Beverly Sills - America's Queen of Opera
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Beverly Sills, considered one of the best-known opera singers of the 1960s and 1970s, was called “America’s Queen of Opera” by Time Magazine and known as “Bubbles” to her fans singing career of more than four decades. She was renowned for her roles in operas worldwide and more popular with the American public than any opera singer since Enrico Caruso, even among people who never set foot in an opera house.
Cleveland may have played a small role in Beverly Sill’s life, but it was crucial. The city gave the redheaded soprano from Brooklyn, New York, the chance to try out for the role that would serve as her debut with the New York City Opera in 1955 - Rosalinda in Johann Strauss II’s “Die Fledermaus.”
Early in 1955, she auditioned for John Price, founder of Musicarnival, a summer tent theater, singing the Csardas from the Strauss operetta four or five times. Price not only hired Sills but also introduced her to Peter Greenough, then associate editor for The Plain Dealer.
Beverly married Peter Bulkley Greenough, a grandchild of Liberty and Delia Holden, on November 17, 1956. Greenough and Sills had two children: Meredith Holden “Muffy” born on August 4, 1959, virtually deaf, and had multiple sclerosis. A son, Peter, Jr., Bucky, born in 1961, was deaf, autistic, intellectually disabled, and epileptic. Beverly restricted her schedule so she could care for her children.
While living in Bratenahl, Cleveland, audiences had many opportunities to experience the Sills magic. A year after her Rosalinda at Musicarnival, she portrayed Carmen, which she sang nowhere else. She performed Puccini’s Tosca in 1957 and one of her signature parts, the title role in Douglas Moore’s “The Ballad of Baby Doe,” in 1958.
In 1960, Greenough and Sills moved to Milton, Massachusetts, where he worked for the Boston Herald and later the Boston Globe. Beverly sang for the Opera Company of Boston, the first of many roles.
Sills association with the Cleveland Orchestra began in 1962 with a pop concert led by Louis Lane. David Bamberger, founding director of Cleveland Opera, began working with Sills at New York City Opera in 1966 when she triumphed as Cleopatra in Handel’s “Julius Caesar.”
Ironically, the Metropolitan Opera did not hire Sills until 1975, past her vocal prime, to sing Palmira in Rossini’s “The Siege of Corinth.” She won new fans and performed with the Met until her retirement.
Sills made her last appearance with the Cleveland Orchestra in December 1978, when she took part in the ensemble’s 60th-anniversary concert with music director Lorin Maazel and violinist Issac Stern. Her final performance with the Met in Cleveland were Massenet’ “Thais” in 1978 and Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” in 1979.
With an effervescent personality, a bold stage presence, and a voice that could scale the most challenging music, Beverly Sills became America’s beloved soprano. Her ability to schmooze made her the ideal guest, and often host, on late-night talk shows. Her self-deprecating humor led her to team with her friend, Carol Burnett, to perform “Pigoletto” on “The Muppet Show” and demystify the seemingly highfalutin world of opera.
After retiring from the stage in 1980 at age 51, Beverly became one of the best arts advocate and fund-raiser. She began a new life as an executive and leader of New York’s performing arts community. First, she became the New York City opera’s general director during one of its most troubled eras, taking it out of debt and into an adventurous repertoire.
In 1994, Sills became chairwoman of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. She was the first woman and first former artist in that position. In 2002, she became chairwoman of the Metropolitan Opera.
She used her celebrity status to further charity work for the prevention and treatment of congenital disabilities. In 1981, Barnard College awarded her its highest honor, the Barnard Medal of Distinction. The Long Island Music Hall of Fame inducted her in 2007.
Opera lovers everywhere maintained a love affair with Beverly Sills to the end. Although Beverly overcame cancer in 1974, she died of lung cancer in New York City on July 2, 2007. She left the bulk of her estate for the care of her disabled adult children. Beverly was buried alongside Peter at Sharon Gardens Cemetery, in Westchester County, New York.