I don’t really consider this a debut,” deadpans flame-haired Beverly Sills. “After all, no one looks at me and says, ‘There goes the debutante!'”
Nevertheless, the announcement last fall that America’s best-known, best-loved soprano would at long last make her first appearance at the New York Metropolitan Opera—as Pamira in Rossini’s Siege of Corinth—has caused the largest advance ticket sale in Met history.
When Sills makes her entrance next week pandemonium is assured. With Callas in virtual retirement, Sills is almost certainly the world’s finest dramatic singer-actress—and the Met remains an artistic pinnacle. Her exclusion from its roster until age 45 has been, to her devoted following, a musical disgrace—and the stuff of operatic legend.
Among Sills’s fans, the blame is usually lavished upon now retired Met general manager Rudolf Bing who, they point out, never asked her to sing at the Met until Beverly was already an established international star. “Oh, he invited me, all right,” responds Sills, “on nights like my debut at Covent Garden.” Sills today insists, “We were never enemies, it was just a clash of personalities. My greatest triumphs at New York City Opera were his greatest disasters, and it irritated him.
“Look,” she says, “Bing is a very smart man. He figured the best way to get me out of his hair was to offer me some minor role or crummy production and get rid of me. He said it well: all singers cannot sing at the Met. My answer was, not every singer wants to.”
During Beverly’s recovery from surgery for cancer of the pelvis last October, however, Bing wrote what she calls “a very dear note,” and their feud may be simmering down.
Beverly, born Belle “Bubbles” Silverman in Brooklyn, has always been fierce in her determination to sing. From age 3 there was no stopping her. By 7 she had memorized 22 arias—her mother’s entire collection of Galli-Curci records—in phonetic Italian, without understanding one word. As the voice of “Rinso White, Rinso Bright,” one of radio’s earliest singing commercials, she earned enough for singing lessons with famed teacher Estelle Leibling. By age 16 she was supporting herself singing; she once sang Micaela in Carmen 63 times—in 63 different cities.
After her ninth audition, at age 26, Sills was accepted at City Opera.
Ten years of grueling apprenticeship followed. “I resent talk of a ‘meteoric’ career. I never bought or slept my way into an opera house,” says Sills flatly. “Some singers make it with 10 roles—I learned a hundred. If mine was an overnight success, it was the longest day’s journey you ever saw.”
Sensational success did come—but with it personal tragedy. On tour in Cleveland in 1955 Beverly met a wealthy Bostonian, Peter Greenough. “He was the first man,” she recalls, “who was not interested in me as a singer. He was very bossy—and I loved it.” Marrying Greenough meant moving to Boston, where in 1959 their daughter, Muffy, was born almost totally deaf. Two years later a son, Bucky, arrived—hopelessly retarded—and had to be institutionalized.
“The obvious thing was to quit singing,” Beverly decided. She devoted herself to motherhood. Gradually Muffy learned to lip-read, and in 1961, when Peter gave Beverly a Christmas present of 97 round-trip tickets to New York and told her, “Take some lessons and your mother to lunch,” she couldn’t resist.
Sills opened the City Opera’s next season as Cleopatra in Handel’s Julius Caesar—in a wildly triumphant performance. It was followed by a similarly acclaimed debut at La Scala, and suddenly all the barriers tumbled. When Beverly and the Met, under new management, finally came to terms, they were Beverly’s—a sumptuous new production and the highest house fee (at least $4,000 each performance).
“I’m a revolutionary,” she says proudly, “I made it without the Met. I’m excited, but if my career ended tomorrow it would be fine. Nothing will be altered by the Met—except perhaps the Met.”
As if to prove her point, upon leaving a dress rehearsal Beverly was approached by a 7-year-old boy who asked for an autograph and announced he would be present for her debut. She signed and, with red hair flying, hailed a cab, then paused, and in a phrase worthy of Bubbles Silverman from Brooklyn, yelled back: “It’s a long opera. Make sure you bring a pillow for your tush.”