Beverly Sills, 1929-2007

Renowned Opera Singer Also Was a Cultural Leader

By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Beverly Sills, the Brooklyn-born coloratura soprano whose memorable voice and effervescent spirit helped make her one of the dominant operatic performers of her era as well as an impresario and major American cultural figure, died last night at her home in New York. She was 78 and had cancer.

Known as Bubbles, as a reflection of her personality, Sills, the child of Eastern European immigrants, rose from modest origins to reach artistic heights during a life that was seen as an attractive new version of the American success story.

Trained entirely in this country, she went on to win over audiences in the great opera houses of the world. She mastered dozens of roles, recorded almost 20 operas and was hailed for the emotional power and human warmth she brought to her live performances.

She was said to possess a canniness and intelligence that served her well as an administrator and as an entertainer. She had been general manager of the New York City Opera and chairman of Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera.

Persuasive and skilled at wielding her influence with an admiring public, she was an indefatigable and enthusiastically received spokeswoman for the arts, credited with raising many millions of dollars.

Known to fans as the antithesis of the temperamental or self-centered diva, Sills was a wife and mother who coped with the illnesses and disabilities of her son and daughter and more recently with the illness of her husband, Peter Greenough, who died last year. His family had once owned the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and he had been an editor there when they met.

By no means could her great successes banish the shadows from her life. In recognition of the tragedies she knew, she told intimates that "happy I'll never be, cheerful I'll always try to be."

Although Sills was never a smoker, she developed inoperable lung cancer. Her manager, Edgar Vincent, said last night that the cancer apparently had spread there from a tumor elsewhere.

As recently as a month ago, he said, she had no idea that she was ill. Successive falls brought her to her doctor, and thorough medical investigation revealed that she "was basically riddled with cancer."

One theory, Vincent said, was that it had stemmed from colon cancer for which she underwent surgery some time ago.

Belle Miriam Silverman, as her parents named her, was born May 25, 1929, and it was said that a bubble between her lips at birth was the source of her nickname. She was performing almost as soon as she could walk or talk, garnering such honors as "most beautiful baby" in a 1932 competition in New York.

At the instigation of her mother, who foresaw stardom, she was on the radio by the age of 4. In 1938, she managed a small film role. Professional singing lessons led to a suggestion that she appear on "Major Bowes Amateur Hour," a Depression-era radio show that was a kind of early version of "American Idol." A victory in her debut on the network show led to more frequent appearances.

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