Opera star Sills dies at 78

Diva was an icon of American culture

Beverly Sills, the Brooklyn-born coloratura soprano whose fame extended well beyond the opera house thanks to her effusive personality and charitable work, died of lung cancer in Manhattan on July 2. She was 78.

An American original whose earthy personality made her nearly as familiar to non-opera lovers as she was to connoisseurs, Sills tirelessly championed high art through mainstream media. In April 1969, she made the cover of Newsweek, and in Nov. 1971, the cover of Time. She was also a frequent guest on television talk shows during her heyday, including four appearances on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” between Sept. 1971 and July 1973. Her 1976 Emmy-nommed TV special with Carol Burnett, “Sills and Burnett at the Met,” and an appearance on “The Muppet Show” only furthered the singer’s renown, as did her regular hosting of “Live From Lincoln Center.”

In later years, Sills became an active arts administrator, passionately raising funds, and opera’s profile. From 1979 to 1989, she served as general director of New York City Opera, the company where she enjoyed her greatest triumphs, having bowed there in 1955. She was later chairwoman of Lincoln Center (1994-2002) and then the Metropolitan Opera (2002-2006), a house at which she made a much-belated debut in 1975.

But it was as a singer that Sills, born Belle Miriam Silverman in 1929, earned her fame. Along with sopranos Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, Sills helped secure the revival of bel canto opera, most notably by starring in three works by Donizetti — “Anna Bolena,” “Maria Stuarda” and “Roberto Devereux” — in which she played British queens.

Her performances of Cleopatra in City Opera’s historic production of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” at Lincoln Center in 1966 marked not just the beginning of her superstardom, but also the start of a rediscovery of that composer’s operas, a reclamation continuing to this day.

If Sills’ ebullient offstage persona often contrasted with her success as a great tragedienne, her personal life offered plenty of hardships, primarily the birth of a deaf daughter and a mentally retarded son. They survive her, as do three stepdaughters. Sills’ husband, Peter Greenough, died at 89 last September.

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