Early last week, I flipped on NPR's All Thing's Considered and heard Carol Burnett being interviewed — and she was weeping. It was the first I'd heard of the death the day before of her beloved friend and colleague, our homegrown American opera superstar and arts champion Beverly Sills. "This is a big one," choked Carol.
America hasn't mourned a musician this hard since Leonard Bernstein died. It's hard to describe fully what this woman meant to all of us, whether you realize it or not. She was a larger-than-life American original: not only our first real homegrown diva, but (besides Bernstein) the single American musician who bridged the gap between stuffy highbrow art and pop culture better than any other.
And could she ever sing. Her high, light coloratura soprano could slice through a full orchestra. Nobody could bounce around the vocal stratosphere like she could, laying down smooth strings of notes like gleaming sonic necklaces. And nobody else could make you feel those notes as fully. Sills was one of the few singing actresses who could truly make you believe the outlandish plots and overblown emotions of opera's stylized world.
She brought it all down to earth like no other, making opera something that real people could get into. She also wasn't above poking fun at her art, like in the hilarious TV specials she did with Burnett. And can you imagine her duet with Miss Piggy on The Muppet Show? She was not only Johnny Carson's regular guest but even subbed for him as guest hostess. In the process, she became a gay icon on the order of Judy Garland and Bette Midler. There's no end to the campy drivel some of us giddy queens have spouted about her online (Google "A Boy and his Diva").
Sills' private life was seldom free from tragedy or irony. Her daughter was born deaf, and her son severely retarded — griefs that she parlayed into many millions raised for the March of Dimes. The petty pretenses of New York's artistic world kept her performing at the New York City Opera — the Big Apple's number-two house — for many years; she didn't tread the boards at the Met until her voice was past its prime.
She stopped singing in her early 50s, only to become the most successful arts administrator and fundraiser of our time. She nursed her beloved NYC Opera back to respectability and fiscal health, and then became Chairwoman of Lincoln Center, hosting their ETV broadcasts for years. Never one to hold a grudge, she even guided the destinies of the Met, where she'd long been spurned.
But Sills' most lasting achievement was to make opera a more vital, approachable medium — like pioneering the use of supertitled translations now in use everywhere (including all Spoleto operas) and pushing the Met's current worldwide movie house simulcast initiative. She also paved the way for an opera singer to be something of a public force. While nobody's come close to filling her shoes, there are some who may be poised to do so. One prospect is Renee Fleming, America's reigning opera star (and an awesome jazz vocalist, too). Fleming, who got her start here at Spoleto, is another emphatic yet lovable advocate for her art.
Check out Sills' YouTube video clips: her 1971 "Una voce poco fa" to hear her at her spectacular best, and her 1980 farewell performance at the New York Opera — with none other than Spoleto chamber music host Charles Wadsworth at the piano.
Sills wasn't called "Bubbles" from childhood for nothing. Everything about this great lady was effervescent. In terms of un-stuffy warmth, artistic integrity, and sheer force of personality, I don't think we'll ever see her like again.