Music: Beverly Sills: The Fastest Voice Alive

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There is more to an opera performance than voice, of course. Beverly rightly describes herself as a singing actress, with equal stress on each word. That is why her live performances will always be more exciting than her recordings, successful as those recordings may be (the recent four-LP set of Massenet's Manon has sold 25,000 copies in a market where sales of 10,000 for a single LP are considered substantial). "I'm a visual performer," she says. "I have to act, use facial expressions, get mood changes across. It's hard to share any of this with a microphone. I need an audience desperately."

While preparing a performance of Bellini's Norma for Sarah Caldwell's Boston Opera last spring, Beverly worked especially hard on ways to indicate that Norma suffers from epileptic seizures. When she made her entrance in rehearsal, reports Miss Caldwell, "she did such a convincing job that several stagehands rushed out to help her up, thinking she was ill."

Acting as compelling as that comes partly from shrewd instinct, partly from careful planning. Beverly, whose IQ is 155, reads voluminously into the backgrounds of her roles and thinks them through imaginatively. Behind her pigeon-toed bumpkin in the first act of Manon, for example, lies this Sills analysis: "She was born with a good bosom and a shock of unusual-colored hair, whatever the color. She probably has gone barefoot all week except Sundays. Mama has probably caught her in the hayloft with one of the farm hands and decided that this kid is too much for her to handle. So she sends her to the convent."

Dual Tragedy

Beverly is also quick to sense which roles are unsuitable for her. Of the Queen of the Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute, she says: "I threw out that broad very quickly. I realized she wasn't for me when I found I could address 250 Christmas cards in my dressing room between her first act aria and her second act aria."

For Roberto Devereux, Beverly's researches convinced her that at the time of the opera's action, Elizabeth I would have been a much older woman than is usually portrayed. Appearing at rehearsal one day made up as a 60-year-old, Beverly persuaded the company that she was right—including Director Capobianco. Onstage, that makeup lends a harsh poignance to the climactic moment when Elizabeth, her voice dry and pinched, sentences her recalcitrant lover Essex to death.

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