Beverly Sills (nee Belle Silverman) (May 25, 1929-July 2, 2007), a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn, became America's First Lady of Opera-not the First Lady of American Opera, but her role in that area was significant too. Along with all the Bellini, Donizetti, Handel, Lehar, Massenet, Mozart, Rossini, and both Strausses, her 1,061 annaled performances also included roles in the U.S. premiere of Luigi Non's Intolleranza (Boston, Feb. 21, 1965), and the world premieres of Hugo Weisgall's Six Characters in Search of an Author (NYCO April 26 &30, 1959 and Feb. 18, 1960), Gian Carlo Menotti's La Loca which was written for her (4 performances in San diego in June 1979, 8 with NYCO Sept.-Nov., 1979), and-most importantly-the title role in one of the greatest of all American operas: Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe (20 performances 1958-69 and a classic recording, all with NYCO). She also sang in two NYCO performances, in 1962, of Moore's less successful Wings of the Dove. In everything, her coloratura was colored, at emotional moments, by an ever-so-subtle but distinctive sob.
The unfortunate circumstance of her bearing two disabled children (in 1959-61), who could never hear or comprehend her singing, may have hardened her. After retiring from singing in 1980, she became an administrator, serving as Genderal Director for New York City Opera until 1989, then as Chairman of Lincoln Center, 1994-2002, and then of the Metropolitan Opera. David Diamond's only opera, The Noblest Game, commissioned by the National Opera Institute and considered by NYCO for many years, was "shelved." The work concerns a deaf child, which was apparently a subject too painful for Sills. To date, it has enjoyed only a partial performance, of four soliloquies, sung by Jliana Gondek, in May 2000. Marc Blitzstein's last-begun opera, Idiots First, had its very successful N.Y. premiere in my completion the week I first met Sills (while working as Assitant Chorus Master at the Met), but it deals directly with a retarded child, and was also something she (and NYCO) apparently did not want to touch.
As a colleague, though, she was a delight to work with: We used to joke about how she & I shared a stool-in 11 performances of Thais January-March 1978 at the Met, and six more on tour in April-May: She sat on it just before her entrance in Act IV; I stood on it right after she vacated it, in order to conduct the women's chorus singing behind her offstage. I remember vividly her answering a press question on that tour, in Memphis. Just a few years earlier, Carol Neblett had sung Thais in New Orleans, and had climaxed the orgy concluding Act I with an appearance Ross Allen described as "in the altogether." Sills was asked if she planned to do that. "What? At my age? You gotta be kidding!" was her response.
(Leonard Lehrman, July 20, 2007)