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Subject: Remembering Beverly Sills on 10th Death Anniversary
From: Gerald Waldman <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Gerald Waldman <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Mon, 3 Jul 2017 00:40:04 -0400

text/plain (222 lines)

Today, we remember with sadness the 10th death anniversary of one of  
America's greatest and most beloved opera singers, the great Lyric Coloratura 
Soprano, Beverly Sills, born May 25, 1929, whom we sadly lost far too early 
at 78 to cancer on July 2, 2007.  It is impossible to believe that 10 years have 
elapsed since this great singer, artist, musician and humanitarian has died.  
Without question, Sills possessed at her peak one of the most beautiful, 
shimmering, opalescent soprano voices of the twentieth century, frequently 
combining both a beautiful mezza voce, and seamless legato with a 
shimmering high pianissimo, which could break your heart with its profound 
beauty.  At her absolute peak, she could both astound you with the articulate 
brilliance of her coloratura singing, and the profound depth of expression she 
brought to each role. Also, a superb linguist, she especially excelled in Italian 
and French, but also sang superbly in German  and English, which enabled her 
to sing ostentatiously, an extraordinarily wide range of roles ranging from 
Opera, Oratorio, Requiems, and Operettas, to lieder and song, and she was 
also a superb singing actress, singing roles from Handel to Mozart, Strauss, 
Bellini, Rossini, Verdi, Massenet, Gounod, Offenbach, Thomas, and even 
Puccini, and was especially admired in the great bel canto heroines of 
Donizetti and Massenet. One can listen to an example of her mastery of lieder 
in recital with her extraordinary rendition of Schubert’s “Der Hirt auf dem 
Felsen” one of his greatest vocal masterpieces for soprano, piano and clarinet, 
to hear a truly great artist.  Her live and studio recordings of this are in the 
pantheon of the best, with Elly Ameling and Benita Valenta, but what sets Sills 
apart is the heart rending plangency she brings to the middle section (In 
tiefem Gram verzehr ich mich – I am so miserable here).  Her superb 
musicianship coupled with exemplary diction, and a probing intelligence made 
her one of the truly great artists of the operatic and concert stage.  She also 
was one of the special few operatic artists, including Giuseppe Di Stefano, 
Hermann Prey, Fritz Wunderlich and Frederica Von Stade, who always exuded 
a marvelous joy of singing to the audience, which always garnered ecstatic 

      One can see what made this beloved singer so special with the many 
recordings one can watch and listen to on youtube, many of them capturing 
her at her peak in the 1960’s.  Listen to her beguiling rendition of “Myself I 
shall adore” from Handel’s Semele, with the brilliant coloratura and delivery of 
the playful use of words.  Beverly Sills was a real creature of the theater, who 
also paid scrupulous attention not only to every note, but every nuance of the 
text she was singing, wedding the music and the words. Nothing was sung just 
for virtuosity, but like Maria Callas, the astoundingly brilliant coloratura was a 
means of expression to interpret the character's innermost feelings.  She had 
a very special rapport with many great singers, especially tenor, Nicolai 
Gedda, baritone, Donald Gramm, and bass/baritone, Norman Treigle, giving 
many unforgettable performances people still talk about today.  Beverly Sills 
was a very favorite of many outstanding conductors, including, Sir Charles 
Mackerras, Eric Leinsdorf, Julius Rudel, and Thomas Schippers.  Julius Rudel, 
always spoke about her superb musicianship and being an extraordinary 
singing actress.  Beverly Sills and Shirley Verrett have been lauded by many 
critics as two of the supreme operatic artists who have carried on the tradition 
of Maria Callas in the bel canto repertoire, combining mastery of the bel canto 
style with profound depth of expression, through exemplary musicianship, and 
superlative command of nuance and shading of the words.  Like Maria Callas, 
Beverly Sills was also lauded as an unforgettable tragic actress, fully 
inhabiting the character of each of her celebrated roles.  
     She is also one of the few singers, with Maria Callas, Elisabeth Soderstrom 
and Shirley Verrett, who can sing astoundingly difficult music while streaming 
tears simultaneously, and be immensely moving.  She spoke to me about this 
many years ago when she was here in Cambridge.  In many of the 
quintessential bel canto roles, such as Lucia, Elvira in I Puritani, and Anna 
Bolena, she is the only singer who can move me as profoundly as Maria 
Callas, especially in her extraordinary delineation of the Mad Scenes, where 
she and Callas can bring an agonizing beauty of interpretation which is truly 
heart rending.  How can one ever forget her early 1968 rendition of Bellini's 
sublime aria, "Oh quante volte", which I have never heard surpassed, for not 
only its lyrical beauty and sweep, but also for its achingly, heartfelt 
expression of love.  Her magnificent rendition of Mozart's exquisite aria, "Ruhn 
Sanft mein holdes leben" is absolute perfection with long arcing phrases, 
shimmering pianissimos and matchless breath control.  I have never heard 
this extraordinary aria sung with such beauty of tone combined with eloquent 
expression.  When one hears her rendition of this sublime aria time seems to 
literally stand still.  Also, her profound use of the rest markings in the score is 
another example of her superlative musicianship.  

       Some of her most unforgettable roles which she put her unique stamp on 
were the extraordinary performances of the Three Donizetti Tudor queens, her 
crowning achievement as Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux, Maria Stuarda and 
Anna Bolena, Cleopatra in Handel's Julius Caesar, Baby Doe in The Ballad of 
Baby Doe, Lucia in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, Elvira in Bellini's I 
Puritani, her splendid Semele, heartbreaking Violetta, all of the soprano parts 
of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman, and her ever seductive Manon.   She had a 
special affinity for the French 19th century repertoire, not only through her 
mastery of the French language, but her shimmering soprano voice was a 
wonderful match for the sensuality of the French music of this period.  Many in 
Boston will never forget her extraordinary performances in so many of her 
marvelous roles, especially Lucia, Norina, Rosina, Marie in Daughter of the 
Regiment, and Giulietta in Capuletti ed i Montecchi.  Beverly Sills was a 
beloved favorite all over the world, but she had a special collaboration with 
Sarah Caldwell in Boston, covering almost 20 years in 17 different 
productions, which gave opera lovers the very unique privilege of seeing her 
at her absolute peak in roles she had not essayed before.  
      I have been told so many wonderful stories by friends of her spectacular 
performances, and all of them portray one of the truly magnificent artists who 
made you feel that she was communicating the character's innermost feelings 
directly to you in the theater.  One friend's unforgettable story is of a recital 
she gave at Jordan Hall in Boston, where she sang some Christmas Songs 
exquisitely, while circling the stage and lighting the chorister's candles.  He 
said that she wove a magical spell of vocal and interpretive beauty, which is 
one of the highlights of his musical life and he saw her over 100 times.  Sills 
so deeply affected millions of opera lovers all over the world that they would 
see her again and again in opera, concert and recital.  Through her tireless 
efforts, she was one of the first operatic artists to bring opera into opera 
lovers' homes all over the world, through her many appearances which were 
telecast on television, when classical music was a staple of television 
programming.   With Leonard Bernstein, Sills is credited as being perhaps the 
most influential classical music artist of the 20th century to bring passion and 
excitement to classical music and make it one of the most popular art forms 
in the United States.  She was the longest running host of Live at Lincoln 
Center bringing the very best of the New York musical life into music lovers’ 
homes all over the world.  A very generous performer I will never forget a 
1970 Cleveland recital which I was privileged to hear, where she sang a very 
taxing program which included some of the most difficult high lying Strauss 
songs and Zerbinetta's great showpiece aria, and after 2 hours of singing, she 
sang two fiendishly difficult, florid scenes by Ambroise Thomas, "Je suis 
Titania" and Ophelia's Mad Scene as encores.   

     Sadly, her life was filled with tragedy and this made her operatic 
portrayals even more overwhelming.  She spoke openly how tragedy made 
her not only a better person, but a more complete artist, achieving music on a 
higher plane.  She has given of her self endlessly to countless charities, 
foremost, being the President of the March of Dimes for many decades.  She 
has dedicated her life to music, becoming a leading champion for opera, and 
has worked constantly to make sure that opera is at the forefront of our 
culture, through her work as Director of the New York City Opera, Chairman of 
Lincoln Center, and then as President of the Board of the Metropolitan Opera, 
through her tireless fund raising efforts, she spearheaded the mission of 
making sure that the MET broadcasts continue for years to come.   Sills 
eloquently articulated that music and art are the highest achievements of 
civilization.  As I am typing this, I am listening to Beverly Sills in her 
staggering and profoundly eloquent rendition of Elisabetta's Mad Scene from 
Donizetti's Roberto Devereux.  Sills justly felt that Queen Elizabeth was her 
greatest operatic triumph, and for anyone who is not familiar with her 
extraordinary artistry, the 1969 recording of Roberto of Devereux, displays 
Sills at her absolute zenith, not only through her being in stupendously, 
beautiful voice, but the indisputable mastery of the bel canto style and the 
heart rending depth of her portrayal.  The combination of her voice and 
interpretation is spine chilling in its intensity and full of profound insight, i.e, 
the way she tearfully shades "mirate" before launching into the final verse of 
the cabaletta, "Quel palco di sangue roseggia" is heart rending.  What is even 
more amazing is that Sills astonished Sir Charles Mackerras by recording the 
entire 17.5 minute Roberto Devereux Mad Scene in one take, as if it was a 
live performance!  Fortunately for posterity, the result is an inspired 

      I have also just listened to one of her great performances as Violetta (a 
role she sang over 200 times) in Verdi's La Traviata from a 1970 Naples 
performance. It certainly captures her at her pinnacle, both vocal and 
interpretive. All of the special qualities that made her a great artist are 
present: the opalescent beauty of the voice, the extraordinary command of 
fioratura and embellishments, especially trills, the shimmering high 
pianissimos (D flats), the eloquent legato coupled with superb diction, all 
combined with the magnificent shading and coloring to move the listener to 
tears. No other lyric coloratura is as expressive as this highly communicative 
artist.  She is devastatingly moving in the garden scene. This was the 
legendary performance when after she left the stage at the end of the garden 
scene with an eloquent "Amami Alfredo", and was resting in her dressing 
room, the house manager had to request her to come back to take another 
curtain call, so that the performance would be able to continue.   Who now 
sings "Amami Alfredo" so unforgettably that it brings the performance to a 
standstill?  Beverly Sills and Maria Callas are the only two singers I have 
heard who bring a magical quality to the phrase "del viver mio", which is sung 
with heartfelt mezza voce, as if coming from the very core of her being, (is 
this the true love I have been waiting for), from the great scene ending Act 1 
of La Traviata ("Ah forse lui").  Certainly, no one has filled her shoes since her 
retirement. After listening to this one can understand why she is considered 
such a magnificent artist. Her magical, inspired interpretation of "Giusto ciel in 
tal periglio", from the 1969 live La Scala performance, where each limpid trill 
expresses her anguish in Rossini's Siege of Corinth, exemplifies her great 
artistry and how it enriched so many millions of opera lovers' lives. The 
exquisite control of legato, shimmering pianissimos, limpid trills and heart 
rending pathos are unequaled.  This represents the artistry of Beverly Sills at 
her absolute zenith and documents for posterity her sublimely moving 
rendition of Pamira's final scene.  This is truly music making of the highest 
     Most recently we are extremely fortunate for beverlysillsonline and 
Youtube for posting some extraordinary early film clips capturing Beverly Sills 
at her zenith.  I highly recommend watching clips from her 1971 BBC concert 
where you can watch this magnificent artist in many of her signature roles, 
such as Cleopatra, Baby Doe, and Queen Elizabeth (the extraordinary Mad 
Scene).  One can also listen to her unforgettable rendition on Youtube of 
Semele's "Myself I shall adore", and understand why she was so loved in 
Handel, with the shimmering beauty and ostentatious ease she sings the florid 
variations in this magnificent aria.  Her legendary Cleopatra, where she 
magically created the character through the music, especially in her 
unsurpassed renditions of three of Handel's greatest arias, "Piangero la sorte 
mia", V'adoro pupile", and "Da tempeste" can also be now appreciated on 
Youtube.  How lucky we were to have her unforgettable artistry grace our 
stages and fill our lives. Memories we will always treasure. It would be 
wonderful to hear from people by their posting on opera-l, who were 
privileged to see this stupendous artist live at her peak in opera, concert or 
recital relate their memories on opera-l.   She retired in Spring of 2006, as 
President of the the Board of the Metropolitan Opera, due to more personal 
tragedy, with her husband suffering and dying from Alzheimers and her 
daughter, Muffy, developing MS, in addition to her own serious health 
problems with knee surgery.  No one knew in the Spring of 2007 during her 
appearances of several MET broadcasts that she was ill, until one worried 
when she didn't appear for the April "Giulio Cesare" broadcast.  Then it was a 
complete shock to learn that she had died of lung cancer so quickly. Beverly 
Sills has given infinitely to this art form we love so much, to ensure that it will 
fill future generations of opera lovers' lives, and she was a radiant beacon for 
opera and classical music all over the world.  GOD BLESS BEVERLY SILLS FOR 

Warm Regards to Opera Lovers,

Jerry Waldman

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