Born Belle Miriam Silverman, May 25, 1929, in Brooklyn, N.Y.; daughter of Morris (a life insurance broker) and Shirley (Bahn) Silverman; married Peter Buckeley Greenough (a newspaper publisher), November 17, 1956; children: Meredith, Peter Jr. Education: Studied voice privately under Estelle Liebling.

She may have retired a decade ago, but Beverly Sills remains one of the most famous opera stars in America. A coloratura soprano of the first magnitude, bearing the characteristic light, agile voice marked by elaborate embellishment, Sills achieved international fame after a long apprenticeship with the New York City Opera and other companies. For slightly more than a decade the effervescent and gracious Sills thrilled opera audiences worldwide with her passionate interpretations of opera's finest roles. New York magazine correspondent Peter G. Davis remembered that when Sills "reigned as America's Queen of Opera," her performances were distinguished by "her wonderful freshness, warmth, spontaneity, generosity of spirit, inner glow, and intuitive artistry."

Beverly Sills was born Belle Miriam Silverman in Brooklyn, New York, on May 25, 1929. Her parents were both immigrants from Eastern Europe. A nickname, "Bubbles," stuck with her from birth because she was literally born with a bubble in her mouth. Sills was in fact a bubbly and attractive child who showed musical talent from an incredibly early age. She was only three when she sang a song to win the "Miss Beautiful Baby of 1932" contest in Brooklyn; by the age of six she was performing regularly on New York City's WOR Radio.

Sills's parents had a small collection of opera recordings and the budding diva memorized the arias in phonetic Italian before she was seven. Her mother decided to give her private lessons with Estelle Liebling, one of New York's premier voice teachers. Liebling was impressed with the youngster's innate ability and encouraged her to pursue more radio work. While most girls her age were skipping rope, Sills was busy in the radio studio, first as a member of the Major Bowes Capitol Family Hour and then as a principle in the musical soap opera Our Gal Sunday. Her first love was opera, however, so she "retired" from radio at the age of 12 to study her primary interest.

Almost immediately after finishing high school in 1945, Sills landed a position as a member of a Gilbert and Sullivan national touring company. Sills quickly assumed principal roles in the company's operettas, including Countess Maritza and The Merry Widow, but the constant travel from city to city was exhausting. After less than two years she returned to New York and resumed her lessons with Liebling, determined to devote herself to grand opera.

Sills made her operatic debut with the Philadelphia Civic Opera in 1947, singing the part of Frasquita in Georges Bizet's Carmen. Although she received good notices, she was not an overnight success, and soon found herself back in Manhattan, singing at clubs to make ends meet. In 1951 and 1952 she toured the country again, this time with the Charles L. Wagner Opera Company. The pace was still rigorous--Sills sang Violetta in Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata some 40 times and Micaela in Carmen more than 60 times in a single year. Her best notices from this period came for her San Francisco Opera performance as Helen of Troy in Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele.

Sills's greatest ambition was to sing with the New York City Opera; she auditioned for the company numerous times before finally earning a position in 1955. Her debut there, as Rosalinde in Johann Straus's Die Fledermaus, was an unqualified success; critics agreed that she showed great promise. Soon after, Sills married wealthy Cleveland newspaperman Peter Buckeley Greenough. In 1958 she earned the best notices of her career for her performance as Baby in the New York premier of Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe.

Between 1958 and 1961 Sills commuted to New York from her homes in Cleveland and Boston in order to appear in a succession of important operas. She was forced to curtail her professional activities, however, when it became clear that her children--born in 1959 and 1961--had special needs that demanded her constant attention. Sills's daughter Meredith was discovered to have progressive deafness; her son Peter Jr. was diagnosed as autistic. Anguished, Sills decided to devote all her time to her children and did not return to the stage until the mid-1960s.

When she did return, in a Boston production of Mozart's The Magic Flute, she discovered that her work helped ease the anxiety about her children. She came back to the New York City Opera in 1966, just in time to open the company's new home in Lincoln Center with a performance as Cleopatra in George Frideric Handel's Julius Caesar. The performance was Sills's first major triumph; it assured her prima donna status with the company, but more importantly it endeared her to the demanding New York audiences.

By 1969 Sills had become one of the most important coloratura sopranos in the United States. New Yorker critic Winthrop Sargeant wrote of her: "If I were recommending the wonders of New York to a tourist, I would place Beverly Sills at the top of the list--way ahead of such things as the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building." Davis commented that Sills's performances in a number of operas in the late 1960s "are among my most cherished operatic experiences. I imagine they are also fondly remembered by many other New York operagoers who felt that something precious vanished soon after the birth of Supersills."

Sills was 40 when she reached opera's pinnacle of success, and she pushed her voice to the limit in order to record and perform as often as her audience demanded. She was still at the top of her powers throughout the 1970s, and her enduring beauty and flair for theater brought throngs of new fans to classical opera. At her long overdue Metropolitan Opera debut in 1975 she was greeted with an eighteen-minute ovation. In Italy she was known as "La Fenomena" (the phenomenon) and "Il Mostro" (the prodigy). Public television brought Sills into homes across America; she quickly achieved a height of fame exceedingly rare for stars of the stage--and almost unheard of for divas.

Davis noted, however, that age and a relentless professional pace began to take their toll on Sills's vocal ability. "Sills's depressing operatic performances during those final years of her career were worse than vocally disappointing," the critic wrote. "They had degenerated into little more than mechanical personal appearances by a self-absorbed media heroine." Sills herself was perfectionist enough to know that her work was suffering. In 1980 she retired from performing and accepted the challenge of running the company that had been her base for more than 20 years.

The task of managing the New York City Opera proved every bit as daunting as the most demanding vocal performance. When Sills took over in 1980 the company was five million dollars in debt. To make matters worse, the factory housing the company's costumes burned down and critics panned key productions. Sills was nevertheless able to reverse the fortunes of the Opera, principally by charming funds from corporate donors. Sills also managed to increase attendance at the company's productions by introducing supertitles--a screen with translations suspended over the stage. Today, wrote Kathleen Brady in Working Woman, "instead of being $5 million in the red, the company operates in the black with a $25 million budget and has eliminated the accumulated deficit."

Sills gave up her professional responsibilities in 1989. She is now truly retired, living quietly with her husband of 35 years. She has received a number of prestigious honors, most notably the Presidential Medal of Freedom bestowed upon her by Jimmy Carter in 1980. She expresses no regrets about retiring, however. "I've done everything I set out to do," she once said, "sung in every opera house I wanted to.... To go on past the point where I should, I think would break my heart. I think my voice has served me very well. I'd like to put it to bed so it would go quietly, with pride."

by Anne Janette Johnson

Beverly Sills's Career

Coloratura soprano, 1945-80; director of New York City Opera, 1979-89. Made theatrical debut in autumn of 1945 with a Gilbert and Sullivan national touring company; took leads in operettas Rosemarie, Countess Maritza, and The Merry Widow. Made debut in grand opera with Philadelphia Civic Opera, February, 1947, as Frasquita in Carmen. Toured with Charles L. Wagner Opera Company, 1951-52. Joined New York City Opera, 1955, with debut October 29, 1955, as Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus. Made debut with Metropolitan Opera, April 8, 1975, as Pamira in The Siege of Corinth. Has also toured the United States, Europe, and the Far East. Retired from singing in 1980. Has made numerous recordings of full operas and arias for RCA, Deutsche Grammophon, Angel, Columbia, ABC, and other labels.

Beverly Sills's Awards

Handel Medallion for achievement in the arts, 1974; Emmy Award, 1975; Pearl S. Buck Women's Award, 1979; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1980. Holds numerous honorary degrees, including those from Temple University, New York University, New England Conservatory of Music, and Harvard University.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

January 26, 2005: Sills resigned as the chairwoman of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, citing family concerns. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com, January 26, 2005.

Further Reading

Books

Periodicals

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 7 years ago

You'd be best to steer clear of anything written by the mean-spirited and irrational music critic Peter G. Davis. You cite him in your article. His hatred for Ms. Sills is legendary and well documented. This quality of this article suffers due to its reliance on materials written by Davis.

almost 9 years ago

WOW! I LOVE Beverly Sills! I like to sing, but haven't ever been to an opera, so sad. I love everything Beverly did!