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Classical 101

A New Book About Beverly Sills

Artist's webpage
Beverly Sills sits with Sarah Caldwell during a rehersal for 'La Traviata.' (1979)

The Magic of Beverly Sills by Nancy Guy is not a prima donna biography. I suspect "and then she sang" would have been too easy. Rather, Ms. Guy has given us gorgeous study of the fame of Beverly Sills, and the effect her career continues to have on many people. While certainly we are told the facts of how the lady became so famous, the discussion is more focused on the why , especially since her renown continues to grow nine years after her death and nearly forty years after her final performance.

Soprano Beverly Sills (1929-2007) was for a number of years not only the world's highest paid opera singer, but one of the most visible and in-demand artists, administrators and raconteuses.  She was a star of the New York City Opera from 1955 until her retirement form singing in 1980. For the decade following Sills moved from the dressing room to the front office as the City Opera's General Director. She later became the Chairman of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and later still of the Metropolitan Opera. 

Beverly Sills did TV specials with Carol Burnett and the Muppets. She was a frequent  guest of Johnny Carson's on The Tonight Show and was its occasional host. Sills recorded over 20 complete operas and a sledful of wonderful recital albums, and her career took her to London, Milan, Paris, Berlin and Buenos Aires. among others.

But this was an American story. The girl from Brooklyn who worked hard and made good.


Credit Univ. of Illinois Press
The Magic of Beverly Sills by Nancy Guy

Did she ever!

Cover stories in Times and Newsweek, and forty years of great performances told only part of the story.

"I am not a happy woman. I am a cheerful woman" she used to say.

Why wasn't she a happy woman?

The struggles of Sills's private life were not a secret, but her public face was always positive and her on stage work riveting. Offstage, Beverly Sills was the mother of a daughter who was born deaf, and a son who was profoundly disabled. Ms. Sills's own mother told her, "You are a lucky woman. You have daughter who can do everything except hear. You have enough money to guarantee the care of your son."

But Sills herself said her career distracted her from her sorrows at home. Luckily, there was a long and happy marriage to Peter Greenough; happy to the extent that "If my husband told me to stop singing tomorrow, I would do it."

It wasn't until reading Ms. Guy's book that it became clear to those of us who loved and admired Beverly Sills how much she needed to sing.  At one point, Ms. Guy makes the point that Beverly Sills's son probably never recognized her as his mother. What could be more devastating?

The Magic of Beverly Sills gives more weight to sorrow than Sills ever did in public. But this is not a sad book. In fact, the many people who speak of how Beverly Sills's enriched their lives, how she "opened doors" to a love of beauty and the arts is the most inspiring part of this wonderful book . That's a great legacy for anyone, especially for such a talented lady who was also a warm and generous soul: to make people happy even when she couldn't be.

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.