Born Belle Miriam Silverman, to first-generation
Ukrainian and Romanian Jewish immigrants, in Brooklyn on May 25, 1929, she
revealed her prodigious voice and effervescent personality early on,
becoming a radio star at age 4. Three years later, she began vocal studies
with the legendary teacher Estelle Liebling, and made her operatic debut
in 1947, as Frasquita in Carmen at the Philadelphia Civic Opera.
She soon graduated to leading roles, touring North America as Violetta in La
traviata and Micaëla in Carmen with the Charles Wagner Opera
Company (1951-52), and debuting at San Francisco Opera as Helen of Troy in
Boito's Mefistofele (1953).
On October 29, 1955, Beverly Sills changed both City Opera’s destiny and
her own, debuting with the company as Rosalinda in Die Fledermaus.
She swiftly rose within the ranks with vivid portrayals of Philine in Mignon
(1956) and Violetta in Traviata (1957), achieving true
stardom in 1958 with her unforgettable portrayal of the title role in The
Ballad of Baby Doe.
On September 27, 1966, during City Opera’s first season at Lincoln
Center, Sills’ vocally and dramatically virtuosic performance as
Cleopatra in the company’s first-ever Handel opera,
Giulio Cesare, catapulted Sills (and City Opera) to international
The company swiftly began mounting new productions especially for her,
most notably Manon (1968) and a series of hand-picked bel canto operas.
Sills’ City Opera performances of Lucia di Lammermoor (1969),
Elvira in I Puritani (1974), Marie in Daughter of the Regiment
(1975), and the famous “Donizetti Three Queens” trilogy—Roberto
Devereux (1970), Maria Stuarda (1972), and Anna Bolena
(1973)—helped to spark a vast bel canto revival.
Sills’ supple, crystalline voice was soon in demand far beyond the
bounds of Lincoln Center.
A working mother blessed with a husband of means (the late journalist
Peter Greenough) and a doting mom (the late Shirley Silverman), Sills took
to the road with her family in tow. She made notable debuts at companies
including San Diego Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Vienna State Opera, La
Scala, Covent Garden, Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, and the Metropolitan
Opera, in historic 1975 performances of The Siege of Corinth.
Sills’ warm, ebullient personality led to a love affair with the
television camera, not only in opera broadcasts but on variety and talk
shows. As she clowned on TV with the likes of Miss Piggy, Carol Burnett,
Danny Kaye, and Johnny Carson, she simultaneously served as a homegrown,
one-woman ambassador for the arts and as radiant, smiling proof of opera’s
passion, liveliness, and immediacy.
At the age of 51, after more than four decades of public performances, and
having sung 35 roles at City Opera (and 32 elsewhere), Beverly Sills
retired from the stage with a star-studded televised Gala Concert at City
Opera, on October 27, 1980. Without skipping a beat, she put her celebrity
into service as a tireless advocate for such worthy causes as the March of
Dimes and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and as an important
leader in the performing arts. From 1979-1989, she served as City Opera’s
General Director, adding 42 new works to the repertory, shepherding the
company triumphantly through a disastrous warehouse fire, and mentoring
countless young American singers. She served on City Opera’s Board of
Directors from 1989-1991, and remained an honorary board member until her
death. Such services earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1980)
and the Kennedy Center Honors (1985).
From 1994-2002, Sills continued to serve City Opera as Chairwoman of
Lincoln Center, until becoming Chairwoman of the Metropolitan Opera Board
of Directors (2002-2005).
All the while, she remained a true friend and trusted advisor to City
Opera and to many individuals within the company.
(Reprinted from the
NYCO tribute to Beverly Sills)