Sills Transcended Opera Stages

The Associated Press
Tuesday, July 3, 2007; 6:56 PM

NEW YORK -- In remembering Beverly Sills, Henry Kissinger didn't think about her singing _ he never heard her perform.

Their birthdays were two days apart _ Sills on May 25, Kissinger on May 27 _ and they celebrated some years with joint parties. Kissinger visited her Friday, just before Sills left a hospital and returned home for the final time.

"She gave me many of the records which she recorded, and I listened to those," the former secretary of state said Tuesday, a day after the celebrated soprano died of lung cancer at 78.

"She was a woman of tremendous human intuition and tremendous compassion for others. She had a marvelous understanding of people," he said.

Sills never faded after she retired from singing in 1980 at 51. She handled CEOs and politicians as deftly as Donizetti's high notes, as smoothly as she soothed sopranos and tenors.

"New York, the nation, and the world have lost a leading light and a melodic voice," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.

Bubbles, as she was known throughout her life, spent 10 years as general director of the New York City Opera, then served as chairwoman of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and later as chairwoman of the Metropolitan Opera. She became a leading figure on the American cultural scene, hosting TV broadcasts and raising millions of dollars with just a few phone calls.

"New York City, the arts community and music world have lost a major light," former Mayor Rudy Giuliani said. "Beverly Sills' exuberance in spreading the joy and beauty of the opera helped bring it those who might have not been familiar with it."

Sills took on the coloratura repertoire at a time when it was out of favor, shunned by Rudolf Bing's Met, where Verdi, Wagner and Puccini reigned. She became famous at the smaller City Opera, triumphing in Bellini, Rossini, Handel and Massenet.

And, with guest-hosting stints on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" and TV appearances with Carol Burnett, she became the one American opera singer known by the masses.

"I lost one of my best friends ever, and I'm devastated," Burnett said.

Julius Rudel, then City Opera's music administrator, first heard Sills in the early 1950s at the recommendation of her teacher, Estelle Liebling. Sills had to make several auditions before she was hired by the company, then headed by conductor Joseph Rosenstock.

"He was a little concerned about how tall she was," Rudel recalled. "She said, `I'm happy to come back, but I'm not going to shrink.'"

Sills, about 5-foot-6 according to manager Edgar Vincent, became a giant in the bel canto world, helping revive works that had gone out of fashion, such as Donizetti's three operas about Tudor queens _ which still have never been staged by the Met.

Placido Domingo, who starred opposite Sills at City Opera, remembered "beautiful times of bubbling, giggling" nights spent on trips to Los Angeles, Mexico, Peru and other places. In recent years, she gave the tenor advice on his jobs running the Los Angeles and Washington Operas. He was surprised by the speed of her decline in recent weeks.

"We had been planning a dinner for the last year and a half," he said by phone from Madrid, Spain. "We seem to always meet on opening nights with a 1,000 people there. We missed that dinner."

At City Opera and then the Met, Sills influenced a generation of singers _ the Met even established an award in her name in 2005.

"There isn't another American singer in the 20th century who managed to accomplish the enormous feat of making opera accessible to the American public," soprano Renee Fleming said. "We shared our first lunch together four years ago, when I was overwhelmed by her generous candor, her vulnerability, and the openness with which she shared her life with me. She gave advice freely, on repertoire, negotiation, on possible career trajectories, and I felt suddenly that I had a much-needed mentor, so many years after she had hired me to sing Mimi in `La Boheme' at New York City Opera as a beginner." James Conlon, music director of the Los Angeles Opera, remembered attending City Opera performances in the 1960s, then while at Juilliard playing rehearsals as an assistant conductor for one of her performances of Bellini's "Norma."

"She demonstrated that one's commitment to opera doesn't have to stop when the singing is over," Conlon said.

In recent weeks, Sills had been concerned with the future care of Muffy, her daughter, who was born with severe hearing loss. Her son, Bucky, was born with mental retardation, and she spent much of her final years caring for her husband, Peter, who died last September.

"She had a very hard life herself in some respects, but she never talked about it. She was an inspirational person," Kissinger said.

A private funeral was scheduled for Wednesday. Lincoln Center planned to honor Sills with a moment of silence Tuesday night on its plaza, and the New York Philharmonic was to celebrate Sills' life with a conductorless version of Bernstein's overture to "Candide."

The Met hopes to arrange a memorial tribute for August or September.

"Opera has lost its biggest booster and friend," said Met general manager Peter Gelb _ hired on Sills' recommendation.

© 2007 The Associated Press