For close to 15 years, while all her friends and even short tenors were calling her Bubbles, Beverly Sills was the New York City Opera's biggest box office draw and grand diva as Manon, Lucia and the Daughter of the Regiment. Juicy roles all, but for dramatic, power-laden fantasies she was Cleopatra, Anne Boleyn, Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I.
Now the best soprano to come out of Brooklyn (she was born Belle Silverman) has turned 51 and is retiring. She says it is no strain as she settles into her new role as her company's general director.
"Sometimes when I walk across a set these days," she admits, "it envelops me—for about five seconds." But she knows that her voice isn't what it was and that her figure has shifted from statuesque to zaftig. "I'm glad I don't have to be Thaïs ever again and run around the stage half-naked," she exclaims. "I don't think my body, or my mind, could take it."
The well-weathered trouper in her probably could. At 6 she was a Major Bowes Amateur Hour winner, and before she was a teenager she had learned 22 coloratura arias, phonetically, from her mother's wind-up record player. Sills had staying power. She auditioned eight times for City Opera before finally landing the lead, Rosalinda, in Die Fledermaus in 1955.
It is a role she repeated at her farewell gala, to be shown on PBS January 5. What she needs most now for her company is another Beverly Sills to enliven ticket sales, wipe out the opera's deficit and free the boss to concentrate on producing more American operas. She happens, of course, to be good at fund raising. Patrons are flattered to be asked by Bubbles. Why her popularity? "You can fool all the people all the time if you really work at it," she says mischievously, but then she explains: "People look at me and think, 'She's a little overweight, and that's okay. She has children, and she's had a career, and that's okay too.' I guess they just sort of identify with me."