In its e-mail alert message, The New York Times said she, “was more popular with the American public than any opera singer since Enrico Caruso…”
Beverly Sills was all that and more. “Bubbles” was an American original, a Brooklyn born singing actress who needed to be seen as well as heard. Her 50-megawatt smile could light up a stage and make it look like daylight.
When other singers couldn’t wait to go to Europe, she waited until she was 36. She didn’t make her debut at Milan’s famous La Scala until 1969, and then it was in an opera that hadn’t been produced since the mid 19th Century, Rossini’s The Siege of Corinth. It was also the vehicle chosen for her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1975. By then, Sills had achieved international renown singing primarily at New York City Opera, which she joined in 1955 while it was still decidedly down market. However, along with her “Julie,” Maestro Julius Rudel, renowned bass Norman Treigle and Americans Phyllis Curtain and Frances Bible, she turned the company founded by Fiorello LaGuardia to be “The People’s Opera” into a world-class outfit. Its 1966 production of Giulio Cesare, which opened its new home at Lincoln Center, the New York State Theater and starred Sills and Treigle, outshone the Met’s Lincoln Center opening production, the world premiere of Barber’s Anthony and Cleopatra. That one laid an egg. She preferred Donizetti to Verdi. Her mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor is considered to be definitive. Her Queens trilogy, Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda (with famed American dramatic soprano and Toscanini favorite Eileen Farrell) and Roberto Devereaux still sell briskly on CD. Her mastery of the broadcast media, with her big break coming on Major Bowles and her frequent appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Muppet Show and specials with Danny Kaye and Carol Burnett, brought her even more fame. Her performance as Marie in Daughter of the Regiment from Wolf Trap set fund raising records when broadcast on PBS.
I saw her at NYCO in September 1975 with Judith Somogyi on the podium. Although I sat in the very last row of the highest section of the State Theater, I didn’t need opera glasses to see her. Her acting and comedic timing, including her outlandish salute during her entrance in Act I, made her look ten feet tall. Her smile appeared to be twenty-five yards wide. “Bubbles” filled the house and her effervescence was intoxicating.
Her personal life had tragedies of operatic proportions. She met her husband while he was going through a messy divorce that scandalized polite Cleveland society. Years later, she referred to them as “rinky-dink.” Her daughter was born profoundly deaf. Her son had an undiagnosed mental disorder that forced him to be institutionalized. Only later was it discovered he was autistic. For a time in the mid 1960s, she took time off to be a mother. Her “Julie” coaxed her back with a series of “Dear Bubbala” letters.
After her retirement from singing in 1980, she became the General Director of NYCO. Her innovations and undeniable fund raising skills raised NYCO’s game. After ten years, she was named the first woman to lead Lincoln Center. Then she retired, only to be lured back to the Met as their Chair. It was during her campaign to create an endowment for the Saturday Met broadcasts that she found out her beloved husband was gravely ill and her health was not much better. Her sudden final retirement was a shock.
She endured her husband’s death last year as well as the diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer. It was the final irony, as she never smoked. On 2 July, her voice was finally stilled. Addio, “Bubbles,” and grazie, grazie, grazie.