Music: Beverly Sills: The Fastest Voice Alive

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IT was a crisis in the Brooklyn household of Morris Silverman. Ten-year-old Belle had announced that she wanted to become an opera star, "not an opera singer, but a star." Papa was appalled. He had not objected to the piano and singing lessons for little Belle, or "Bubbles," as the family called her. He had not even objected when she sang on the radio with Uncle Bob Emory's Rainbow House, and later on the Major Bowes Capital Family Hour. After all, this was the era of Shirley Temple.

But a professional singer? That was too much. Papa, the son of a Rumanian Jewish immigrant, had worked his way up during the Depression to become a district assistant manager for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. Loving but stern, he was the kind of patriarch who had never even seen the inside of his wife's kitchen. He had never seen the inside of the vocal world either, but he knew what he thought of it. He ruled: "Bubbles is going to college and become a teacher." It was Mama, the one behind the lessons and the radio appearances, who stood fast. "The two boys will go to college and be smart," she said. "This one is going to be an opera singer."

A Late Bloomer

And so it came to pass. The two boys went to college, one to become an obstetrician on Long Island and the other the president of a publishing firm in Indianapolis. And Bubbles? Bubbles did indeed become an opera star, and a smart one at that. She became, in fact, one of the biggest opera stars the U.S. has ever produced. She sang leading roles at the world's great opera houses, from La Scala to Covent Garden to San Francisco, commanded top fees of $10,000 for concert performances and made recordings that turned into classical bestsellers. She became a $300,000-a-year, one-woman industry and, at the same time, the finest singing actress since Maria Callas. And because she did so as a thoroughly home-grown talent, she revolutionized the U.S. opera scene. In short, she became Beverly Sills.

The transformation did not happen quickly. Beverly was 37 years old when she broke through to international prominence in a 1966 production of Handel's Julius Caesar at the New York City Opera. She was 40 when she achieved La Scala. But, having bloomed late, she is at least blooming the way she does everything else—exuberantly. Her career surges ahead with ever growing momentum. Her itinerary looks like an airline route map, as she crisscrosses the globe to meet this year's schedule of more than 100 operatic, concert and recital appearances. To friends who urge her to slow down, she shrugs: "I'm already 42; what am I saving it for?"

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