American opera legend Beverly Sills, who died July 2 at 78, was viewed by much of the American public as the girl next door who happened to sing brilliant high D's in the world's most famed opera houses. Sills' stardom stretched from the highbrow world of the Metropolitan Opera to the playful world of the Muppets on television. From VOA's New York Bureau correspondent Barbara Schoetzau has an appreciation written by Liz Giegerich.
Sills began her career early in Brooklyn, New York, performing on local radio stations and in laundry soap commercials. By seven years of age she was singing at ladies luncheons and at community parties, on the radio and in a short film.
Sills opera career took off in 1947 with the Philadelphia Civic Opera. In 1955, she joined the New York City Opera, singing almost 90 roles and establishing an international reputation.
As her operatic success mounted, Beverly Sills accomplished the seemingly impossible: demystifying the world of opera for average Americans. She became a familiar face on popular television shows like the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson and the international television puppet show, The Muppets.
Sill's sense of humor fit into prime time television as easily as her vibrato fit on the stage. Brian Kellow is a reporter with Opera News, a monthly, New York-based opera magazine. He explains why Beverly Sills became America's beloved diva.
"She gave the appearance of being an average, warm, funny, gregarious lady from Brooklyn," he said. "I think it helped the general public see that opera singers weren't necessarily completely a breed apart."
Sills passion for the arts never faded, even after her retirement from the stage in 1980. She became one of the most influential and successful leaders in the arts world serving as the head of New York's biggest arts complex, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts Center, and later, the Metropolitan Opera.
"She was a champion fundraiser," said Kellow. "She was such an impassioned advocate for her own company. And of course, she had a great performing background to back it up and people wanted to help her. People wanted to give her money that she asked for"
Sills donated generous amounts of time, money and compassion to charitable causes outside of the arts as well. As the mother of two children afflicted with serious birth defects, she became a public voice for children's charities. Few artists have bridged opera and the Muppets with elegance and charm.
Beverly Sills is remembered as a woman who brightened the faces of children in their living rooms, music lovers in majestic opera houses and millions of ordinary Americans.