The Beverly Sills Phenomenon (I)

If you grew up loving opera in the United States in the 1970s, your American diva of the period was – without question – soprano Beverly Sills. You read her “self portrait” Bubbles, you collected her recordings, you watched her on television, and you heard her sing live. She performed extensively in the American hinterlands, so you didn’t have to live in New York to see her onstage.

Sills was a late 1970s phenomenon, and the most phenomenal thing about her was that Americans who’d never set foot in an opera house – and who didn’t plan ever to set foot in an opera house – knew about her. Abetted by a brilliant press agent, Edgar Vincent, Sills made herself into a household name. So household that some of her recordings could be ordered from the Columbia Record Club that advertised with an insert in the middle of every issue of the TV Guide that was ubiquitous on 1970s American coffee tables. The story of Sills’ handicapped children, her work for the March of Dimes, her bright red hair and her exclusion from the Metropolitan Opera were well known to seemingly the entire American public. She had pushed herself into a spotlight that hadn’t existed before her: Sills was “America’s Queen of Opera”.

Sills was a specifically American phenomenon because her career was squarely founded upon American core values. She was, first of all, completely American. Born and bred in Brooklyn. She had an American teacher in Estelle Liebling. Her path to fame ran through the American provinces. Even as a famous diva, Sills toured the country indefatigably: over the course of her career, she performed in 37 states as well as the District of Columbia.

She made it big without the dandified Metropolitan Opera and its bias towards European singers. Her home base was the New York City Opera, the very mission of which was to provide New York with a people’s opera with a strongly American slant, precisely in contradistinction to the international and expensive Met. Sills was a hard-working underdog who struck it big only after a long period of obscurity and hard work. We Americans have always liked improbable success stories. She was never glamourous (she never learned to dress), and remained throughout a smiling woman of the people. When she appeared on talk shows (as she often did), she was downright folksy. Compare that to the highfalutin’ intolerably pretentious persona another American, Maria Callas, projected when she was being interviewed. Sills was the opposite of the American divas who’d pretend they didn’t know the English word for something.

Furthermore, Sills embodied that most American of virtues: individualism. She spurned European influences (never mind that opera is a European invention.) Her approaches to her roles dismissed tradition. She collaborated with Roland Gagnon, a coach who himself was very much an American individualist, and developed a style that was uniquely American.

In a way, Sills embodied a Wild West approach to opera. She made her own laws. Imagining her as a coloratura gunslinger isn’t all that difficult: in effect, she did shoot her way to the top. It’s easy to imagine her drawing on a conductor who objected to one of Gagnon’s weirder cadenzas. Although even Sills herself would have admitted that the role was unsuited to her vocally, on the level of temperament, Minnie in La Fanciulla del West would have been a perfect fit for her.

Although her countless opera, concert and recital appearances throughout the country played a large role in popularizing her as America’s greatest home-grown diva, Sills had an even better tool for self-promotion at her disposal: television. Live televised opera was in its infancy in the late 1970s, and no singer was televised more than Sills. Over a span of six years, PBS audiences got to see her in Manon, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, The Turk in Italy, The Daughter of the Regiment, La Traviata, Roberto Devereux, The Merry Widow and Don Pasquale. Her gala farewell from the stage of the New York State Theater was also telecast; it constituted something of a national event.

Compare those nine telecasts to the single live opera PBS televised during the period with Joan Sutherland: Don Giovanni during the second season of Live from the Met.

Sills’ television campaign ran beyond operatic fare. She did a turn on The Muppet Show, was a frequent guest on the talk show circuit (she even hosted the Tonight Show on two of Johnny Carson’s many evenings off) and for two seasons hosted her own series of Sunday morning interview programs, Lifestyles with Beverly Sills. Sills was practically inescapable. No wonder everyone had heard of her.

The Sills career divides itself into five segments: her precocious childhood years, the galley years (1951 through 1966), the brief artistic prime (1966 through 1970 and possibly into 1971), the years of superstardom (1972 through 1977) and what amounted to a four-year farewell tour (1977 through her retirement in 1980.)

Sills began singing as a child, and was still a child when she began her studies with Estelle Liebling, a pupil of the fabled 19th century teacher Mathilde Marchesi. Her many years of work with Liebling equipped Sills with a formidable and rock-solid vocal technique. The registers were rigorously and properly blended. The upper range extended to the F over high C. Her breath control was remarkable, her legato flawless, and her ethereal pianissimi were worthy of the epithet. She had a trill that a bird would envy and a facility in coloratura that can justifiably be described as spectacular.

The career was slow in starting, but, by 1955, she had at least made it as far as the New York City Opera, the company with which she would be most closely associated for the rest of her career. The City Opera wasn’t the Met, but it was New York. Sills made her debut as Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus, and spent the next 11 years as the operatic answer to a utility player. During that time she did score one major personal success: the title role of Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe. To get an idea of how perfectly Moore’s high-lying lyric lines suited her voice, consider this video in which (in the presence of the composer) she sings Baby Doe’s Willow Song. The pianissimo high D is about as ravishing as any sound emitted by the human throat has a right to be.

Baby Doe didn’t make her a star, however. That came with the City Opera’s move to its glitzy new Lincoln Center home, the New York State Theater. For the company’s official opening night in the new house on September 27, 1966, Sills assumed the role of Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare. Legends abound as to the lengths to which Sills had had to go to get the role away from Phyllis Curtin, but one can argue that the ends justified the means. Having given the performance of her life, at age 37 and after eleven years of singing opera regularly in New York, Sills became an overnight sensation.

Her career immediately skyrocketed. A good way to chart its path is to consider the succession of roles Sills sang with the City Opera up until her retirement in 1980. The same season as Cleopatra, she sang the Queen of the Night in a new production of The Magic Flute (that was supposed to have been her plum assignment for the inaugural State Theater season), along with Donna Anna, Konstanze in The Abduction from the Seraglio, and the three heroines in The Tales of Hoffmann, a specialty act of hers New York had first heard during NYCO’s last season at the City Center.

Although she kept Konstanze, the Queen of the Night (briefly) and (of course) Cleopatra in her repertoire, and (as a stunt) sang the three leads in Puccini’s Il Trittico on one evening in 1967, she would thereafter appear almost exclusively in new productions mounted especially for her, nearly always with Tito Capobianco as director and his wife Gigi Denda as his assistant. The Capobiancos, along with Gagnon as coach and Vincent as PR man, helped to create what today would be called the Sills brand. José Varona’s costumes helped coalesce the visual aspect of the brand. Sills brought her considerable gifts to the brand as well, but, without this team behind her, her success would not have been what it was.

The series of new productions at the City Opera was as follows (the names in parentheses are the productions’ directors, set designers and costume designers):

  • fall 1966: Giulio Cesare (Capobianco/Lee/Varona)
  • fall 1966: The Magic Flute (Montresor/Montresor/Montresor)
  • fall 1967: Le Coq d’Or (Capobianco/Lee/Varona)
  • spring 1968: Manon (Capobianco/Eck/Varona)
  • fall 1968: Faust (Corsaro/Lee/Varona)
  • fall 1969: Lucia di Lammermoor (Capobianco/Eck/Varona)
  • fall 1970: Roberto Devereux (Capobianco/Lee/Varona)
  • spring 1972: Maria Stuarda (Capobianco/Lee/Varona)
  • fall 1972: Les Contes d’Hoffmann (Capobianco/Lee/Varona)
  • fall 1973: Anna Bolena (Capobianco/Lee/Varona)
  • winter 1973/spring 1974: I Puritani (Capobianco/Toms/Toms)
  • fall 1975: The Daughter of the Regiment (Donnell/Montresor/Montresor)
  • spring 1976: Lucrezia Borgia (Capobianco/Bardon/Hall)
  • fall 1976: Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Caldwell/Pond & Senn/Skalicky)
  • spring 1978: The Merry Widow (Capobianco/Toms/Toms)
  • fall 1978: The Turk in Italy (Capobianco/Conklin/Conklin)
  • fall 1979: La Loca (Capobianco/Vanarelli/Vanarelli)

Note the absence of a new production in 1977, when, instead, Sills stepped into revivals of two productions not originally made on her. She sang six performances of Louise and five of Adele in Die Fledermaus. I may be reconstructing events incorrectly, but I believe that these performances were fairly late-in-the-game replacements for a planned production of Bellini’s Il Pirata. Singing the role of Imogene would have been impossible given Sills’ vocal circumstances in 1977, whence the choice of two far, far less vocally challenging roles. The 1978 production of The Turk in Italy – an ensemble opera that made fewer demands on what was left of Sills’ voice – was the guise in which the aborted Pirata production finally made it onto the stage.

There was a further late 1970s project that failed to make it onstage. City Opera’s artistic director Julius Rudel’s memoirs record that Sills, no doubt in a valedictory mindset, was to have sung the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavailier with the company in 1978. The ridiculous idea was abandoned, and the planned Rosenkavalier was replaced by borrowing the San Diego Opera’s handsome Merry Widow. It was a very wise decision.

Although Sills sang Violetta at the City Center, it wasn’t one of her NYCO roles after the company’s move to Lincoln Center. In 1974, however, she did sing a single performance of Traviata, the opera being an emergency replacement for one of several performances of Medea that had to be cancelled when Maralin Niska went down for most of the season.

Sills often sang Violetta elsewhere during her years of superstardom, everywhere from Naples to Venice to the Met to San Francisco. Away from City Opera, she also sang Pamira in L’Assedio di Corinto (for her Met debut), Norina in Don Pasquale (the Met, Boston, Houston), Thaïs (San Francisco and the Met), a return to Rosalinde in Fledermaus as a farewell vehicle (Houston and Boston), and, lost in Boston, I Capuleti e i Montecchi and Rigoletto.

Many of these non-City Opera roles were the roles Sills sang at the Met. As she obviously couldn’t sing the same roles in two adjacent theaters with two very different price scales, other roles had to be found for Sills to sing for the more prestigious company. Rarely were they as interesting as what she was singing concurrently across the plaza.

The single most important turn the Sills career path took was the shift into the bel canto repertoire. She sang her first performance of Lucia di Lammermoor in Fort Worth in 1968 – and never looked back. One has to realize, however, that Sills had never sung a bel canto opera onstage prior to those Fort Worth Lucias. She didn’t attack the repertoire that made her famous until she was 39 and had been singing professionally for nearly two decades.

The result of the foolhardy switch to bel canto was unfortunate and swift: she ruined her voice. The key date here is October 15, 1970, the night of her first performance of Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux, a dramatic soprano assignment that was completely beyond her means and forced her to push her instrument mercilessly. As a result, one can date her prime from the night of her first Cleopatra on September 27, 1966 to the Devereux premiere. That is perhaps being a bit harsh: the bloom managed to remain on the instrument for another year, but, by 1972, the voice was noticeably not what it had been even a year previously.

That’s not to say that every Sills performance after October 15, 1970 was bad. On the contrary, Sills was the kind of tireless trouper who always gave a performance, regardless of her vocal estate. I first saw her when I was nine (I had a strange childhood), as Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux in 1973. I actually have some dim memories of that performance, but the Sills I saw, loved and remember is Sills vintage 1978 through 1980. I remember those performances extremely well, although, as a starry-eyed teenager, I may have thought more of them than objectivity warranted. (That said, I do recall being in the elevator at the San Diego Civic Theater during the second intermission of Fledermaus and pontificating adolescently that, while Sills had no voice left, no one could have sung a better Laughing Song.)

Sills only went into comedy when the state of her voice forced her to seek out less demanding vehicles. She sang Norina 30 times between 1978 and only 1980; she needed over seven years to rack up 21 performances of Marguerite. The problem is that, just as the bel canto repertoire didn’t suit her, neither did most of her comedy parts.

Although Sills had an expansive personality and a knack for getting laughs during her many talk show appearances, that sense of humor didn’t translate well to the operatic stage. She had an unfortunate tendency to overplay her comedic hand. Someone once remarked to me that Sills was a great tragedienne and a mediocre comedienne. He may have had something there; recall that Sills’ operatic reputation was based on her performances of serious roles like Cleopatra and Lucia. I saw Sills almost exclusively in comedy, and recall myself as having been particularly enchanted by her Norina. I can now admit that I was to a large degree delighted by Sills’ Norina because it was Sills, not because it was Norina. I laughed at the relentless mugging, and my strongest visual memory of the evening is Sills sitting down like a klutz with her legs apart in the second act. I’m slightly uncomfortable that I’d found it hilarious at the time. But what did I know? I was all of fourteen.

That Devereux when I was nine aside, the only serious role I saw Sills perform live was the title part in La Loca. The opera was hobbled by the fact that the composer, Gian Carlo Menotti, hadn’t finished writing it in time for either the world premiere in San Diego in the spring of 1979 or the New York premiere that fall. There just wasn’t any music, although I do recall that there was something about a number (three? four?) of “very handsome horses” at the very beginning of the opera that at least had a bit of a hook. The rest is a blank.

That didn’t prevent Sills, even in the absence of anything that could be called music, from giving one hell of a performance. In a word, she sold the piece, and I recall her as having been particularly affecting in her death scene. La Loca wasn’t great opera, and it wasn’t great Sills, but, if Sills’ Cleopatra, Manon and Lucia had been like her mad queen Juana, no wonder she exploded into superstardom.

Please feel free to consult the second part of this examination of the phenomenon that was Beverly Sills.

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