At 29, Gianna Rolandi of the New York City Opera is quickly emerging as heiress apparent to Beverly Sills among American sopranos. The New York Times has glowed over her "exceptionally colorful voice" and strong acting talent. But the sweetest accolade of all comes from Sills herself, who officially retired from performing about a year ago to become the company's general director. "Gianna," says Sills simply, "epitomizes all the things I want to see the City Opera stand for."

Gianna is not the first in her family to tackle Verdi and Rossini. Her mother, Jane Frazier, hailed from North Carolina but sang with Italian opera companies under the name Giovanna Frazieri. But after Gianna's Italian father, an obstetrician-gynecologist, was killed in a Long Island auto crash when she was 3, the Rolandis moved from New York to South Carolina where her mother taught voice at Spartanburg's Converse College.

A serious violin student by 6, Gianna remembers that "When there was nobody home, I'd turn on opera records and sing along with Tosca and Madama Butterfly." After four years at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute, where she existed on "hot dogs and yogurt," she was hired for the New York City Opera. In true 42nd Street fashion, Gianna made her 1975 debut when the singer playing Olympia in Tales of Hoffmann fell ill. She got her chance to perform with the Metropolitan Opera in 1979 despite nearly running down conductor Eric Leinsdorf on her bike near Central Park. "He thought I was the funniest thing—a bike-riding opera singer with a ponytail." A week later, he offered her a role in Der Rosenkavalier. Gianna, whose offstage interest is opera singer Joe McKee, has so far sung more than 30 roles at the City Opera. Yet she still gets tongue-tied around Sills. "I'll never forget that first time standing looking at the schedule board, and all of a sudden she was there," says Gianna. "I just froze." Later this month Gianna inherits Sills' old starring role in I Puritani.