Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Beverly Sills, R.I.P.

By Drew

They were playing Franz Lehar's "Meine Lipeen sie kuessen so heiss" on the radio when I got up this morning. They never play vocal music in the morning on the classical station - too jarring to waking sensibilities - so it could only mean one thing. Beverly Sills had died.

As Mitchell mentioned yesterday, the story broke last week that she was gravely ill, and so this final news didn't really come as a surprise. The previous story had been a shock, however; she had seemed so vital on the Met broadcasts earlier this year, so alive, so - well, so Beverly Sills.

Her nickname was Bubbles, and it fit; no stuffy opera diva was she. She was a frequent guest of Johnny Carson's, starred in a TV special with Carol Burnett, appeared with the Muppets, was an ambassador for opera everywhere she went, at a time when opera was more a part of the mainstream culture. And her laugh, which was genuine and ready, was almost as satisfying as her voice.

Her greatest fame came not with the Met, but with the New York City Opera, in Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe, Handel's Giulio Cesare, the bel canto operas of Donizetti. Her Met debut didn't occur until 1975, thanks in large part to Rudolf Bing's reverse operatinc xenophobia. But Beverly Sills showed she didn't need the Met to become a superstar.

It was, as I said, a time when opera was more mainstream, when variety shows such as Ed Sullivan's brought opera to the people, and the people to opera. Will we ever see that time again, when a Beverly Sills or Roberta Peters or Robert Merrill can become so thoroughly a part of popular culture? (Peters appeared on the Sullivan show more than any other entertainer, a record 65 times.) Someone suggested Renee Fleming. On stage, perhaps; she's certainly one of the best-known American singers in opera. But I think it unlikely that Renee Fleming, or anyone else for that matter, can assume one of the greatest roles in American opera, a role written for one woman alone: that of being Beverly Sills.

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