February 5, 2010

Remembering Beverly Sills

I count myself lucky to have sung for the great American Soprano Beverly Sills during her last year as general manager of New York City Opera. My audition was on the stage of the State Theater at Lincoln Center (now renamed the Koch Theater), City Opera's home after moving from City Center in 1966. I've never forgotten walking out from stage right past the call board, and looking out into the house and seeing her smiling face about ten rows back. 

"What would you like to sing today?" She said, beaming that smile of hers that got donors to cough up big bucks for the company (she was legendary for going to lunch and coming back with the payroll). 

"Non piu andrai from Le Nozze di Figaro."

I sang, all the while feeling like I was being shot out of a cannon. And to this day, I don't know if it was nerves or a flash of genius, but I forgot all about the fourth wall and sang right to her. When I finished the aria, she nodded and smiled even bigger, and said thank you. That was it. I left the stage feeling euphoric, like I could do anything: The next morning I got a call telling me I was a member of the New York City Opera Regular Chorus. 

From my perspective, the whole thing was something of a fluke. I had a friend, Muzetta, who worked for the opera's Guild, and as we talked one morning (I was living in New Jersey at the time), she mentioned that the opera was having auditions and I should give them a call. I did, and was told that—yes—they did have a time available and it was that day. I threw on a suit, grabbed some music and jumped on a train, getting to Lincoln Center and singing for Chorusmaster Joseph Colaneri an hour-and-a-half later. Bam! He asked me if I could sing for Miss Sill's right hand man Donald Hazard a day later, which I did. A few days after that, I was on the main stage singing my heart out to Carol Burnett's sidekick. What's that adage about being in the right place at the right time? 

There are a few personal memories that stand out. One is standing backstage during a performance of Rigoletto while Faith Esham sang Caro nome onstage.  Miss Sills stood there in the dark, not ten feet from me, with no one else around, quietly singing and pantomiming the part. It was haunting, considering that she had retired nine years earlier. The voice—albeit sotto voce—was all there. I felt like I was witnessing time travel.

And then there was the time I almost ran her over.

We were doing Boito's Mefistofile (a great opera!) and I had to run offstage for a quick change of costume, and run—literally—right back onstage. The passageway to get to the change was tight, and we were instructed to call "Clear!" as we went through. So I ran through calling "Clear! Clear! Clear!" and nearly plowed into Miss Sills who threw herself up against the wall to get out of my way. I didn't stop, and got to my dresser—realizing what had just happened—and started cursing under my breath. "Damn! I almost killed Donizetti's Queen!" Presto Chango. I ran back to the stage, again passing Miss Sills who was still plastered against the wall. "Damn! Damn! Damn!" After the scene, I found her on the side of the stage and started to apologize.  

"Oh no dear!" She said, laughing. "You were doing your job. I was in the wrong place!" Her accentuated Brooklyn accent on the word "wrong" cracked me up—and we both laughed.  

Another time, I got in the elevator on the Promenade level to go down to the company offices, and she was there. It was the right after I had been brought on board, and I was in awe of her, and completely tongue-tied. Miss Sills put me at ease immediately by complimenting my apparel in a rather sly tone of voice: "Nice hat!" She said, with that megawatt smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye, looking up at the vintage beret my father had given me. You'd do anything for her after that. And we did. 

She knew the place inside and out. She could—if needed—hang the lights and create staging, which happened on more than one occasion when a director didn't work out.  She did it all—and with style.  

We were on tour in Orange County during my first weeks with the company, and having gotten a call from my mother telling me that my grandmother had just died, I stumbled into the company manager's office in a daze to inquire when—and if—I could be released. Mark, the company manager, told me he'd look into it. Not ten minutes later, he pulled me out of a Rigoletto rehearsal to let me know that Miss Sills wanted me to know that I was going home, and not to worry: the company would take care of everything. A limo came early the next morning to take me to the airport. 

A legendary singer with a heart of gold, Beverly Sills had a charisma that I have yet to encounter in anyone since. The air vibrated differently around her. Really. She was one very special lady, to whom I will always be grateful. 


  1. Thanks SO VERY much for sharing these precious memories of an unforgettable and truly unique person.

  2. One of my favourite memories of this glorious lady - was seeing her 'out of character.' Goofing about with Carol Burnett. Being wickedly funny with Johnny Carson. Stripping away all of that 'opera diva' aura - and revealing the amazing woman that she was. Not only did it want to make me want to hear her sing - but, also wanted to sit by her at dinner.

    humming Rigoletto now as well,

  3. A beautiful tribute, all the more so because you have your very own personal connection and perspective here. I had read many a time what a nice person she was, and you've more than confirmed that here. (Love the little anecdoate about the Brooklyn accent! How very refreshing, how very non-diva!)

  4. A special lady indeed. One of my favourite albums by her which I listen very often is called Beverly Sills - Plaisir d'amour with Columbia Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andre Kostelanetz. Her voice is so pure and the arrangment in Les chemins de l'amour, one of my all time favourites, is incredibly sumptuous.


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