Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Farewell to The Diva

One of my favorite singers has died, and I invite your prayers for the repose of her soul and the durability of her legacy. Beverly Sills defined "diva-hood." She was a woman of fantastic skill, enormous and gregarious personality (and lately, body), brilliant smile, and open-hearted generosity. She had been a world-renowned opera soprano, an arts administrator, a devoted wife, a mother, and probably the opera world's most successful representative to the ordinary "joes" who, like me, warm to the art through the artists.

I am an opera buff because of "Bubbles" -- so named, not because of her bubbly spirit (which she undeniably had), but because she was born with a large spit bubble on her lips. For years, I resisted opera: I couldn't understand what all the hullabaloo was about. Even though I had studied singing and was deeply appreciative of art songs, for some reason opera evaded me. (Oh, I didn't "hate" it, but I just couldn't make a connection.) But I had a good friend who lived and died opera and so, in respect for him, I one day sat down, with coffee cup nearby (I was prepared), to listen to and to attend to "Lucia de Lammermoor." While the records spun, I followed the libretto. Beverly Sills was Lucia, in what is an utterly famous recording. And I have to tell you, I was swept away. Suddenly it all made sense: fantastic singing, drama, literature (if somewhat -- ! -- melodramatic); it was all there. And from that point on, I was hooked: Next came the "Queens," again with Beverly. And from there I was launched into a life of penury, in part because of the cost of opera recordings.

Along the way, Bubbles, with her champagne-like coloratura soprano, was eclipsed in my taste by the more spinto-voiced singers and roles. Ultimately, Schwarzkopf assumed the throne in my heart. But I could never shake the earliest influence -- much the way, I suppose, that one never forgets his or her first love. The Sills vinyl records are duplicated on my CD racks now -- notice: duplicated, not replaced by. (I still think vinyl gives a warmer and deeper sound than CD, especially in those old recordings that have been transferred to disk.) And when I'm feeling the need for some plain old emotional sentimentality, on goes "Maria Stuarda" or "Lucia" or the album on which Sills sings the Adam variations on "Twinkle, Twinkle." And I am repaired.

I heard the slanders that were offered against Sills, often from people who ought to have known better. I never understood the antipathy that Sutherland and Bonynge displayed toward her, but I always suggested that it was jealousy -- that Bubbles got such rapturous adoration for herself and not just for her voice. (I confess to disliking virtually everything I've heard Sutherland sing and she, unlike Sills, always required one to suspend disbelief to make somewhat real the beauty she was supposed to be portraying. See: I can be as dissing as any old opera queen!) Difference of voice does not translate into better or worse, though it did for many, I guess.

My respect and affection for the Diva were validated when, following her good-sense decision to retire from opera at the top of her career, she went into arts administration. I know there were problems, but the public face she gave Lincoln Center, the City Opera, and, more ironically, the Metropolitan Opera must have been wonderfully helpful to those organization. And certainly, her interviews with artists during intermissions of the broadcasts from Lincoln Center on public TV helped root those experiences in middle-brow culture. For my money, that is a devotion to art and to the well-being of society. Note, too, her involvement with the March of Dimes. (She ranks up there with Jimmy Carter, who continues to work for peace and well-being, when he might have followed the example of many of his predecessors and simply rested and gotten rich.)

When the choir at the throne of God begins their anthems, I am certain, Beverly Sills will one of the grandest Dames to sing a featured aria. May God accept her into his loving embrace, and may our grief be softened by the recollection (in memory and ear) of her contribution to the beauty of the creation and of her hearty, throaty laugh.

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