Music: Beverly Sills: The Fastest Voice Alive

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Beverly's acting did not always have such bite, such depth. Where did it come from? Age and experience can account for some of it, but not all. To explain it, many of her friends go back to a story that began in Cleveland in 1955. Beverly was making her first tour with the New York City Opera. She met Peter B. Greenough, a tall, burly Boston Brahmin who was financial editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a paper partly owned by his family. Peter could do nothing right, or so it seemed. First he winked at her. "My God," thought Beverly, "that's not a very novel approach." Next he sent her a mash note on the inside of a matchbook cover. Then, dining her in his 25-room house on Lake Erie, he lit a fire but forgot to open the chimney flue; the smoke routed them both, coughing and wheezing. "Mama," reported Beverly when she got home, "I think I've met a man I finally can marry."

There were complications: Peter was still in the process of divorcing his first wife, by whom he had had three daughters, one mentally retarded. "Also," said Beverly, saving the worst for last, "he's not Jewish." Mama wept and cried out: "Why does everything have to happen to you?" But soon Peter, who is descended from John Alden on both sides of his family, was plying Mama with books, flowers and Yiddishisms—"A toast to MGM, meine ganze Mishpocheh [all my family]." In 1956 the couple were married in Estelle Liebling's living room, standing on the same spot on the rug where Bubbles had stood for so many vocal lessons.

Their daughter Meredith ("Muffy") was born three years later, and Beverly eagerly curtailed her operatic schedule to spend more time at home. Within a year, she and Peter began to suspect what was confirmed just before Muffy's second birthday: the child was almost totally deaf. In a piece of Sophoclean irony, Muffy would never hear the sound of her mother's singing.

At almost the same time, Peter and Beverly had a son, Peter Jr. ("Bucky"), who they learned was mentally retarded. Beverly took off a full year from performing to work with Muffy in a school for the deaf and try to come to terms with her dual tragedy. "The first question you ask," she says, "is a self-pitying 'Why me?' Then it changes to a much bigger 'Why them?' It makes a whole difference in your attitude."

The Joy of Performance

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