04 July 2007

Beverly Sills

When Beverly Sills was a girl, her parents’ plan was for her to become a teacher, if the whole opera thing didn’t work out. Such was her drive to succeed that, of course, the opera thing worked out just fine. I think she’d have invented opera, if it hadn’t existed already, just so that she could be an opera star. But for me, she was a teacher, too.

It wasn’t all educational, at least not in the cultural or intellectual sense; the greatest element of her work, for me, doubtless was the sentimental education. From the first time I heard her — on tour with the Met, in Rossini’s Siege of Corinth — I felt I’d found a voice that sang the things I couldn’t speak. Siege is precisely what a thirteen-year-old wants to hear: “My father doesn’t like my boyfriend; I’m going to kill myself” is perfect adolescent psychology, and it’s also the plot of this opera. Moreover, Sills’ triumph over the technical demands of the score was dazzlingly athletic, exciting just as an evening’s worth of perfectly executed home runs might be. After that performance, my godmother took me backstage to meet Miss Sills and to get her autograph. We were abetted by a friend named Robert Merrill — not the baritone, but a tenor in the chorus at Fort Worth Opera, where Sills had sung several times.

She was the most famous person I’d ever met, and one of the tallest, with her heels and her hair and her eyelashes and her bosom, more glamorous than anyone a kid from the suburbs could ever imagine. I was speechless. Sills had to ask me whether she could autograph my program; I think I managed to say, “Thank you.” I had to skip school the next day; I was too excited to say anything but “I met Beverly Sills.” And I went right out and bought two of her albums, the highlights of Julius Caesar and La Traviata. (Lucky choices, because they’re two of her best-sung recordings.)

Her music became the soundtrack of my life. I played the mad scene from Lucia every morning before school, firm in the belief that listening to Sills go crazy prevented me from going crazy. When my aunt and uncle died in a plane crash, I played “Addio del passato” all night. Pining for my girlfriend, I played “Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben” and “Breit über mein Haupt,” and when she spurned me, I played “Ah! Fuyez, douce image” and the last scene of The Ballad of Baby Doe. At night, “V’adoro, pupille” sent me gliding into sleep.

But while I was listening, Sills was teaching. She introduced me to a huge chunk of Western culture, which in turn served to introduce me to even more Western culture. There was something in her performances that made me want to find out more, to read the novel that one opera was based on, to hear other works by the same composer, to explore the history and art behind the music. We’ll never know how much I owe her, how many wonderful things I’d never have discovered if not for her inspiration. Because I was an intellectual oddball already, it’s possible that I’d have studied French, maybe even German, but inconceivable that I’d have taught myself Italian without her. (I listened to her records ceaselessly, and read the librettos all the while, until I developed a perfectly useless command of nineteenth-century poetic Italian: I couldn’t order a gelato, but I could tell you the sky was red with the blood of virgins.)

Her repertory pointed me toward more challenging music, easing me from bel canto toward Weill and Berg. Without her, I wouldn’t have discovered other singers whose work has been meaningful to me: I’d never have heard Marilyn Horne except on The Odd Couple, I wouldn’t have heard Eileen Farrell or Leontyne Price. I wouldn’t have met Teresa Stratas or Susan Graham or Joyce DiDonato. In short, I’d have been a mess.

Even my career as a journalist would have been different without Beverly Sills, because she was my very first interview. At the age of fifteen, I had been writing for school newspapers for a couple of years, but I’d never conducted an interview — not one. But one day, looking forward to Sills’ appearance in La Traviata with the Dallas Civic Opera, I decided to request an interview with the diva. (Why the article would be of any remote interest to my fellow students, not one of whom liked opera, I don’t know, but my journalism teacher, Melinda Smith, indulged me.) I contacted the man who handled the opera company’s publicity, and he told me he’d have to clear the request with Miss Sills’ representative, Edgar Vincent. It didn’t take me long to get the reply I wanted: I was to meet Miss Sills in her dressing room prior to one of her performances.

I now know more about Beverly Sills’ abiding interest in her own publicity, and about Edgar’s unparalleled mastery of its art. It was Edgar, after all, who made sure that her Met debut made the front page of The New York Times at the same time Saigon was falling; years later, Edgar’s soothing voice would announce whether I’d gotten other interviews, whether with Dolora Zajick or Samuel Ramey (yes) or Cecilia Bartoli (no). Publicity was (and, I daresay, is) very much a part of Sills’ overall approach to her career, to be, as Time Magazine once put it, not just an opera singer but an opera star. Other people found this hard to take: notably Marilyn Horne, who was so put off by Sills’ elbows-out behavior at La Scala that a kind of feud resulted. (Those of us who love both ladies are left feeling like children caught in a divorce.) And thus some people might characterize Sills’ consenting to an interview with a high-school newspaper reporter as mere greedy publicity-hounding, doing anything to see herself in print.

I see it as something else, and I begin by looking at Sills’ relationship with her mother. Mrs. Silverman may not have intended to cultivate her daughter, to bring her up to be a glamorous, multilingual artist who could hobnob with movie stars and Muppets, presidents and kings: Mrs. Silverman was just playing her opera records, and her daughter liked them, too. Little Belle started to mimic the opera singers, and the response was gratifying enough that she pursued singing, with increasing seriousness and success. But Mrs. Silverman was, in effect, her daughter’s first teacher, and the course she taught was music appreciation.

Birth defects made it impossible for Beverly Sills to pass on these lessons to her own children. But Sills did pass on her mother’s lessons to other people’s children, and she always made an effort to reach out to young audiences: I am merely one product of that outreach, one satisfied alumnus of the Silverman School of Culture. I even had the benefit of a graduate education, because when I first moved to New York, I’d see Mrs. Silverman at almost every opera, ballet, concert, and play I attended. It was as if she were overseeing my mastery of the studies her daughter had launched.

It may not have been pure altruism that led Sills to grant me an interview, but it wasn’t pure selfishness, either, and it was the beginning of my career as a journalist. Wearing my cousin Paul’s navy blazer and carrying a heavy tape-recorder, I drove to the Fair Park Music Hall with Chris Burnley, the classmate who was to photograph Miss Sills for our article. She arrived in a white limousine and met us at the stage door, then led us to her dressing room. There, she applied her makeup while we went about our business.

My first question was a doozy, I thought: “What is the place of youth in opera?” The trouble was that there were so few questions to follow. Earlier in the semester, Melinda Smith had advised our class that one needs a minimum of ten questions for an interview. Now I began to realize that ten would be sufficient if one were asking an English teacher about the school literary magazine, or the varsity coach about a big game, but ten would not be sufficient for a half-hour interview with the country’s most famous opera singer, nor indeed for any subject of a personality profile. I ran out of questions in fifteen minutes.

Sills had the good grace to laugh when I confessed, and we continued to talk for the rest of the half hour. Some bits went better than others. Best, if hardly a professional achievement: I noted, with satisfaction, that the growth spurt I’d seen in the interval between Siege and Traviata had rendered me taller, at last, than she. Worst: I clumsily asked whether her husband, a financial-news columnist, was content to be considered “Mr. Beverly Sills”; Mrs. Peter B. Greenough replied firmly that the question was unfounded. But when it came time to leave, my feet hardly touched the ground. Other interviews might go well or badly, still others might be conducted by Dan Rather or Connie Chung and not by me, but no interview would ever be more thrilling or more memorable than my first.

The next Sunday, seeking an autograph at the stage door after the matinée of La Traviata, Sills recognized me, which could hardly have done more to make me feel like a real swell in front of my girlfriend, Karen. A few years later, following Sills’ final performance in Dallas (as Norina in Don Pasquale), I went to the stage door again and got her to autograph a copy of the school paper in which our interview appeared — signing off on the finished product, as it were. This time, she didn’t recognize me.

Yet how to account in later years for the looks she used to give me? At intermissions at City Opera, where she was the company's director, I used to see her on the promenade of the State Theater. (This is one of the most wondrous public spaces in New York because it is actually a space. Easier to spend one’s time in a Habitrail than in the Met’s claustrophobic concourses during intermission.) I’d realize she was looking directly at me — not answering my gaze, because I hadn’t been looking at her. This happened several times. She’d be talking to other people, I’d be across the room, usually by myself, and her eyes would be fixed on me. Surely she didn’t remember me from her dressing room in Dallas; surely there was nothing really remarkable in a slender, solitary young man standing around at the opera house. (We're not uncommon.) She may not even have been aware of looking, yet there seemed to be something unguarded and sad in her gaze.

I’ve wondered whether I reminded her of her son. We’re the same age, Bucky and I, and we both had dark hair, but I don’t know whether we resembled each other physically at all. Maybe it was more a spiritual resemblance: I was the sort of young man who Bucky might have become, coming to hear the music that had been passed on by his mother, and her mother before her.

I can't be certain, but I do know this: nobody ever had a better teacher.