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May 25, 2010

Remembering Beverly Sills with my favorite recording (today) of the soprano

Beverly Sills would have -- should have -- turned 81 today, May 25. She died, much too soon, three years ago.

For me, the distinctive, silvery sound of Sills exerts an immediate pull, just as the earthier tone of Callas does. And when Sills is at her interpretive best, I find myself totally won over.

Some days, if asked to choose my favorite performance by the singer, I'd immediately say Marietta's Lied from "Die tote stadt." But today, I'd have to pick "Im chambre separee" from the 1898 operetta "Der Opernball" by Heuberger --a love song about leaving the bright night life behind to share a cozy corner where secrets of love can be whispered.

During a phone interview with the soprano not long before she died, I mentioned my fondness for her interpretation of this aria and she sounded genuinely pleased, saying that it was one of her favorites as well. She talked about how she and conductor Julius Rudel had decided at the recording session that they wanted to really take their time with the music -- and, boy, do they ever! I just don't think this gentle aria could be more beautifully and beguilingly sung. It's a recording that sums up the magic of Beverly Sills perfectly.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:38 AM | | Comments (3)


I assume that the selections you mention are from her 1971 "Welcome to Vienna" LP (later issued on CD)? My recollection is that they are lovely.

However, you mention Callas and I think Sills shared a very important quality with Sills - they were both "stage creatures" and with a few exceptions (such as Callas' 1st Tosca w. De Sabata or Sills' Manon or Puritani), the recording studio didn't really capture them at their very best. Those who can put up with less than perfect sound should hear her Philadelphia Puritani with the young Pavarotti, or her Buenos Aires Cleopatra with Treigle (excerpts were commercially released, although the complete performance exists) to fully appreciate how exciting she could be. Of course, the videos that have been preserved also show Sills in live performance. A unique talent who, sadly, took years off her vocal longevity with some tremendously exciting, but vocally ill-advised roles (i.e. Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux and Norma).

"Beverly Sills would have -- should have -- turned 81 today, May 25. She died, much too soon, three years ago."

Think so? I don't. She lived a rich, full life. Her family had a chance to say goodbye and relive memories. The cancer which was reportedly the cause of her death could have lingered for years and years — I know; that's what happened by my grandmother. She nursed a husband until he died of Alzheimer's.

My guess is she didn't feel she died too soon.

And I am sure you must have seen this little gem of Beverly Sills at 8!

It's her (much later!) recording of La Traviata that totally won my then 7-year old daughter (now 9) over to wanting to become an opera singer. She still does.

Thanks for reminding me of that adorble clip of Bubbles. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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