Music: Beverly Sills: The Fastest Voice Alive

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Finally, in 1953, at the age of 24, she made her big-time debut with the San Francisco Opera, singing the secondary female role in Boito's Mefistofele. By that time Papa had died, but Mama was there, having flown out and taken a hotel room with a kitchenette so that she could cook Beverly's dinner before each performance. Two years later, after seven unsuccessful auditions, Beverly finally joined the New York City Opera, beginning the stint as a highly regarded utility singer that eventually led to her emergence in 1966. Conspicuously missing from the Sills dossier, then as now, was the name of the Metropolitan Opera. "I happened in a different way from Caruso, or Price, or any of the others," says Beverly. "I made it without the Met. I am a revolutionary."

The revolution she started has shifted the balance of U.S. operatic power somewhat away from the Met toward the smaller companies that shared in her development. It has also paved the way for future young American singers to build a career on native grounds without resorting to the borrowed prestige of Europe or the Met. Norman Treigle, the superb bass baritone who rose with Beverly in the New York City Opera, says, "Both of us were busting our cans in the beginning. We made a sort of pact that we were going to show what the American singer could do."

What Beverly has shown since 1966 is that an American singer can take up where Maria Callas left off. Callas, now virtually retired, had a soaring, flexible voice that projected a matchless dramatic intensity. In the 1950s, among other roles, she almost singlehanded revived the ornate bel canto repertory of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini. (Bel canto, literally "beautiful singing," more properly applies to the whole vocal art of making the fiendishly difficult sound easy.) It is this repertory that Beverly and her chief coloratura rival, Joan Sutherland (see box, page 81), have since then mastered. Beverly comes by the bel canto tradition not only through her admiration for Callas, but through years of study with the late Estelle Liebling. Miss Liebling was, professionally speaking, a direct descendant of the 19th century's Mathilde Marchesi, the influential voice teacher of such fabled bel canto sopranos as Nellie Melba and Emma Eames.

The Sills voice is a rich, supple flute: it is precise, a little light, and floats with ease in the stratosphere above high C. More than anything, it is agile. "The unique thing about Beverly's voice is that she can move it faster than anybody else alive," says Conductor Thomas Schippers. Soprano Leontyne Price is "flabbergasted at how many millions of things she can do with a written scale."

Desperate Need for an Audience

Beverly does not have the powerful top notes for roles like Tosca or Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, and particularly not for Wagnerian roles like Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung. But she is ideally suited to bel canto, and to the French lyric romanticism of Gounod and Massenet. In these areas she is unbeatable, and even among the diverse other sopranos in this age of great sopranos—Birgit Nilsson, Sutherland, Price, Marilyn Horne, Monserrat Caballé—she more than holds her own.

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