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Opera Star Beverly Sills Dies

Operatic star Beverly Sills, who thrilled audiences, worldwide, for two decades, died Monday at age 78.

Beverly Sills began life as Belle Silverman, one of three children of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. At the age of three, she adopted the stage name "Bubbles" to launch her singing career as a child star on a local radio show in Brooklyn, New York.

Within ten years, she was studying voice under Estelle Liebling and piano with Paolo Gallico and learning the French and Italian languages.

Graduating from the Professional Children's School in 1945, Miss Sills plunged into the American musical world of national touring companies. She sang everything from Gilbert and Sullivan to Bizet in a succession of brief engagements and one-night stands that required exhaustive repertory and made severe demands on versatility and stamina. This apprenticeship provided her the experience that eventually brought her star billing at the New York City Opera. Sills joined the opera house in 1955. While there, she sang almost 90 roles during her career.

She retired from the stage in 1980, but she continued to delight operatic audiences as impressario of the New York company.

Her performance as general director earned Miss Sills a reputation as a dynamo in the world of the performing arts. She was as much admired for her drive, devotion and hard business head as for her voice. She attracted financial support and fans by re-molding the image of the New York City Opera as an experimental company willing to stage new operas and revive and revise unfamiliar but ingratiating classics.

For all the dazzle of Beverly Sills' career on stage, her life had its share of heartache. In 1956, she met and married Peter Greenough. Their two children, Muffy and Bucky, were born with birth defects.

Miss Sills confronted her situation with characteristic courage and the determination to attain as much independence for her children as they could possibly achieve. She and her husband became active members of the March of Dimes.

"We both felt that it was probably one of the few subjects we could talk about with total authority, having lived through the problems of birth defects," she said. "The March of Dimes being the only organization to have conquered its problem - of polio - moved on to the problem of birth defects. We thought we could make a positive contribution even if we helped one other couple who was in a similar situation to ours, at least they wouldn't feel quite so alone."

Beverly Sills received many prestigious awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and, in 1985, the Kennedy Center Honors Award for her lasting contribution to the performing arts. Her friend, comedienne Carol Burnett, praised the opera star during the celebration.

"She made opera come alive with character, drama, and humor," Burnett said. "And she taught a new audience to love an old art form and along the way, we all fell in love with her."

Sills appeared contented for many years in her role off-stage, where her wit, warmth, and ready smile blended compatibly with her inner drive to succeed. Her performance, both before the footlights and backstage, gave America's public reason to shout "Brava!" Beverly Sills, dead at 78.