Born Belle Silverman in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Ms. Sills enjoyed a long career on the operatic stage. Although she was singing in public as early as the age of five, it was not until 1955 when she became the star of the New York City Opera. In her greatest onstage achievement, Ms. Sills created (and recorded) the title role in Douglas Moore'sThe Ballad of Baby Doe, an opera which showed the way for American composers in the 20th century.
Her performances in the three Donizetti "Queen" operas: Anna Bolena, Roberto Devereux and Maria Stuarda were a landmark achievement in bel canto singing. She brought Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffman to vivid life on the stage of City Opera, singing the roles of all four principal characters in that complex opera.
In 1967, Sills starred in an acclaimed City Opera production of Handel's Giulio Cesare. Not only did this production revive interest in baroque opera in New York City, but it led to the brightest, most glowing reviews of Sills' career. Finally, at 50, she retired from the stage following a performance in Menotti's La Loca. Starting at City Center and ending at the company's current home in the New York State Theater, "Bubbles", (as she was known from infancy) brought the City Opera to a prominence which it still enjoys today.
But her involvement with the arts only increased and expanded. She became general director of the City Opera, saving that company from financial ruin in a ten-year reign that saw the production of rare operas like Mozart's L'Oca del Cairo, (paired with Oliver Knussen's operatic version of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are) and modern works like Philip Glass' Akhnaten and Anthony Davis' X. Ticket sales were also helped by a reduction in ticket prices and the introduction of classic Broadway fare like Sondheim's Sweeney Todd to the State Theater stage. The City Opera also became the first opera company to introduce supertitles in 1983. (I remember well what it was like, the year before, to be a nine-year-old kid with no translation available.)
Ms. Sills left the City Opera in 1989. Five years later she became the Chairwoman of the Board of Lincoln Center. In 2002 she accepted the post of Chairwoman of the Metropolitan Opera, a move that ultimately led to the arrival of new Met General Manager Peter Gelb in 2006 and the dawn of a new era for that company. The Queen of Arts may be dead, but the artistic legacy of her long reign over Lincoln Center will resonate well into this current century.
Beverly Sills. Photo from Gothamist.com.