peter Jr. (“Bucky”), who they learned was mentally retarded. Beverly took off a full year from performing to work with Muffy in a school for the deaf and try to come to terms with her dual tragedy. “The first question you ask,” she says, “is a self-pitying ‘Why me?’ Then it changes to a much bigger ‘Why them?’ It makes a whole difference in your attitude.”

The Joy of Performance

From New York, Julius Rudel tried to coax Beverly back to work with chatty “Dear Bubbela” letters. Finally he wrote more formally, pointing out that she still had a contract. “I told her to go back,” says Peter. “I said it would be good therapy.” Reluctantly, Beverly complied. Muffy was making progress anyway, learning to lip-read and talk. Bucky, however, was a hopeless case. When he was six, Beverly made the excruciating decision to put him in the same institution in Massachusetts where Peter’s retarded daughter was already lodged. On the same day, she sang all three heroines in Puccini’s trio of one-act operas, Il Trittico, at the City Opera. Says Director Frank Corsaro: “It was the only hysterical performance I have ever seen her give.” Since then, says Rudel, “she has matured so greatly. While basically she has not changed, she has become much more profound. And yet, you always feel the joy of the performance.”

The joy is always there with Beverly, whether of the performance or of some ordinary daily activity. “Hang-ups don’t exist for my sister,” says Brother Stanley, the publisher. “If there is a hangup, she’ll solve it. That’s the key to her. Today Beverly and Peter, who long ago gave up journalism to help with her career, have virtually resumed the normal, amiable chaos of their early life together. They have a nine-room apartment overlooking Manhattan’s Central Park (“Isaac Stern always says he lives on top of Beverly Sills, because he’s on a floor above us”). There they entertain (Peter is a graduate of the Cordon Bleu cooking school), play bridge (Peter is a tournament champion) or just relax (Beverly can do a crossword puzzle in 20 minutes, in ink).

If their relationship has been strained by the something that, in Beverly’s words, “is basically troubled between us genetically,” they do not show it. They still have their private jokes and rituals, such as when Peter kisses Beverly’s cheek before she goes onstage and they both whisper their favorite good-luck word: “Merde.” Beverly has learned to live with the occasional insinuations that Peter’s wealth has floated her career. Once a music publication reported that Peter had bought Westminster Records so that Beverly could record anything she wanted. “I wrote a letter to the editor,” she says, “and said it wasn’t Westminster Records he bought, it was Westminster Abbey.”

Sometimes, says Beverly, “you try to be all things to all people. Well, a great tragedy in your life makes you decide it’s not so necessary to please everybody. Now I can afford to be selfish.” An example of what she means by selfishness is deliberately raising her fees so high that, in some cases, engagements will fall through, leaving her free to be with her family.

Work to Be Done

At home, she and Peter try to bolster Muffy’s self-confidence by sending her on errands to buy hard-to-pronounce items like toasted-almond ice cream. Beverly once arranged for Muffy to be in a procession of candle bearers during the death scene in Lucia. As Beverly lay “dead” in the scene, she found that her view was blocked by Raimondo, the chaplain. She stage-whispered: “Raimondo! Move your ass! I can’t see Muffy!”

There are still moments of piercing sadness. Such as when one of Beverly’s recordings is on the phonograph, and Muffy puts her fingertips to the speaker to “feel” the sound. Or when Beverly grows uncharacteristically abstracted, her voice trailing off, the brightness fading from her face. Then, as those around her know, she is probably thinking ahead to one of the monthly visits she and Peter make to Bucky (whenever she travels she wears two ring watches, one set to local time, the other to eastern time, so that she can think what Bucky is doing at any given hour). But such moments are over quickly, because Beverly shakes them off firmly: there is work to be done.

Loyalty to Past and Future

Work indeed is something of an escape from those moments, and this may be one reason why Beverly drives herself so unremittingly in her career. For her, performing is not only a fulfillment of her aspirations to artistic excellence, not only an outlet for her avidly competitive desire to come out on top, but also a balm. Tito Capobianco has always been struck by the way she actually seems to yearn for the stage. Mama knows why. “When Beverly gets onstage,” she says, “all her worries are behind her.”

Göran Gentele, who will succeed Rudolf Bing next year as general manager of the Met, recently took Beverly to lunch to discuss the possibility of her singing with the Met in the seasons ahead. It must be a tempting offer for someone who may not have all that many years of singing left. But, says Beverly, “I’ll be delighted to be a guest at the Metropolitan, but just that, just a guest.”

She is fiercely loyal to the New York City Opera, as she is to all the people who gave her support when she needed it. Two years ago, Beverly was approached with flattering offers by a top-ranking New York manager—the same manager who, a decade earlier, had kept her cooling her heels in his outer office for 2½ hours before telling her he could not use her. Now Beverly cut him off with one clean stroke. “I’m not interested in working with anybody.” she said, “who keeps a singer waiting 2½ hours.”

Loyalty is a cardinal virtue with Beverly. Nowhere does she show it more strongly than with her family, particularly with Mama. When she made her debut at La Scala, long a dream of hers and Mama’s, she wrote a postcard home that said: “We made it, Mom. You and I.” There, in seven words, is the whole story of their remarkable bond.

All of Beverly’s recent experience—her return to work, her resumption of life—amounts to amounts to a kind of loyalty not only to her future but also to her past. She disavows nothing and rejects nothing, despite the pain it may have brought. That, after all, is Beverly’s way of keeping faith with Bubbles. “You know, there’s a big difference between being a happy woman and a cheerful woman,” she explains. “A happy woman doesn’t have any cares at all. A cheerful woman might have loads of cares, but she goes on in spite of it all. Happy I’ll never be, but I’m as cheerful as I can be.”

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