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A SALUTE TO BEVERLY SILLS (article first published : 2007-08-20)

As music lovers and many others joined hands in honour of the passing of Beverly Sills this past week, tributes to the much-loved soprano have flooded the internet. They are testimonies to one of the most indomitable spirits and generously giving forces the world of music has known.

When Sills died in her home in Manhattan of inoperable lung cancer at the age of 78 last week Monday, the world took stock of an extraordinary career that spanned more than 40 years.

I recall first hearing her on record in a recital of French opera arias conducted by Sir Charles MacKerras. Despite initial resistance to the Sills instrument, a slim-line, flute-like lyric coloratura voice with a tendency to flutter under pressure, I became hooked by her fearless attack, her unfailingly clean line and the extraordinary ability to communicate.

For this listener, standouts among Sills’ audio discs remain her glittering Cleopatra in an otherwise butchered version of Handel’s Giulio Cesare; her consummate Manon; her Hoffmann heroines; and her three Donizetti Tudor queens, the title roles in Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda, and her all-or-nothing Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux. The latter is known as a killer role which she later admitted took ten years off her singing career. Watching the DVD of her 1975 assumption of the part, one sees why, but her dramatic commitment as the obsessive queen is riveting.

Another Donizetti must-have is the soprano’s Lucia di Lammermoor, often cited as the most penetrating portrayal of the part ever achieved. On disc, at any rate: when she sang the role in her Covent Garden debut in 1972, a churlish London critic called Sills “a soubrette pushing her luck”. Admittedly she was essaying the signature role of her most formidable rival, Joan Sutherland, on the latter’s home ground. This snide stroke might also have been a backlash to the media fusillades that were emanating from across the Atlantic at the time, hailing Sills as “America’s Queen of Opera”, while her publicity machine achieved the unprecedented feat of getting the singer onto the covers of Newsweek and Time magazine in quick succession.

But Sills stood the test of time. She became one of the authentic superstars of our age, her fame and personal standing extending far beyond the world of opera and classical music. A number of her retrospective DVD releases have entered the classical catalogues over the past few years. More are sure to follow posthumously. All carry the stamp of a singer with a unique gift to get under the skin of whatever role she sang. The electricity she generated onstage provoked tumultuous applause during her glory years in the late ’60s, even as her vocal resources declined through the ’70s.

Sills’ achievement as an arts administrator came into its own after her retirement from singing, first at the helm of her home company, the New York City Opera, then heading up the Lincoln Centre, later as Chairperson of the Metropolitan Opera, and finally, as the impactful fundraiser who saved the weekly Met broadcasts from vanishing, after they had enriched the cultural lives of millions of her compatriots for some six decades.

Looking back on Sills’ life, one is struck by the sense of the stability she came to symbolise in the eyes of her enduring public. Overcoming the deep personal tragedy she had to endure behind her public career, this feisty woman set herself goals, and achieved them.

What stands out so clearly now is the enormous affection in which she was held. Witness the clip of her farewell to her New York public in 1980. Grace and warmth shimmer off the screen as the soprano delivers her own lyrics, adapted to fit the occasion, singing her longtime encore number, a simple folk song given her when she was a 10-year-old child, by her singing teacher, Estelle Liebling.

In keeping with Sills’ beautifully managed career, her words say it all, 27 years later in cyberspace. For those farewell moments, with flowers raining down on a great artist as her fans bid her goodbye, log onto www.beverlysillsonline.com




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