Beverly Sills, singer, actress, opera executive, media celebrity and author, made her entrance here last night as a lecturer, as many hundreds tromped through snow and ice to hear her at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
It was part of the Frank Nelson Doubleday Lecture series, and they have such talks often at the museum. But lecturing is not exactly what Sills does. For lack of a better phrase last night, she called it "compulsive talking," which she said she had mastered at age 3.
When she began, her eye was caught by the huge statue of George Washington in a toga which stands on one of the museum's long second-floor transepts leading from the central hall where she spoke. "That's by my husband's great-great-great-uncle," she exclaimed, referring to her husband, retired editor Peter Greenough, and his relative, 19th-century sculptor Horatio Greenough. "It must have made quite a splash in its time. They sent all the way to Rome for it, and even then it cost $25,000. And then they must have been really shocked when, with that bare shoulder and all, the Father of our Country came back looking like the Mother of our Country." There was much laughter before she continued. "I understand it was in the cellar for a long time. Thanks for bringing it up," she added of one of the museum's bulkiest and most familiar objects.
That reminded her that Ignace Jan Paderewski's piano is also at the museum. She recalled a story about the pianist and first prime minister of a free Poland, who tried to guide his country through another period of great stress, which followed World War I. He had gone to a dinner of wealthy robber barons one night, under the impression that they were all Poles. It turned out that, instead, they were polo players. The pianist decided to stay for awhile before he explained the misunderstanding. Then he addressed the men about the distinction that had led to the mistake: "You gentlemen are, you see, good souls who play polo; but I, instead, am a Pole who plays solo."
She then came to her theme: the creation of career opportunities in opera for American singers. As general director of the New York City Opera, she described her plan to make it into a national opera that develops American singers -- much along the lines of, for instance, the English National Opera, which coexists in London with the Royal Opera just as her company does next door to the Met in New York.
As usual, her most persuasive arguments came from her own experiences, as she sacrificed and fought to become a major singer within her own country. Even the role that made her a world figure for the first time, that of Cleopatra in Handel's "Julius Caesar," had been promised to a singer from outside the City Opera. "But I was determined to get that part," she added, "It was an insult to the singers to go outside when there was someone there who could sing it. That's what we were up against.
"If I don't do anything else, I'm going to do something for the protection and preservation of American singers."
There was much applause. And then the Q and A continued for 15 minutes until she said, "Look at this weather. You all really need to get started home."
That was it for the lecture. But almost everybody stayed around in the main hall, to have waffles with peaches, strawberries, cheese, drinks and to meet Beverly Sills.