Monday, July 02, 2007

Beverly Sills, 1929 - 2007

One of the greatest singers of the 20th century, Beverly Sills has passed away from cancer. Born Belle Silverman in Brooklyn, she grew up to be the great American Diva of the 1970s. She dominated the New York City Opera and sang on the great stages of the world, specializing in bel canto and romantic French repertoire.

In addition to possessing a distinct, strong, silvery lyric-coloratura soprano voice and a formidable technique that allowed her to dispatch florid passages with ease, she was a gifted, intuitive actress and a major personality. Far from cultivating the stereotype of a "diva," she aimed to be a populist, and appeared on The Carol Burnett Show and The Muppets.

Yet she knew how to be a diva when called for. One of the famous stories about "Bubbles," as she was known, came from her debut at Milan's Teatro alla Scala, the pinnacle of any opera singer's career. She was replacing Renata Scotto in a planned production of Rossini's L'Assedio di Corinto, and had requested that the costume, originally designed in flattering gold for Signora Scotto, be re-made in silver. "No problem," she was told. Still, the gold gown hung in her dressing room. She kept asking the costumer about it, but was told, "Si, si, not to worry." When the dress rehearsal arrived and she was still without a silver version of the costume, she took the gold dress on stage with her and cut it in half.

As she retired from the stage in 1980, I never had the chance to hear her live. (I am happy to recommend recordings to anyone interested.) I did, however, get to meet her in March of 1994. At that time, she was the newly appointed chairwoman of Lincoln Center, and I had just begun working as a sales associate in the gift shop at the Metropolitan Opera -- in fact, it was my first day and I'd only been there about 20 minutes when she came in, walked straight up to me and said, "Do you have the new autobiography of John Dexter?" "Why, yes, of course!" I gushed, hoping to God we actually did. (We did.) Afterward, one of my co-workers said, "You know who that was, right?" "Duh," I replied.

La Sills was a hero and role model of mine: that rare singer who managed to combine impeccable musicianship, flawless technique, genuine acting ability and, above all, a miraculous voice. May she rest in peace.

And now, in tribute to her amazing career, I am pleased to share with you video footage of one of her greatest triumphs, Pigoletto.


DJRainDog said...

The living world becomes a little bit less beautiful with her passing. One can only hope that in maintaining the universe's balance, someone of similar calibre is born.

On a happier note, this just reinforces my belief that "The Muppet Show" was one of the greatest things ever aired on television. It brought to children of all ages a truly amazing range of entertainment experiences. Kids could find that clip funny for the pigs and for the spoofing; over-educated snobs like me get to appreciate the clever dove-tailing of several major operatic works. It's no wonder the current younger generation seem to display less potential than we did -- What are we feeding their growing minds? A bumbling fat purple pseudo-dinosaur. We reap what we sow...

Gino said...

i have asolutely no ability to appreciate opera in any way, but even this vulgarian dug the shit outta that, and left me grinning from very start to finish.

now, if i only knew the translation to the words she was singing it probably would've been even better.

Andy said...

Well, as DJRaindog mentioned, it was a hodgepodge of well known tunes from La Traviata, Aida, Rigoletto, Carmen and, of all things Die Walkure, so even if you did understand the individual phrases, it wouldn't make any coherent sort of sense. It was just for fun. (If Walkure seems out of place in Sills' repertoire, I seem to recall that she sang one of the 8 Valkyrie sisters in San Francisco in the 1950s, and I could confirm that if I owned any bookcases and could unpack my boxes from New York.)

Gino said...

"the clever dove-tailing of several major operatic works. "

ok, so thats what he was talking bout. now i get.

i kinda got the impression she was singing some kind of spoof song, or something like that, having to do with pigs, maybe.

"If Walkure seems out of place in Sills' repertoire, "

ya know, i was thinkin the exact same thing. ;)

Mark G. said...

I was reading some obits about her and one said she retired in 1980. She would have been about fifty then. Is that normal? When do opera singers of her caliber usually stop performing?

Andy said...

It depends on several factors. Generally speaking, the higher the voice the younger it matures and the younger it goes south; basses sometimes don't reach vocal maturity until their 30s and then can sing beautifully into their late 70's and beyond. And in addition to physical gifts beyond anyone's control, there's technique and career management. Mirella Freni is 72 and still performing, still singing amazingly well. This is due to incredible technique (you should see the woman breathe) and a very carefully managed repertoire. Other singers burn out much faster -- the classic example is always Maria Callas, but again, there were many contributing factors in play there. For a lyric coloratura like Sills, 50 would be early to call it completely quits but it would be time to start shedding certain roles from the repertoire, typically.

Mark G. said...

Thanks Andy. xo

kr said...

In order of impression:

1) THAT was an expensive set, for the Muppet Show ... I hope they borrowed some of it from the Met ;).

2) Now THAT is what an opera singer should be!

3) Oh, so THAT is probably the episode for which the Valkyrie-type headpieces were made. (Never saw that episode, somehow, but we have two "backstage" kid-puzzles from it.)

4) I miss the Muppet Show :(. Not quite enough to pay for cable, though.

5) Dude, who dubbed Kermit?? (They could at least have hired Andy, who speaks several languages and does a great Kermit imitation ...)

6) DJR--despite all news stories to the contrary, most parents I know ban or heavily supress Barney (here, a ban). Perhaps his perceived popularity is like HRC's "easy win" in the Dem race ;).

Trickish Knave said...

I actually thought of you when I read about her passing the next morning. I figured you knew all about her but didn't know you got to meet her, if only for a little while.

I went and downloaded a Silvery Bells (I didn't know her name was also an anagram) song from uTorrent and it had the word Corinth in it. I apologize for not knowing much more than that; this music is not what I normally listen to. But it was a pretty song nonetheless.