The Beverly Sills Phenomenon (II)

The first section of this article showed how Beverly Sills was by far, in America, the most famous American opera singer of her generation.  She was, however, completely unsuccessful in imposing herself on the international operatic public. I recall an Italian friend asking me in 1984 about a record made by some strange American soprano who sang all kinds of weird cadenzas and ornaments. I knew he meant Sills’ Bellini and Donizetti arias record, which was a commonplace among American record collectors. For a young Italian opera fan, however, the disc was an obscure oddity.  So was Sills.

The cadenzas and ornamentation on that record are indeed bizarre. So much so that the album could more properly be titled Arias by Bellini, Donizetti and Roland Gagnon. It was very much the work of two American individualists operating outside of the Italian tradition.  Consider their version of the cavatina from Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, replete with a high E-flat in the recitative.

My friend was from Milan, and perhaps that is why he’d heard of Sills at all. Sills’ one important international credit – one she dined out on for the rest of her life – was a new production of Rossini’s L’Assedio di Corinto at La Scala in the spring of 1969. She appeared as a late replacement for a pregnant Renata Scotto, and scored a triumph in the role of Pamira. The follow-up engagement was another story. Brought in for three performances of Lucia (in another production originally designed for Scotto), she failed to repeat her success of the year before, a fact she blamed in both her memoirs, the relentlessly cheerful Bubbles from 1976 and the acid-penned Beverly from 1987, on a merry-go-round of tenors and the casual way revivals were rehearsed and performed at La Scala. Sills was only one of several Lucias that season, and most certainly didn’t receive the attention that had come with the new production the year before. No doubt management’s expectation was that Sills would drop her Lucia into the existing framework, with just enough rehearsal time to make sure that she knew not to trip over the giant davenport stage left in the first scene of act two. Sills didn’t take well to such treatment – compare it to what she was getting with the Capobiancos at City Opera – and blamed it for the foreshortening of her La Scala career.

I’d venture that there was another reason for those Lucias to have failed. While the oddity of Sills’ approach and Gagnon’s wildly excessive ornamentation were interesting and exciting in an opera like L’Assedio di Corinto that no one knew, her arrogant disregard for the accepted style must have annoyed an Italian audience when it came to Lucia. Practically no other opera in the Italian repertory has accrued a set of performing traditions as extensive as Lucia; ignoring those traditions was not going to play well in Milan. Sills’ eccentric ornaments must have grated on Italian ears: it was one thing to do a non-Italian Lucia at the City Opera or in the American hinterlands. Attempting one in the holy of holies of Italian opera was another story altogether.

Sills’ only other extended European engagement was a run of eight Lucias in London in the winter of 1970-71. This time, she blamed the performances’ lack of success on a Joan Sutherland cabal. The reality is more likely that the British public didn’t like Sills’ Lucia for reasons similar to those she faced in Milan. True, Sutherland’s Lucia deviated from the Italian norm in some ways, but those deviations were at least rooted in the received tradition. Recall that Sutherland’s star-making 1959 Lucias were conducted by that doyen of the Italian repertoire, Tullio Serafin. If you knew Toti dal Monte’s Lucia (or even Callas’), you’d be able to make sense out of Sutherland’s performance. Sills, on the other hand, must have come off as just plain weird. British audiences could well have seen it as a performance stemming from some remote opera house in the Wild West.

And with good reason: that’s what Sills’ Lucia basically was. It is no coincidence that she sang the first of her 102 performances of Donizetti’s mad heroine in Fort Worth.

As for the rest of Europe, Sills’ career at the Vienna State Opera consisted of a single Queen of the Night in 1967. That puts her in the club of non-luminaries like June Linden and Gisela Vivarelli whose Viennese careers also consisted of a single Kõnigin der Nacht.

Sills sang one Violetta with success at the San Carlo in Naples in 1970. Although her memoirs make it seem as though this was a run of performances, it was in actuality a one-off; the good but not spectacular performance can be heard on YouTube. She sang another one-off Traviata in Berlin, and three more Violettas in Venice two years later.  A few scant concerts apart, that was her entire European career.

Passing over four performances in Mexico City (and one in Guanajuato), Sills did score a substantial success in Latin America’s most important opera house, the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. She sang short runs of Cleopatra, Manon and Lucia there, apparently with success (but note how her career there ended with Lucia.) Nonetheless, fifteen performances in Buenos Aires do not a glamourous international career make.

Even her American career was astonishingly parochial. For a supposedly world-famous diva, Sills sang an awful lot in productions that travelled from San Antonio to Shreveport to McAllen, Texas.

One of Sills’ first professional engagements was with the San Francisco Opera in 1953. She returned to the company in full triumph mode in 1971 to sing Manon; Traviata, Lucia, Daughter of the Regiment and Thaïs would follow. Thus at least one of the United States’ three leading opera houses capitulated to the Sills phenomenon. On the other hand, she never sang with Chicago Lyric Opera, and her fraught history with the Metropolitan Opera is an important part of the Sills legend.

Sills relentlessly castigated the Met’s general manager Rudolf Bing for not having thrown open the portals of American’s leading opera house to her following her success next door as Cleopatra. (Bing eventually admitted in his memoirs that he simply didn’t care for her.) Only in 1975, after Bing had retired, did Sills get to make a Met debut in a new production of L’Assedio di Corinto that was portrayed as a combination coronation and redressing of a serious wrong. Although she returned to the Met as Violetta, Lucia, Thaïs and Norina, she never really became part of the company, and, the Pamira-coronation aside, never really a part of Met history.

What Sills never admitted was that she did far better not singing at the Met than she would have had Bing hired her in the late 1960s. First and foremost, not being hired by the Met gave her something to talk about ad nauseam on talk shows. Americans love underdogs, dislike uppity foreigners and decry injustice: the battle between Sills and the Met couldn’t have been a better piece of PR if someone had invented it. Being “ignored” by the Metropolitan Opera made Sills a lot more famous in this country than singing with the Met would have made her.

Second of all, not singing at the Met allowed her to become prima donna assoluta at the New York City Opera and the recipient of a string of tailor-made new productions that made her famous and defined the her brand. Had Sills moved across the plaza to the Met, she’d have had to get on line behind Sutherland, Scotto, Moffo and even Peters to get even a single Lucia.

Although Sills’ artistic success was genuine and deserved, her career was nonetheless far more than a purely operatic phenomenon. One can rightly argue that Beverly Sills Mania had something in common with the Jenny Lind Mania that had engulfed the country in the 19th century. And Sills didn’t have P.T. Barnum promoting her, either. (On the other hand, she had television.) Sills accomplished some great things with the New York City Opera; she also proved that you could ride City Opera stardom to the covers of Newsweek and Time. However, it was Newsweek and Time more than Lucia in Omaha that cemented Sills’ national fame and made her an object of national interest. For that man in the street who knew nothing of opera but had heard of Beverly Sills, she was more famous for being famous than she was famous for being an unforgettable Manon.

Therein lie rub, irony and paradox: Sills possessed a real and major talent and briefly achieved true greatness as a singer. But her glory years and her years of mega-fame didn’t coincide, so that people knowing Sills as American operatic royalty never got a clear idea from her televised performances in the late 1970s of what had made her an operatic star in the first place. That’s a shame: America missed a chance at learning what truly wonderful opera singing sounded like, and, instead, got to know the unsteady and glaring tone of the late Sills. On a musical level, it’s questionable just how much Sills got Americans in the street actually to like opera.

There was a Faustian bargain involved. Fame such as Sills’ always comes at a price, and, for Beverly Sills, that price was a direction of energies away from the roles that truly suited her and the resulting ruining of what had once been a truly remarkable voice. In a future post about Sills, I look forward to being the guide on an audio tour through her prime years.  Those examples of her singing will show all too clearly what it was that she sacrificed on the altar of superstardom, as well as what we lost as a result.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Pingbacks & Trackbacks