I didn’t discover Beverly Sills until the last months of her life. I was aware of the American icon through “Live from Lincoln Center” telecasts which she hosted with her trademark down-to-earth amiability and charm, but wasn’t familiar with her actual artistic abilities. The night she hosted The Light in the Piazza, I was there, but while I could see the television lighting for her in the wings at the Beaumont, I never got a glimpse of the great diva herself. It wasn’t until her death in 2007 that I really discovered her greatness thanks to YouTube. I realized while introducing a friend to her with some clips, that I never wrote about Ms. Sills.
Sills was one of the foremost American opera singers, and was a formidable presence in bridging the cultural gap between the world of opera and mainstream entertainment. Her personality made her a popular guest on television shows, including “The Carol Burnett Show” and a famed appearance with Danny Kaye. She was a frequent guest on “The Tonight Show,” and is in fact the only opera singer to have ever guest-hosted in Johnny Carson’s absence. Months before her death, she appeared on “The View” serving as guest co-host during Best Friends week (she and Barbara Walters were especially close).
Her contribution to the arts transcended her professional singing career. When she retired from performing in 1980, she became the General Director of the NYCO, a position she held until 1989. In 1994, she became the Chairman of Lincoln Center. In 2002, she took reigns as the Chairman of the Metropolitan Opera, a position from which she resigned in 2005 due to the declining health of her husband. She raised millions of dollars for the organizations and was as much a staple at Lincoln Center as the fountain in the plaza.
Sills’ battle with cancer made headlines in NY, and as the news became increasingly grim her fans prepared for the worst. When Beverly Sills died of cancer on July 2, 2007, she was fondly remembered for her immense contribution to the world of opera and to the arts in general. Her photo and obituary appeared on the front page of the NY Times the following day and the lights at Lincoln Center were dimmed in her honor. A memorial service was held on September 16 of that year, with performances from Placido Domingo, Anna Netrebko, Natalie Dessay and Nathan Gunn. Speakers at the event included Henry Kissinger, Barbara Walters and Carol Burnett. Other memorial events continued throughout the fall of that year, especially at the NYCO.
Beverly Sills left behind an indelible legacy of talent, arts advocacy and set an example of what it truly means to be a diva. Here are some of my personal favorite clips of the star:
“Una Voce Poco Fa” from Il Barbiere di Siviglia from a 1976 telecast:
Here is “All the Things You Are” from 1973:
A television appearance with Danny Kaye:
And finally, my all time favorite. Here is Ms. Sills appearing on “The Muppet Show” in the debut performance of the new opera Pigoletto.