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Opera legend Beverly Sills has died at 78

Beverly Sills, the Brooklyn-born opera diva who was a global icon of can-do American culture with her dazzling voice, bubbly personality and management moxie in the arts world, died Monday of cancer, said her manager, Edgar Vincent.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Some people called her Bubbles. Others knew her as “the diva next door.” But to most of the world, Brooklyn-born soprano Beverly Sills was America’s first prima donna — a child star who sang commercials for laundry soap and grew up to play queens.

Sills died Monday night at her Manhattan home, surrounded by her family and doctor, said her manager, Edgar Vincent. She was 78. Sills was diagnosed with lung cancer weeks ago, but was never a smoker, Vincent said.

Sills started performing in the days of radio and appeared recently in high-definition movie theater broadcasts live from the Metropolitan Opera, where she performed as a singer, then became chairwoman of the board.

“Beverly was an extraordinary artist, a gifted administrator, and a magnificent human being,” Met music director James Levine said in a statement Tuesday. “In every facet of her career, she had a mission — to bring the joy and love of our great art form to as many people as possible.”

The Met had denied her the chance to sing on its stage until 1975, when she made her debut in Rossini’s “The Siege of Corinth.”

In her memoir, Sills said longtime Met general manager Rudolf Bing “had a thing about American singers, especially those who had not been trained abroad: He did not think very much of them.”

She helped put Americans on the international map of opera stars, singing at such famed opera houses as Milan’s La Scala, the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, The Royal Opera in London and the Deutsche Opera in Berlin.

The red-haired diva also appeared frequently on “The Tonight Show,” “The Muppet Show” and in televised performances with her friend Carol Burnett.

Bubbles from BrooklynBorn Belle Miriam Silverman in Brooklyn, she was called Bubbles, an endearment coined by the doctor who delivered her. He noted that she was born blowing a spit bubble from her mouth.

In 1947, that mouth produced vocal glory for her operatic stage debut in Philadelphia in a bit role in Bizet’s “Carmen.” Sills became a star with the New York City Opera, where she first performed in 1955 in Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Die Fledermaus.”

“She was just a life force — brilliant, witty and warm, funny, exquisitely talented,” New York City Opera chairwoman Susan Baker said. “In addition to being an icon of the American opera world, she went on to become a great leader in the world of the arts.”

Sills retired from the stage in 1980 at age 51 and began a new life as an executive and leader of New York’s performing arts community. First, she became general director of the New York City Opera.

Under her stewardship, the City Opera was the first in the nation to use English supertitles, translating for the audience by projecting lyrics onto a screen above the stage.

In 1994, Sills became chairwoman of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. She was the first woman and first former artist in that position.

After leading Lincoln Center through eight boom years and launching a redevelopment project, she retired in 2002, saying she wanted “to smell the flowers a little bit.”

Six months later, she was back as chairwoman of the Met.

“So I smelled the roses and developed an allergy,” she joked.

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As Met chairwoman, Sills was instrumental in proposing Peter Gelb, now general manager, for the position. He helped increase ticket sales and increase the Met’s popularity.

Sills bowed out as chairwoman in January 2005, saying, “I know that I have achieved what I set out to do.”

Described by former Mayor Ed Koch as “an empire unto herself,” Sills sat on several corporate boards, including those of Macy’s and American Express.

She raised money not only for Lincoln Center but also non-artistic causes such as the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the March of Dimes.

She also lent her name and voice to the Multiple Sclerosis Society; her daughter, Meredith, has MS and was born deaf.

Sills also nurtured her autistic son and her husband, Peter Greenough, a former journalist who lived with her at their home as his Alzheimer’s disease progressed. He died last year.

For most of her life, she balanced the challenges of her private life with the joy of singing.

She received acclaim for performances in such operas as Douglas Moore’s “The Ballad of Baby Doe,” Massenet’s “Manon” and Handel’s “Julius Caesar.”

Baby Doe -- child starHer 1958 appearances as Baby Doe was among her best-known. It was a rags-to-riches tale of a silver-mine millionaire who leaves his wife for his sweetheart and eventually dies penniless.

As a child star, Sills sang radio commercials with lyrics such as: “Rinso White, Rinso Bright, happy little washday song.”

A coloratura soprano, she was for years the prima donna of the New York City Opera, achieving stardom with critically acclaimed performances in Verdi’s “La Traviata” and Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.”

She is credited with reviving musical styles that had gathered dust, such as the trio of queen heroines of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena,” “Maria Stuarda” and “Roberto Devereaux” — in which she starred as Elizabeth, a role she called her greatest artistic achievement.

She grew up in a “typical middle-class American Jewish family,” as she put it. As a child, she took voice, dance and elocution lessons. At 4 she appeared on a local radio show.

When she was 7, her name was changed to Beverly Sills, and she won first place in the “Major Bowes Amateur Hour,” going on to sing on the radio, at ladies’ luncheons and at bar mitzvahs. At 16, billed as “the youngest prima donna in captivity,” she joined the touring J.J. Shubert operetta company.

Her opera debut came in 1947, in the role of Frasquita in “Carmen” with the Philadelphia Civic Opera.

Besides Greenough’s three children from a previous marriage, the couple had two children of their own, Peter Jr., known as “Bucky”, and Meredith, known as “Muffy.”