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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Beverly Sills: A Great American Soprano

Beverly Sills, (Belle Miriam Silverman) was born in 1929 in Brooklyn, New York. Her parents were Ukrainian immigrants, and as a child Sills was exposed to many languages at home, including French, Yiddish, and Russian, along with her native English. This exposure gave her a very natural facility with foreign languages, which was helpful in her later career.

Sills was precocious in the extreme as a child. Starting by winning a child beauty contest at the age of 3, she began performing on the radio at the age of 4 as "Bubbles" Silverman. She started taking lessons with Estelle Liebling, and by 1937, when she was 8 years old, she had appeared in a film, released the following year, which fortunately is preserved and viewable on Youtube. Because it tells us so very much about her, I think that here is a good place to see it. The film is called "Uncle Sol Solves It," and it is far more than a vaudeville shtick because of the difficulty of the piece, and the serious way Sills sings. Notice the extraordinary presence and charm of this little girl!  Also, watch the video to the very end and notice Uncle Sol's final advice to her:

Now how adorable is that!? The amazing thing is that she handles the fioratura quite well! Also, she has been taught, or naturally understands, what the great bel canto tenor Fernando de Lucía once told his student Georges Thill: "...per cantare bene, bisogna aprire la bocca!!" Which little Bubbles did! It's not hard to see why they called her "Bubbles," is it:-) Also, one other thing needs to be noticed. Did you notice Uncle Sol's advice at the end? Stay right here and study in this country., no matter how hanxious your hancestors are to do otherwise:-) .....we have great teachers here. That was one of the first things I noticed. It is important, because this was the grateful and patriotic attitude of so many at that time. The culture these Jewish immigrants, largely from Russia and Eastern Europe, brought to this country was enormous, beyond measure. You can see it in Sill's life-long attitude and work, and also in the attitudes of Jan Peerce, Roberta Peters, and many others. What they went on to contribute—and still do—is a story in itself, one of which every American can be proud, and for which all should be grateful.

Liebling encouraged little Beverly to appear on radio talent shows, which she did, and won a series of them, bringing increasing attention to herself. By age 16, she had joined a Gilbert and Sullivan touring company and began accumulating practical stage experience. Two years later, at 18, she made her operatic stage debut as the Spanish gypsy Frasquita in Bizet's Carmen with the Philadelphia Civic Grand Opera Company. By 1953, when she was 24, she appeared with the San Francisco opera as Helen of Troy in Boito's Mefistofele, and also sang Elivra in Don Giovanni with them the same year. From this moment on, her career virtually exploded. She went on, over the course of her career, to sing very many roles, in virtually all the major houses. Although she sang a repertoire from Handel, Mozart and Puccini, to Massenet and Verdi, she was known for her performances in coloratura soprano roles. Favorite operas were Lucia, La Fille du Régiment, Manon, Les Contes d'Hoffmann, The Barber of Seville, Roberto Devereux, La Traviata, and I Puritani.

Sills' life was music, from beginning to end: it never stops. The honors and accolades were extraordinary, as was her public relations work on behalf of music and charity, her administrative work at New York City Opera, and The Metropolitan. It is a vast biography, much too long to discuss here, but very easily consulted. Also, she has written an autobiography She was, without question, one of the most famous and respected figures in mid-twentieth century American cultural life.

Let us turn to Sills the artist. Here she is in her preferred repertoire, singing "Come per me sereno" from Bellini's La Sonnambula. It is a real coloratura tour-de-force. The trills, fioratura, and (very) high notes are simply stunning. It is a video of a certain length (nine minutes). If you have not the time to listen to it all now, skip the recitative. You don't want to miss any fireworks:

There simply can be no doubt about that technique. It is extraordinary, by any standard. The principles of bel canto singing have been thoroughly internalized, to the point where they simply come to define the singing. Few other sopranos of the twentieth century could match those trills. Sutherland could, but after that one starts to run down the list. Just amazing. And the speed of the coloratura is dazzling. This is a woman who was almost born singing, and was well taught from childhood. I would be so bold as to say that her technique was second to none.

Finally, from an American opera, the "Willow Song" from The Ballad of Baby Doe, by Douglas Moore. Sills distinguished herself in this opera, and was Moore's personal favorite in the title role (watch her, around 2:50, pick a D natural above high C out of the air!)

To a very great soprano, from a grateful American public—Thank you, Bubbles!


JD Hobbes said...

I am glad that you referred to her charitable work and work behind the scenes in her musical career and in the community. She was one of a kind!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Mr. Hobbes, as always. Oh yes! No article on Beverly Sills, no matter how modest, can get by without mentioning her good works. She was much more than a great singer, she was a great cultural custodian, a first class American citizen, and a promoter and fund raiser par excellence. If we gave People's Artist awards here, like they do in Russia, she would absolutely be a People's Artist, because she cared about people, and the artistic and cultural quality of their lives! A real winner!

Anonymous said...

This wasw really enjoyable to read. You captured what was so special about her. She was a great person as well as a singer..and I loved the old film of her at 8! What a cute kid! Thanks for this Edmund.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Mary. Yes, she was very special, no doubt. And I agree about the old film. I just HAD to put that in:-) Some people just have that magic quality, even as children. They walk into a room, and the whole room lights up! She had that quality. It's hard to define, but very easy to spot! Thanks again.

Darren Seacliffe said...

Well,personally,I've little enthusiasm for sopranos. Most of the best sopranos leave me cold, so I shan't comment much, lest others misunderstand.

Thanks for the Sonnambula aria, Edmund. You're right. There are plenty of vocal fireworks..the wonders, the stunning thrills she is able to do with her voice..Just the fireworks alone's enough to put her in the list of best coloratura sopranos of the century.

She's more of an alternative to Sutherland rather than a prime rival. She's got better diction, for one thing. I'm not surprised if the two sopranos knew each other but I wonder if they got along with each other.

I've heard of her life before this actually. She was able to do so much for opera, bring opera to the masses and keep up such a radiant and bubbly personality in spite of tragedies in her personal life. This makes her a really admirable and very commendable woman. I can see why you all have so much respect and affection for her.

Are there any of her roles you can recommend? She's got a beautiful voice, lovely high notes and all but I've not had much luck with listening to her performances. All except the three Donizetti Tudor queen operas she sang at the NYCO.
Her beautiful voice and her charming high notes made the leading roles she sang much more appealing. Nevertheless, I heard that those roles she sang shortened her career considerably although from what I understand, they were taken at the peak of her career.

Verdiwagnerite said...

Well Edmund, I can cheerfully say I do know this name and voice!

The La sonnambula piece almost makes me a Bellini fan - I probably need to give it the amount of time I give Verdi & Wagner! Fantastic vocal pyrotechnics and there's a warmth and colour to the voice that I really like. I knew a bit about her work behind the scenes in administration with NYCO (she would be sad, I imagine, about the trouble the company is going through now) but didn't know too much about her fundraising. Thanks for that.

Regarding Rudolf Bing, I believe it was the Bing way or the Highway? Not going to suit a character like Sills with strong opinions and views.

Another great post Edmund.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Darren, for an interesting comment, as usual! I suppose Sills at her operatic best might be represented by Bellini's I Capuletti ed i Montecchi and La Sonnambula, and Donizetti's Lucia, Linda de Chamounix and Roberto Devereux. But that of course is just one man's opinion. Thanks again for the comment!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Kate. I certainly appreciate your comment! Yes, the Bing episode was just unforgivable. She was never permitted to sing at the Met while he was there. He thought of her as a vulgar little nobody from Brooklyn--a vaudevillian, basically-- and said so...for no reason I could ever determine, except that, ike Helen Traubel, she was very down to earth and was also a show business presence as well as an opera diva,and had been since her days as little Bubbles on the radio.Bing just hated that kind of thing. He never understood or had any partiulcar interest in America--just stereotypes. Only after he was no longer director did Sills sing at the Met. Essentially, Bing was only interested in Ialian prima donnas. There is much that could be said about that insufferable and arrogant little man, but for the sake of civility, I'll say no more:-)

JD Hobbes said...

Ha! A breath of fresh air. Thanks for telling it like it is about R. Bing.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Mr. Hobbes. I really appreciate that. There just comes a point in that sordid saga when it becomes impossible to hold back. Sills was the tipping point. That was absolutely unforgivable, and I cannot for the life of me, to this day, understand why the Board at the Met stood for it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article, Edmund. Though I knew her name and listened to her recordings, the information about her position in American culture is new to me. The video from ‘"Uncle Sol' is precious; she sang like a nightingale even in her childhood. And continued to be a nightingale throughout her career:) Perhaps this ‘nightingale effect’ (absolute effortlessness) is the main quality of true bel canto artists. She is phenomenal.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, my friend. Yes, she was a phenomenon. And I too just love that old film clip. That's one of the cutest things I've seen in a long time. That "bubbly" quality she possessed is extremely attractive. And yes, she was a cultural powerhouse. She virtually established the New York City Opera, and went on to become Chair of the Board at the Metropolitan later in life. She was a tireless advocate for opera in America, a wonderful person. Thanks again!

Suebe2b said...

Thank you for this Blog. I just found it. I loved watching Beverly Sills. I will be busy reading about the many singers you have here. I have many of their recordings and bios.Thank you . Sue

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Sue, and welcome to Great Opera Singers. You are always welcome here, and your comments will always be appreciated. I hope you find some of your favorites!