It Was Grand If Not Quite Opera When Beverly Sills' Pals Celebrated Her Swan Song

updated 11/10/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/10/1980 01:00AM

After she had made some 30 gala fund-raising "farewell performances" in the past year, the thought occurred that Beverly Sills was not retiring but launching a second career: a permanent going-out-of-business sale to redress the dire balance sheet of opera in America. But last week the beloved and legendary soprano finally ended her leave-taking. There will be no more concert dates, no more onstage roles. Miss Sills, 51, is finally working full-time at her equally challenging new desk job as director of New York's City Opera. To mark the occasion, 2,000 friends paid up to four figures (proceeds to her company) to throw what may have been the most lavish goodbye party ever. It was a Lincoln Center extravaganza that included cocktails, toasts, an haute cuisine dinner, dancing (in a heated tent) to the Woody Herman band, and a celeb-bedizened onstage homage to the guest of honor. Gasped the professionally unimpressible Mike Wallace: "It's extraordinary—I've never seen anything like this before."

Well, the meal may have left something to be desired—"My diner in Brooklyn could have served better food," sniffed one woman who had paid $1,000 for the frigid capon with cold rice and carrots. Still, the show that followed was by consensus incomparable. On the set of Die Fledermaus, Sills, in a sequined, befeathered gown, had just finished one of Rosalinda's duets when Carol Burnett burst onstage, in a flashy flapperish outfit, loudly demanding, "What the hell happened to Gay Vienna?" In the middlebrow medley that followed, Leontyne Price sang What I Did for Love, Placido Domingo warbled Granada, Renata Scotto trilled Over the Rainbow, and Dinah Shore did My Mama Done Tol' Me. Inevitably, Mary Martin's offering was My Heart Belongs to Daddy, but she confided that nowadays autograph seekers sheepishly request: "Do you mind writing 'J.R.'s mother' too?"

After the show the throng retreated outdoors to rub shoulders with the likes of jeans magnate Mohan Murjani (who underwrote the party), Joan Mondale, Helen Hayes and Sarah Caldwell. The dancing went on well past the witching hour, but the guest of honor stole away early. "I'm going home now," she said over her shoulder, "and I'll be in the office first thing in the morning. I've got to start writing the next chapter of my life."

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