Beverly Sills’s multifaceted seven-decade career defied the conventional boundaries dividing “high” and popular culture. From childhood beginnings as a radio singing sensation, she grew to become the embodiment of all-American divadom for a broad public, crowned in a 1971 Time magazine cover story as “America’s Queen of Opera.” A list of her accomplishments reads as though it should belong to at least three different—and highly successful—people: coloratura soprano, Emmy-winning television presence and popular guest host of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, and arts leader who held administrative positions at such organizations as New York City Opera, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and the Met. Until her death in 2007, the Brooklyn-born icon, who appears in this week’s stream of Don Pasquale, remained one of opera’s most passionate advocates, as she explained to the Met’s Elena Park months before her passing.
Johnny Carson said he was hoping you would shatter some stereotypes when you first appeared on his show in 1971. What did the public think of opera singers in those days?
In general, they thought of big fat ladies with horns coming out of their heads. They also thought that opera singers were primarily foreign. I think Johnny felt that a lot of people thought we were hothouse plants and that I could help change that image by showing that we led ordinary lives with families and children and problems. It was a total fit between Johnny and me because we sort of instantly fell in love with each other—we just hit it off! The interesting thing about a lot of talk show hosts of those times was they were not afraid to ask questions. They went on the basis that the public would say, “Oh, well, he doesn’t know anything about opera either, so let’s listen in.” That was Johnny’s charm. You know, he got on and he said he loved I [pronounced “eye”] Puritani, and I said, “No, you don’t.” And he said, “Why don’t I?” And I said, because it’s I [pronounced “ee”] Puritani.” And we had this fake argument about it, but it got to be very funny.
What’s different in today’s culture?
You are living in what they’re calling a celebrity society. Well, we were a celebrity society too. The difference, however, was that a diva in my time meant a great opera singer—it implied a great talent. Today, a diva means anything. It means somebody who can’t sing like a prima donna but can act like one. It no longer requires talent. You can make a television commercial with no clothes on, cleaning a car. You can make a pornographic video sold on the corner of 65th Street for 50 cents and call yourself a diva. My mother used to say that when anything goes, everything goes. I hate to use the word “values,” but, boy, we have become very undemanding in terms of what is our due. Mediocrity is not our due. And I think that we should all be insulted when we are presented with stupidity on television.
Why do you think things have changed so much?
I blame the press a little bit. They’re getting lazy, because it’s easy to say, “Well, the public isn’t interested in classical music.” I don’t think that’s true. We are becoming more and more successful in the stupidification of the American public. We don’t give them any credit for wanting to know more and learn more. Carson had the courage to say, “Hey, I don’t know anything about this either, but it might be very interesting.” And he would let me sing. I was also on the cover of Time and Newsweek, I was in Look, I was in Life. That’s not happening today, because it’s easier to say that the public isn’t interested. I think the public would be interested if it were presented to them in the proper way. There are plenty of interesting artists around with interesting stories to tell. It’s going to take a couple of talk-show hosts to have enough courage to say, “Okay, I’ll risk seven minutes of this.” When Carson came to me to host on a fairly regular basis, I said, “You’re out of your mind. I don’t know how to do this!” And he said, “That’s why you should do it. People are going to say, ‘Is he nuts? What’s this woman going to do?’” And it worked, and that’s when Carol Burnett phoned, and we got this whole special [the Emmy-nominated “Sills and Burnett at the Met” in 1976]. She was the one who said, “I want you to do an aria somewhere in the middle of the show. We’re going to stop everything cold. We’re going to strip the stage and put you in a beautiful Bob Mackie gown, and you’re going to stand up and sing an aria, and then we’ll go back and tap dance.”
Do you think opera stars of today could benefit from those kinds of gigs?
When you look at the top singers today, they are funny people with a great sense of humor. I know it was easier in my time, but we’ve got to get these singers, who really know how to sing and are funny and very current, on television. We have to knock the doors down, and I think that it can be done. You’ve got to get these people in front of audiences as they are, not in different guises. The young singer today dreams of having the popularity of a rock star. And that can be done without sacrificing your own image. I remember when Luciano and I went to sing in San Francisco in a new production of Lucia, we were like rock stars. We couldn’t go into restaurants, couldn’t go into department stores without being mobbed. But we were divas and divos when we got into that opera house. There was no letdown of that image.
I know you are optimistic about opera’s future. How can companies get more people to attend?
The first thing we have to do is lower the prices. Not just at the Met, but all around the world. You know, we used to hear, “I went to Vienna for 50 cents and heard Hilde Güden sing Rosenkavalier.” That’s not possible anymore. And so the first thing we have to do is to make the art form financially accessible. And we have to: It’s a battle. I think supertitles have opened up a whole world. I brought supertitles into this country [at New York City Opera, in 1983], and the season they went on, the rise in ticket sales was double digit. So it really had an impact. We have to keep thinking of things like that. We should stress the fact that you can understand every single word now. That’s a big plus. Why should you have to pretend to understand every word? That’s the worst kind of snobbery. We also have to get the arts back into the public school system. But that’s a whole other topic.
What do you think it is about opera that works, that really reaches people?
People always react to beauty. They never miss it, just as they never miss ugliness. I’ve seen people who know nothing about opera hear a high note that peeled the paint off the ceiling. They may not know why it happened, but they heard it. There is no more beautiful sound in the world than a well-trained voice, and I think that affects all of us in the same way. It’s simply that we are not given enough opportunities to enjoy it, enjoy that beautiful sound. That’s why I’m glad to hear it in commercials, because it’s very moving in commercials to hear the Lakmé duet in the background. People always react to beauty. It’s inevitable.
Elena Park is the Met’s Executive Producer, Radio, and Supervising Producer, Live in HD
Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Veneskey