Soprano brought world of opera to the masses

[6 July 2007]

By Lawrence A. Johnson

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Beverly Sills was a trailblazer, an American soprano who came to acclaim on home turf, and an artist who bridged the opera house and popular culture with the same ease and agility in which her coloratura voice tackled soaring vocal lines by Massenet and Donizetti.

The soprano’s broad smile and quick humor put an approachable media-friendly face on an art form still considered lofty and exotic by many Americans in the 1960s and 1970s.

Sills was a regular presence on “The Tonight Show” Starring Johnny Carson - even standing in as guest host. She also made appearances with Carol Burnett and the Muppets, paving the way for future mass-media forays by such classical stars as Luciano Pavarotti, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma and others.

Sills died of lung cancer Monday at her home in New York. She was 78.

“There isn’t another American singer in the 20th century who managed to accomplish the enormous feat of making opera accessible to the American public,” said soprano Renee Fleming from Spain, in a statement released by her management.

“She certainly helped to open the American stage to the American artist,” said conductor Julius Rudel, Sills’ longtime collaborator at New York City Opera, where the two shared many triumphs.

Tuesday, he recalled her first audition at City Opera in which the Brooklyn-born soprano displayed characteristic spunk and humor.

“The voice was pure and clear and incredibly accurate,” Rudel said.

“We knew she was first-rate material, but the director could never decide. He thought she was too tall and kept calling her back again and again.”

Rudel said Sills finally had enough and said to the director, “You can keep calling me back but I’m not going to get any shorter.”

“She was one of the warmest, most generous people I’ve ever known,” said Judy Drucker, who presented Sills several times with the Concert Association of Florida. “I’m very proud that I could call her my friend.”

The soprano, born Belle Silverman in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, also made two appearances at Florida Grand Opera that effectively framed her career: at the very start as the Countess in a 1965 production of Mozart’s “Le nozze di Figaro.” And in her farewell season in 1980, she returned in the title role in Rosalinda, an English-language adaptation of Johann Strauss Jr.‘s “Die Fledermaus.”

Sills was acclaimed for her high silvery voice, coloratura agility and dramatic commitment, qualities especially suited to the bel canto and French operas in which she excelled. Yet it was Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” that put her on the map at City Opera in 1966. Other triumphs followed with Massenet’s “Manon,” Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “Anna Bolena,” and Bellini’s “I Puritani.” In 1975, she made her belated Metropolitan Opera debut in Rossini’s “The Siege of Corinth.”

Yet her buoyant personality and personal charm to some extent belied her tenacity and toughness. She auditioned seven times before she was finally accepted into New York City Opera.

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