There has been much of note in the news, this Independence Day week. Most of what has been reported has been international threats, danger, and visually dramatic, exciting stuff. But then, there was other news, of a deeply affecting sort: operatic star and arts supporter Beverly Sills passed away, Monday evening. A non-smoker all her life, she was taken by inoperable lung cancer, at the age of 78.
I grew up resenting the longhair music my parents used to listen to. And, for the few under-thirty folks who read this, no, my folks did not play hippie stuff on their hi-fi. Dad had a state-of-the-art stereophonic receiver, a reel-to-reel tape deck, and a magnificent turntable with a needle so delicate it probably could have read the wind, but never did a track from Crosby, Stills, Nash or Young cross those hallowed wires. The old fogies played the original longhair stuff: they loved classical music.
I hated it. I’d sooner have eaten a bucket of bugs than allow them to pry me away from my top-forty transistor-radio tunes.
And then, when I was nearly an adult, I saw Beverly Sills on television, with Kermit the Frog. She wasn’t some stuffy artiste, trying to ram “good for you” stuff down my throat. She was a plain-speaking, fun-loving lady with charm and a voice that sparkled clear and fine as Cinderella’s slippers. I was entranced. I began to seek out recordings of hers, in video and in simple, old-fashioned audio, to see if she really had what I thought I’d heard.
She had. She had it in spades.
I will never pretend to be an expert in voice, or in opera. But I will admit to having become a true fan of the woman known to her family and friends as Bubbles. My respect for her began with her singing voice and her sense of humor, but it went much deeper, as did she, herself. Born Belle Miriam Silverman of Brooklyn, New York, working as a commercial-jingle singer at an early age, Beverly Sills grew to become more than a glamorous, glorious coloratura soprano.
Sills showed her witty side as she performed in parodies of opera, with such luminaries of humor as Danny Kay and Carol Burnett -- with the latter of whom, she became the best of friends.
She was the force behind the New York City Opera, as its general director, from 1980 until 1994. As the New York Sun mentions, it was under her stewardship that the City Opera -- “the people’s opera company” -- became the first theatre to install and use a supertitle screen, projecting lyrics above the stage, for all those who have difficulty following the foreign languages of the performances.
Sills then served eight years as the chairman of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts -- its first woman and first performer to hold the position. After retiring from the Lincoln Center, she spent a half year “smelling the roses,” before feeling compelled to return, this time to the Metropolitan Opera, to chair.
Beverly Sills also stood in the foreground for a number of not-so-artistic causes, not the least of which being the March of Dimes and the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation -- the latter brought to her attention as her daughter Meredith, born deaf, was diagnosed with the disease.
The discovery of her daughter’s deafness must have pained her tremendously. In a television interview, she mentioned the tragedy of a child of a singer not being able to hear the one other thing to bring joy to her mama. To some degree, we who heard her have had to do our part to make up for that absence, and we have done so with pleasure. We listen, and listen, and listen to her recordings.
The new generations in the entertainment industry have brought us so very little -- Paris Hilton, Angelina Jolie, and a host of other pretty faces with null sets for brains and vacuums where their souls should be. Beverly Sills was smart, witty, engaging, talented, dedicated, lively, intense, sweet, fierce, and a thousand other blessed things. In a day and age when real talent is the very last and least significant requirement for success in show business, the loss of so great an artist -- so great a force for art -- is doubly painful.
Suggested other reading:
New York Sun obit.
Associated Press remarks.