Commentary Magazine


Getting to Know Beverly Sills

Commemorating a cultural figure like Beverly Sills (1929–2007), who died last week of lung cancer at 78, is not easy. After a much-publicized career as a coloratura soprano, Sills served as general director of the New York City Opera and chairwoman of Lincoln Center, and later of the Metropolitan Opera. On July 3, in a bizarre tribute, the New York Philharmonic gave a conductorless performance, purportedly in her honor, of a work that most certainly requires a conductor—Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide. (The Philharmonic’s press office announced that this silly “tradition began with the death of Bernstein.”)

A far better way to honor Sills would be to address a problem mentioned in an astute obituary by critic Tim Page: the fact that Sills made most of her studio recordings after her voice had already begun to deteriorate. Exceptions may be heard on VAI, including a 1969 concert DVD of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, a 1964 Offenbach Tales of Hoffmann from New Orleans, and a 1968 Handel Julius Caesar from Buenos Aires, conducted by Karl Richter. Deutsche Grammophon alos offers a few choice recordings, including a 1958 Ballad of Baby Doe by Douglas Moore, a 1969 Donizetti Roberto Devereux led by Charles Mackerras, and a 1970 Donizetti Lucia Di Lammermoor conducted by Thomas Schippers. These and a few other high points are slim pickings for a singer who banked on the sensuous sheen of her voice as a major part of her artistry, in addition to acting smarts and a surprisingly agile stage presence. Sills’s actual performing is probably less known today than her post-retirement persona of jolly, steel-willed fundraiser and promoter of culture.

Getting closer to Beverly Sills—and away from Sylvia Bills—would require transferring to CD a number of surviving performance tapes. They would include a 1967 Handel Semele from Cleveland led by Robert Shaw, and a 1966 production of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie co-starring Placido Domingo. Sills’s work in contemporary music, like a Boston performance of Luigi Nono’s Intolleranza from 1965 conducted by Bruno Maderna, or a 1959 New York City Opera staging of Hugo Weisgall’s Pirandello-based opera, Six Characters in Search of an Author, should be of high interest. Roles that Sills eventually repudiated for extra-musical reasons (like the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute, which can be heard in a 1966 Tanglewood version led by Erich Leinsdorf, or Suor Angelica in a 1967 City Opera performance of Puccini’s Il Trittico) would also make essential listening on CD.

Add to these a number of concert works never recorded in the studio, like a 1967 rendition of Poulenc’s Gloria from the Caramoor Festival, and a number of Boston Symphony events conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, like a 1966 Schumann Scenes from Goethe’s Faust; 1967 and 1968 versions of Haydn’s Creation Mass; and a 1969 Beethoven Ninth Symphony from Tanglewood. These and other documents from her vocal prime, if made available on CD, would be revelatory posthumous tributes to Beverly Sills.