Opera legend Beverly Sills dies of cancer

The singer - birth name: Silverman - brought global recognition to American opera while taking breaks to perform on 'The Muppet Show'

BEVERLY SILLS  88 298 (photo credit: AP)
(photo credit: AP)
Beverly Sills, the Brooklyn-born opera diva with a dazzling voice, bubbly personality and lots of management moxie, died Monday of lung cancer, her manager said. She was 78 and had never been a smoker. Born Belle Miriam Silverman to Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, Sills gained fans worldwide with a style that matched her childhood nickname, Bubbles. The relaxed, red-haired diva appeared frequently on The Tonight Show, The Muppet Show and in televised performances with her friend Carol Burnett. Together, they did a show from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera called Sills and Burnett at the Met, singing rip-roaring duets with one-liners thrown in. Long after the public stopped hearing her sing in 1980, Sills' rich, infectious laughter filled American living rooms as she hosted live TV broadcasts and conducted backstage interviews at the Metropolitan Opera. Sills first gained fame with a career that helped put Americans on the international map of opera stars. She graced the covers of both Time and Newsweek magazines, with a 1971 Time cover story dubbing her "The Fastest Voice Alive" and noting that the singer would begin a month-long concert tour of Israel not long after the article's publication. She became known as Bubbles soon after her birth, with the endearment coined by the doctor who delivered her. The future star was born blowing a bubble of spit from her little mouth, the doctor said. In 1947, the same mouth produced vocal glory at her operatic stage debut in Philadelphia in a bit role in Bizet's Carmen. Sills would ultimately become a star with the New York City Opera, where she first performed in 1955 in Johann Strauss Jr.'s Die Fledermaus. "She was just a life force - brilliant, witty and warm, funny, exquisitely talented," said New York City Opera chairwoman Susan Baker. "In addition to being an icon of the American opera world, she went on to become a great leader in the world of the arts." It was not until 1975, when she was already famous, that Sills made her Met debut in Rossini's The Siege of Corinth. In her memoir, she said longtime Met general manager Rudolf Bing "had a thing about American singers, especially those who had not been trained abroad: He did not think very much of them." Abroad, Sills sang at such famed opera houses as Milan's La Scala, the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, The Royal Opera in London and the Deutsche Opera in Berlin. She retired from the stage in 1980 at age 51 and began a new life as an executive and leader of New York's performing arts community. First, she became general director of the New York City Opera, making the company the first in the U.S. to use English supertitles on a screen above the stage. In 1994, Sills became the first female chair of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. She retired in 2002, saying she wanted "to smell the flowers a little bit," but was back six months later as chairwoman of the Met. "So I smelled the roses and developed an allergy," she joked. "I need new mountains to climb." Described by former New York Mayor Ed Koch as "an empire unto herself," Sills raised money for non-artistic causes such as the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the March of Dimes, a job she called "one of the most rewarding in my life." Her philanthropic efforts also stretched to Israel, with the performer serving as emcee of a 1999 New York City fundraising dinner for Ben-Gurion University. The singer, who said she grew up in a "typical middle-class American Jewish family," changed her name to Beverly Sills as a seven-year-old - a friend of her mother's thought it was a more suitable stage name - and she soon won first place in the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, going on to sing on the radio, at ladies' luncheons and at bar mitzvahs.