• 1929 — 2007
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With her vibrant, cheery personality, soprano Beverly Sills always was a favorite of the general public, among the most effective spokespersons the arts have had in America. The child of immigrant parents, Sills (born Belle Miriam Silverman) discovered singing at an early age; at four she was on a morning radio program as "Bubbles" Silverman, and by age seven she had sung in a movie. At 16 she joined a touring Gilbert and Sullivan company. Her most important vocal studies were with Estelle Liebling, who had been a favored soprano of John Philip Sousa. In 1947, she made her operatic debut as Frasquita in Carmen at Philadelphia. She toured North America during the 1951-1952 season with the Charles Wagner Opera Company, singing Violetta in La Traviata and Micaëla (Carmen). After singing in Baltimore and San Francisco, she made her debut at the New York City Opera, which was to become her artistic home for over two decades. She once again sang Violetta in that debut, but soon expanded her repertoire to include a wide range of roles. Among the twentieth century operas in which she performed were Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe, Nono's Intolleranza, and Weisgall's Six Characters in Three Acts. In 1966, she reached international fame with performances as Cleopatra in Handel's Giulio Cesare. Her performances of Donizetti's "Tudor triology," Roberto Devereux, Maria Stuarda, and Anna Bolena, solidified her stature on the international scene. She made her Teatro alla Scala debut as Pamira in Rossini's The Siege of Corinth in an edition prepared by conductor Thomas Schippers. In 1975, she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in the same role; she had already sung Donna Anna in a concert performance there in 1966. Her Vienna debut in 1967 as the Queen of the Night in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte was one of her few performances of this role. She regularly sang many other important roles in both Italian opera and in works from other countries.
She retired from performing at the age of 50, with an appearance in Menotti's La Loca, and accepted the position of General Manager of the New York City Opera. In 1991, she joined the board of the Metropolitan Opera, and four years later became head of New York's Lincoln Center. Sills sang regularly in concerts and recitals containing the arias from her famous roles. Her concert performance of the first version of Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos is justly famous, since Zerbinetta's aria in this version is much more difficult than in the revised version.
Her basic voice was a light, high soprano with excellent technique and breath control. She was best heard in roles where fragility of character was paramount, such as Marie in Donizetti's La Fille du régiment, Puccini's Manon Lescaut, and Violetta. By sheer power of character she held her own in operas normally best served by larger voices as well.
Although her artistic life was filled with great triumphs, Sills knew personal tragedy. Her daughter was born deaf and her son is mentally retarded. She was active in the March of Dimes Mothers' March on Birth Defects and other related organizations. Her autobiography was published in 1976 with the title Bubbles: A Self-Portrait and was revised in 1981 as Bubbles: An Encore; another autobiography, Beverly, followed in 1987.