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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.

After completing her formal education as a teenager, she began singing for pay in 1945 in a Gilbert and Sullivan company. Two years later, she went from operetta to opera, playing a gypsy in "Carmen" in Philadelphia.

In the 1950s, she toured, finally arriving back in New York in 1955 with the New York City Opera.

It was try and try again for Sills. The New York City Opera debut followed several years of falling short at auditions. But once accepted, she went on for a quarter-century, in classical and modern roles.

Eleven years into her work at the New York City Opera came a performance that Sills regarded as a signal achievement. In 1966, she sang Cleopatra in Handel's "Giulio Cesare" at the Lincoln Center. By then, she wrote in an autobiography, she could judge opera, and knew that hers "was one of the great performances of all time" at the center.

For the next 20 years, she was perhaps the queen of American opera. Although difficulties with the management of the Metropolitan Opera kept her from performing there for years, she was a fixture with the City Opera and was regarded as one of the landmarks of the New York City cultural scene.

She was greeted rapturously at her debut at Milan's La Scala, and she sang in London's Covent Garden. The passage of time and the retirement of Rudolf Bing brought her at last to the Met in 1975, where the applause after her debut was said to last almost 20 minutes.

Subsequently, in addition to singing at the Met, she continued at the City Opera, while giving recitals and touring college campuses. Her infectious laugh was often heard on talk shows.

She retired from performing in 1980, moving into the administrative work that was credited with bringing a firm financial footing to the company that had long been her artistic home.

She was Lincoln Center's chairman from 1994 to 2002, when she became chairman of the Met. She gave up that post 2 1/2 years ago. It was reported that the decision was prompted by the need to place her husband in a nursing home after years in which she had provided his care. He reportedly had Alzheimer's disease. He died last year at 89.

Survivors include their son, who is known as Bucky, and their daughter, known as Muffy.

Muffy was born deaf, and Bucky has been described as autistic. At one time, almost 50 years ago, she suspended her career to care for them. Later, in response to their conditions, she had headed the board of the March of Dimes Foundation and was national chairman of the Mothers March.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company