Most people don't keep a huge cardboard record-store display figure of Beverly Sills in their study. But I do. I'm a fan, postpubescent variety, the kind who might walk around wearing a "Beverly Sills Is A Good High" button if I knew where to find one. So this book and all its delicious detail are meant for me. And I reveled in it, baby pictures and everything.
Sills has written a cheerful, open book, maybe occasionally too open. She's a compulsive talker, she warns readers right away; we could have guessed. Nothing gets shoved under the rug. Did you wonder why she dyed her hair red? Or what happened to that childhood sinus condition? Look no further. Even a fan's hunger for detail can lessen; I would rather not know that the author is called Bubbles because she was born with an enormous bubble of spit in her mouth. But now I know it anyway.
Belle Silverman was an early smash. Before she was 7 she had picked out her stage name and knew 22 Galli-Curci arias, although their phonetic Italian made her singing teacher burst out laughing. She appeared on various radio programs, from "Uncle Bob's Rainbow Hour" to "Our Gal Sunday," and did a Rinso commercial. Her boyfriend used to summon her by whistling, "Rinso White, Rinso White, happy little washday song!" Her P.S. 91 class even voted her Most Likely to Succeed.
That was the easy part. The hard part lasted from 1944, when Sills came out of adolescent retirement, to 1966, when her portral of Cleopatra in Handel's "Julius Caesar" finally splashed her all over the papers. During those years she sang 63 Micaelas on one tour and nearly went berserk, learned not to worry about short tenors, did antipasto commercials, and dropped her Valkyrie helmet onstage. The New York City Opera refused her seven times ("a phenomental voice, but no personality"). Once they took her, nothing world-shaking happened.
She married Peter Greenough, who carried her off to a big Cleveland house with monogrammed towels. We learn how he sent Mama a huge azalea tree, how he cooked oysters Rockefeller, how she got seasick. . . well, perhaps a memoir is no place for tasteful restraint.
Then the children were born, and tragedy hit the Greenoughs. Sills does not linger over the well-known painful details; Muffy is deaf, Bucky retarded. "There is no way of describing my initial desolation," she notes simply. Later she writes, "Some people think that if you talk about birth defects in your children you are trying to capitalize on their tragedy; others think that if you don't talk about your children you must be ashamed of them. I happen to be very proud of my children."
Her husband and Julius Rudel, of the City Opera, finally pushed her back to work, the best therapy. Rudel once phoned claiming he was saving "Boris Godunov" for her; she could play either Boris or Godunov, he told her. Her fees went up. Rudel said she sang like a goddess, she addressed 250 Christmas cards backstage one night. Seals barked during her "Traviata" at the Cincinnati Zoo Opera.
It turned out happily after all. On the opening night of "Julius Caesar," all the critics who were in New York for the Metropolitan Opera's opening wandered over to see what the City Opera had in mind. They heard one of the great performances of all time, and they raved.
Finally, even the Metropolitan Opera came around. Sir Rudolf Bing didn't much care for American singers, especially her, Sills reports. But after he retired, she made her Metropolitan debut, in the "Siege of Corinth." At the end, Danny Kaye let loose several screeching whistles and yelled, "Speech, speech!" Even he must have been hard to hear in the din. So it took a while, but local girl did make good.
There are niggling flaws in the book. Bubbles can bubble too much. She gets too folksy about how her mother made all her costumes and how her old pre-monogram towels read "Beth-El Hospital" because brother Sidney had interned there. She relays far too many of her compliments. Many of the color pictures have a peculiar hue. And there is some sloppy copy editing: "Mignon" becomes "Manon" Goeran Gentele's name is mispelled, and the great clanging typo in the first line must be every typesetter's nightmare.
No matter. The book warmed the cockles of my fan's heart; a delightful woman comes through on every page. I would certainly rather listen to Beverly Sills sing than read about her. But doing both at the same time is a very good thing indeed.