Every time a larger-than-life artist passes away, particularly in the tradition- and history-conscious world of classical music, it’s customary to dust off the “end of an era” line, but in the case of Beverly Sills, it really does seem like the end of a certain era, and not just because it seemed like she would always be around, forever coming out of retirement to take another set of reins somewhere.
There’s one era, I think, that she actually outlived. Most of the obituaries and tributes I’ve been reading today make a point of contrasting her down-to-earth personality as a singer with her success as an administrator, particularly at steering the New York City Opera through a notably difficult period in the 1980s. Tim Page spelled it out clearest in his tribute:
She was the telegenic “diva next door,” a friendly redhead from Brooklyn whose friends called her Bubbles; she was an aggressive Manhattan snob who never let it be forgotten that she did hold grudges. She was the warmest and most brilliant American coloratura soprano of her time; she was a high-culture power broker and adept political infighter. Those who knew her slightly liked her enormously; those who knew her better were sometimes a little afraid of her.
Beverly Sills, who died of lung cancer yesterday at the age of 78, was a complicated person, and any attempt to sum up her life and work will necessarily turn into a string of contradictions.
Sills always struck me as someone whose ebullience sprang from an absolute comfort in her own skin, which is perhaps the best political defense one can have, and throughout her career, though just as demanding as any diva, those demands came with a distinctly non-temperamental, cool assessment of risk and reward. (Anthony Tommasini relates the famous story of her landing the role of Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, as much a Napoleonically deft flanking maneuver as a prima donna‘s ultimatum.) Besides, anyone who makes a career out of classical music by necessity develops a certain amount of determination and thick skin; Sills just had it to an unusual degree. So why the surprise? Sills herself thought it was her gender; in 1986, having stared down one musician’s strike and succesfully avoided another, she took stock of her NYCO tenure in a New York Times interview. ”What I really resent is that people underestimated me,” she said. ”I was naive when I took on this job, but I was not stupid. I think if I was a man, I wouldn’t have taken the abuse I took here.”
So as you peruse the recorded legacy, it’s also worth considering the way society has changed in the past half-century such that Sills strikes us as contradictory. Back in the 1940s, when Sills was just starting out, her combination of grit, savvy, and vivacity wouldn’t have been hard to reconcile. She would have been called a tough dame. It would have been a compliment.