NEW YORK – Beverly Sills, who first won renown as a powerhouse soprano and then made an equally impressive career as a dynamic arts administrator and fundraiser, died Monday of lung cancer. She was 78.
After her triumphant operatic career, she became the head of the New York City Opera in 1979, saving it from financial ruin. In 1994, she became the first woman to head Lincoln Center, and in 2002 the first woman to chair the board of the Metropolitan Opera. In all those capacities, her fundraising abilities were legendary – her Rolodex, friends joked, was as golden as her voice.
Born Belle Miriam Silverman in Brooklyn on May 25, 1929, she won her earliest renown at 3 in a Miss Beautiful Baby contest and began singing professionally at 16.
In 1956, she married Peter Greenough, the scion of a New England family. In 1959, their daughter Muffy was born – deaf, unable to hear her mother’s voice. Two years later, they had a son, Peter Jr., who was autistic, speechless and epileptic. Because of her warm, sparkling personality – Sills was aptly nicknamed Bubbles – she always had a bond with the public. She became a fixture on TV, appearing with Johnny Carson and Mike Douglas, doing a special at the Met with Carol Burnett, and, last November, hosting “The View.”
In the often stodgy world of opera, she was an innovator. Shortly after she took over the City Opera, she installed subtitles, the first American opera company to use them.
“I do not think that opera is for the elite … only a horse’s ass thinks that,” she said.
Her husband died in September, two months before what would have been their 50th anniversary. She is survived by her daughter and son.