Music: Beverly Sills: The Fastest Voice Alive

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Where this really shows up is in her ability to cope when things go wrong onstage. Last month, while singing under the baton of City Opera Director Julius Rudel, she inadvertently skipped a few bars and hit a high A too soon. "I held up my hand, and she knew immediately what the problem was," recalls Rudel. "So she held the note until I lowered my hand eight bars later. To make anything clear to her, a finger, an eyebrow, is enough."

Even Beverly has her breaking point, however. Once, at a rehearsal in Manhattan, a conductor reprimanded her: "Don't interrupt me when I'm speaking to somebody else." Beverly said: "I'll go you one better. I won't sing when you're conducting," and stomped offstage. During the preparations for her La Scala appearance, she climaxed an argument with the wardrobe mistress by snatching a pair of scissors and snipping a costume into pieces. The onlooking cast and chorus burst into applause, an Italian tribute to a flare of real temperament.

Beverly is proud of her musicianship, partly because it is hard-earned. "I'm very good," she says unselfconsciously. "When you do something for 30 years you get pretty proficient at it." Those 30 years go all the way back to a now famous singing radio commercial: "Rinso White, Rinso Bright, happy little washday song." That was Bubbles—or rather the young Beverly Sills, a stage name that was suggested by an agent for its theatrical ring. By now, Beverly knew where she was going; ahead of her was an apprenticeship given to few singers of any kind, much less to opera singers. Primped up in big bows and crisp pink dresses by Mama (who periodically brewed her own reddener for Bubbles' auburn locks and brushed it in with a toothbrush), she set off to sing on the radio, at ladies' luncheons and bar mitzvahs.

At 16, billed as "the youngest prima donna in captivity," she joined the touring J.J. Shubert operetta company, starring in Gilbert and Sullivan the first season and in The Merry Widow and The Countess Maritza the second. More dubious engagements followed on the borscht circuit and at a private after-hours club in Manhattan, where she wheeled a piano around the room and performed light classics for tips that sometimes totaled $150 a night. In response to Papa's pleas that she at least devote herself to grand opera, she signed with the Charles Wagner Opera Co., a provincial touring unit. Opera it was; grand it definitely was not. Beverly soon was riding up to 300 miles between dates in a rickety bus, acquiring stiff joints, bags under the eyes—and a pot of poker winnings. "I once sang 63 consecutive Micaelas in one-night stands of Carmen," she recalls. "I will never sing Micaela again, for anyone, anywhere."

Success Without the Met

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