May is Jewish American Heritage Month! Belle Miriam Silverman was born on May 25, 1929, in Brooklyn, NY, to insurance broker Morris Silverman and musician Sonia (Shirley Bahn) Silverman. She would become a powerful presence in many ways. We lost her on July 2, 2007, to lung cancer. Belle began performing at age three, was on the radio by age seven, and took a stage name at age nine. Her nickname was “Bubbles,” and she sang.
Beverly Sills began her formal vocal studies in 1936, and made her operatic debut in Philadelphia in Carmen as Frasquita in 1947, and spent several years touring with repertory companies before first singing with the New York City Opera in 1955, a gig which ran through 1970. There is a fine clip online of her at age eight singing in the film Uncle Sol Solves It.
Her mother had a collection of Madame Galli-Curci records, from which Ms. Sills had memorized all 22 arias by the age of seven. At that point, she began studying with Estelle Liebling, “the Coach of the World’s Greatest Voices,” for fifteen minutes a week (an hour and a half drive each way). Ms. Sills studied with Ms. Liebling until the latter’s death in 1970.
Ms. Sills’ operatic career was full and varied. She studied in the United States, which at the time was unusual. She would debut in 1967 in Vienna as Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte, and went on to sing in most of the world’s opera houses. She debuted at the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1975, would become the general director of the New York City Opera in 1979 (rescuing it from impending bankruptcy and rebuilding its reputation over the following eight years). Ms. Sills retired from the stage in 1980. She was named chair of New York’s Lincoln Center in 1994, and began hosting “Live From Lincoln Center” broadcasts thereafter.
Ms. Sills’ mother Sonia had immigrated with her parents in 1917 from Odessa, and her father was from a prominent Romanian family. Both parents had had cultured backgrounds. Her mother took her to her first opera, Delibes’ Lakmé, starring her hero Lily Pons, at age 8. She told her daughter that someday she would be sitting with a Frenchman and an Italian and be able to converse with them, and Ms. Sills did develop quite a facility for languages, soon speaking English, Yiddish, Russian, Romanian, and French while still a child.
She sang “Caro Nome” from Rigoletto (Verdi) on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, a very popular radio show, at age seven (Ms. Liebling had arranged the audition), and her performance spiked the applause meter. Major Bowes reportedly arranged for her to record the country’s first commercial jingle, for Rinso laundry soap. Some of her first touring work was performing Gilbert & Sullivan operettas.
What drove Ms. Sills to stardom were her effervescent personality and positivity, traits important in any profession.