Does the name “Bubbles” ring a bell? If you are a longtime opera fan it should. It didn’t for me until my wife gave me Bubbles’ autobiography for this past Christmas. Does the name “Belle Miriam Silverman” ring a bell? I bet even a lot of opera lovers don’t recognize that one. Bubbles and Belle both belonged to the famous opera diva, Beverly Sills (1929-2007), a name I did recognize and associate with opera.
Reading her autobiography, diva is not the word that best describes Ms. Sills, as much as American does, as in hard working, fun loving, an all American, Jewish girl. Ms. Sills picked up her nickname as a child; she started performing at age three and took her stage name at age nine. Bubbles rose to become a major star on national and international opera stages, but surprisingly was long shunned by the Metropolitan Opera. Her bubbly, down to earth personality and quick wit led to frequent guest appearances on American television shows. I remember seeing her on the Johnnie Carson show. At that time, opera was not among my personal preferences. I only remember her as an amusing, talkative guest who was an opera singer.
Ms. Sills was gifted with most skills needed by opera singers. She had the voice, facility with languages, and an extraordinary memory. She was also an attractive and statuesque redhead. She loved the stage and acting and knew early what she wanted to do. She had a truly impressive work ethic. She had confidence borne of accomplishment early on and from a secret weapon – a highly supportive, even doting, mother who backed her in all things, affording voice lessons, travel, even making her costumes for most of her early appearances; I had the feeling that for a while the marquee should have read Beverly Sills and mother. But make no mistake, Beverly Sills earned her success and deserved her diva status. In the final chapter, she muses, “On May 26, 1977, I will be forty-eight years old and I have been singing since I was three. I have a repertoire of more than a hundred operas and I have sung in fifty or sixty of them, in opera or concert form. I have sung in every major opera house in the world. I have sung with all the major symphonies in this country and many abroad. For the past five years, I have averaged a hundred performances a year. If not the highest paid opera singer in the world, I am certainly among the top three. So, what do I do for an encore? More.” Ms. Sills retired from singing in 1980.
Being American worked against Ms. Sills in the opera world of her day. According to her book, Sir Rudolf Bing, who ran the Metropolitan Opera form 1950 to 1972, did not believe that an American soprano could be good enough for the Met, without at least years of training in Europe. She was denied the Met imprimatur during the height of her career. He was finally forced to offer her a role at the Met at the end of his career and nearing the end of hers. That story and a few others regarding conflicts, people and operas she liked and some she didn’t, all dealt with mostly matter of factly, are covered in a book that reads like a travelogue of Ms. Sills professional and personal life, but not too personal and always positive. We learn of her marriage and her children’s physical challenges and how that led to her work with the March of Dimes. This is not a tell all book, though she does mention that Pavarotti once pinched her on the behind. One of the best features of the book is the over 200 photographs of Ms. Sills and her family, friends, and colleagues, most having famous names you may recognize.
Of course, having read the book, I had to listen to some of her recorded work , and I dialed up “The Best of Beverly Sills” on Apple Music. Within seconds, the talent and artistry was obvious and within minutes I could sense the word ‘brava’ rising within me. I have found that for some of the great sopranos of the past, I do not like the sound of their voices, most prominently Maria Callas, perhaps somewhat due to the poor quality of the recordings of that era and/or not having heard them live. This was not a problem with Ms. Sills’ voice; I like her voice, a lot. Beverly Sills as a diva was the real deal.
An aspect of her story that I really enjoyed was her development as an artist and a professional. Early on, she sought approval and fame. As she achieved that success, she realized that at that point she wanted to sing for herself. It was the outlet she needed to do what she wanted to do. And at that point she took control. This happens with successful people in all walks of life. By the end of the book, it is clear that Ms. Sills bowed to no one in her professional world. One wonders if there is any such woman in opera today. I found the obituary in the Washington Post by Tim Page to be revelatory. In her self-portrait, Ms. Sills expresses some definite opinions on opera and how it should be performed. However, Mr. Page noted that in 1987 she published a second book, ”Beverly", which “was much less guarded and contained a number of surprisingly personal attacks on critics, opera-house directors and fellow singers." Mr. Page quotes her as saying, "I've come to the stage in life where I'm not afraid to use my influence.” He credits her with the controversial decision to first use English supertitles at the New York City Opera in 1983, which other companies eventually followed and now are used everywhere. In 2002 she became the chairwoman of the Metropolitan Opera. There was a new sheriff in town and her name was “Bubbles”.