These remarks are excerpted from the Frank Nelson Doubleday Lecture delivered recently by Beverly Sills at the National Museum of American History.
I was the first opera singer to go on the talk shows. I made the American artist my cause. I was one. My career was made entirely in this country and I just had a feeling that an awful lot of people thought that opera singers were great big fat ladies with horns coming out of their heads and I wanted to show that some of us were just chubby ladies but we didn't have any horns.
And I of course sang on those talk shows. I went by the premise that the best way to promote a product is to demonstrate it. And about a year ago, I retired and I was a little bit worried that not singing any more I would not have a platform to talk about the young American artist in our country.
When Roger Stevens asked me to put a name to what I wanted to talk to you about, we landed on "putting the bubbles in opera." "Bubbles" in this case was myself. It's a nickname I've had and I just thought that, to talk about the American artist, perhaps it might be interesting to tell you how my career came about.
My mother came to this country from Russia and my father from Romania. They were married and had three children. When you live in the Brooklyn ghetto you learn the only way to get out is to get an education. It was always known that my oldest brother would be a doctor. The middle boy is also a doctor, although he is a publisher today. The girl is another story. If she's lucky she'll get married. But you have to make a plan in case she doesn't turn out so well. And the only respectable profession in those days for a girl from a European Jewish family was to be a schoolteacher.
Every Saturday my father would disappear with the boys and do whatever it is that fathers do with boys on Saturdays. I was left with my mother, who decided that all little girls should learn how to sing and tap dance and play the piano. And all this was possible for 50 cents. There were schools in New York with radio programs attached to them. I belonged to Uncle Bob's Rainbow House. I used to appear every Saturday on the radio, not because I sang or tap danced or played the piano so well at three but because I was then, as I am now, a compulsive talker. And Uncle Bob and I would have these very long conversations and then I would insist that he let me sing.
My mother had a collection of Galli-Curci recordings. Twenty two arias. She would get up every morning and crank up the Victrola and put the records on and then make breakfast for us. And so by the time I was seven I had memorized 22 arias. I was raised on these arias the way children today are raised on television commercials.
One day my mother read about Major Bowes. I went on "The Amateur Hour" and I won. And then the Major invited me to be a weekly guest. There was another young singer on, Morris Miller--he later became Robert Merrill. One day the Major said to my mother, you really have to get this kid a singing teacher. So my mother was walking on 57th Street and there was a magazine cover and it said Estelle Liebling, teacher to the world's most famous singers. My mother called and made an appointment.
When we arrived Miss Liebling said, "Leave the little girl with the secretary and I'll hear you sing now." My mother said, "No, no no, the audition is for my little girl." Miss Liebling said, "I don't teach children. I don't even know any children." Well, I walked into her studio and stayed 35 years with her.
Miss Liebling didn't charge us because she was the most expensive teacher in New York and it was quite obvious my father was not going to be able to pay her. My father went along with the idea except that he really didn't think nice young women went on the stage. You must remember that European background. It simply wasn't the right thing for my father's daughter.
The Major got me a 36-week contract on a soap opera called "Our Gal Sunday." That's the story that asks, "Can a little girl from a mining town in the West find happiness as the wife of (a wealthy and titled Englishman)" I was a little mountain girl whose father was a drunkard and beat her constantly.
When I was 15, Miss Liebling sent me over to J. J. Shubert. Mr. Shubert offered me a few tours of Gilbert and Sullivan and "The Merry Widow." He billed me as the youngest prima donna in captivity. He put me in my first high heels, my first upsweep hairdo and my first strapless gown.
There was a society in those days called the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children which forced people like the Shuberts who wanted to send young girls like myself on tour to provide a tutor/chaperone. She was a wonderful girl. She had two weaknesses: gin and airline pilots.
It was very hard to make a living as a singer in this country. There were no regional opera companies, really no opportunity for a young American artist. The Metropolitan, Chicago and San Francisco, the great international houses in this country, were not looking for young American opera singers. So there were times when I worked in an after-hours club for tips from 10 at night till 4 in the morning. Those were demoralizing times for a young artist.
I remember a tour I took out to the Midwest. There was a man who worked out of Council Bluffs, Iowa, and he would bring young people out there for no money. But the experience was wonderful. The important young singers went into cities like Carney, Nebraska, and people like myself went into the suburbs of Carney, Nebraska.
I auditioned nine times for the New York City Opera. I had in my mind an image of what an opera singer should look like. A very prim girl wearing her hair in a very tight chignon, very high-necked dress. Finally I asked the agent, could you please ask Dr. Rosenstock, the director, why he kept calling me back since he apparently didn't like my work. And the answer was that he thought that I had a phenomenal voice with no personality.
Well, you don't tell that to a little street kid from Brooklyn. I took my hair and dropped it. We used to have jumpers that I wore with blouses and I wore it without the blouse. Dr. Rosenstock walked down the aisle, and he said "Vell, vell, vell, vat do we have here?" Thus began the first of 25 years with the New York City Opera.
To sum it all up, a career like mine could only have happened in this country. I do not mean to imply the arts should have boundaries. I simply don't believe that you have to be German to sing Wagner. If that were true, you'd never have heard Birgit Nilsson or Kirsten Flagstad or Helen Traubel or Lauritz Melchior or Jon Vickers.
I don't mean to imply that the arts, opera, should only be sung by Americans. What I do mean is what I plan to do with my New York City Opera Company, which I took over as general director when I retired from singing in 1980: to turn it into a home for the preservation, protection and promotion of the young American artist. Not just the opera singer but the designer, the conductor, the stage director.
Right now, my company is 99 percent American. It's terribly important that we look at the American artists as part of our national heritage. They have to know that they can have a dream that can come true just the way mine did. And in order to make that dream a little bit more real for them, they have to have a home to come to and I want to turn the New York City Opera into (that home).
My plan at some point is to turn that company into the American National Opera. We are called the New York City Opera because our theater happens to be in New York. But we have singers from almost every state in the Union. I'd like some kid in Peoria one day to wake up and tell her mother she'd like to be an opera star and the mother will be able to say to her, you work, honey, and maybe some day you'll go to New York and sing with the American National Opera.