Beverly Sills retired from singing 27 years ago, but the afterglow of her vocal art never really faded. All you had to do was just think of the soprano, and you could still hear the distinctive sound of her gleaming voice, still feel the embrace of her personality.
Not many opera stars leave so indelible an impression. Sills, who died Monday at 78, was one of those rare forces of nature who sweep through the music world periodically, brightening up the place, pushing aside pretentiousness and affectation, reaching out to the initiated and uninitiated alike.
I owe a lot to this artist. Although I had partially opened up my ears to opera, it wasn't until one night, sitting on the grass in the low-price section of Wolf Trap in Virginia, that the power of the art form really hit me, converted me totally. That was the night I saw Sills portray Elizabeth I in Donizetti's Roberto Devereux.
She was mesmerizing, even at a great distance from the stage. She inhabited the role. And she made every note an integral part of the character. The intensity of her tone - a thing of fine silver, with a glint of steel - had a rare and penetrating magic.
I used to regret terribly that I wasn't around to experience Maria Callas live, but after hearing Sills that night in 1975, I felt awfully fortunate. I still do.
Sills broke through high-art/low-art barriers with a knack rivaled in her time only by Luciano Pavarotti. She could get the attention of the man and woman in the street, not just in the opera house. On her many TV appearances, whether as a singer, guest or host, she inevitably lived up to her childhood nickname of "Bubbles." She was a funny woman, very down-to-earth. Her red hair, smiling eyes and hearty laugh formed a winning combination.
Even after her self-imposed vocal retirement, Sills made an impact. As general director of the New York City Opera, which had been her principal performance venue and scene of many a triumph starting in the 1950s, she introduced the use of supertitles. This was the first American company to do so and, in short order, everyone was using the translation device, helping to spark wider interest in the operatic art.
Her imaginative ideas, fundraising flair and sheer energy provided the New York City Opera with a huge lift of profile and reputation. Later, Sills proved every bit as valued an asset in her capacity as chairwoman of Lincoln Center and then the Metropolitan Opera.
It was, perhaps, a further measure of the soprano's personal caliber that she could work so hard for the Met, even though its doors had been essentially closed to her when she was at the absolute peak of her vocal prowess.
The Met's strong-willed director at the time, Rudolf Bing, was absurdly slow to notice or appreciate the Sills phenomenon that had been igniting the New York City Opera stage a stone's throw across the Lincoln Center plaza. The soprano didn't make her Met debut until 1975, three years after Bing retired.
She was a very popular woman at that point, a veteran of TV chat and variety shows, a celebrity. I suspect that made some members of the critical establishment dismissive of her. If you judged only by how Sills was treated in the press during her final years on the stage, or the way many of her recordings were reviewed, you could get the impression - a faulty one - that she was greatly overrated, that her appeal-to-the-masses ability was somehow a detriment.
As for the recordings, I don't think microphones were up to the task of capturing all of Beverly Sills, the complete picture, the whole package of talent. The voice, with its fast vibrato, could take on a strident edge in the studio, and that no doubt fueled the critical carping. At other times, the sheer force of the singer seems to have been simply too much for some listeners; what they heard on disc or experienced in opera houses was more Sills than they could handle.
The rest of us could never get enough of this endearing artist. And whatever shortcomings there may have been in her singing, at any point in her career, they were easily turned insignificant by the many virtues of her innate musicianship, her deep expressiveness, her spirited presence.
That Sills could maintain so much spirit for so long, despite a private life filled with sadness and challenge, is one more tribute to her character. She was undefeatable - taking the handicaps of her two children in stride, recovering strongly from the death of her husband last year - until being defeated this week by inoperable lung cancer.
Her death robs the music world of one of its greatest friends, advocates and ambassadors, one of its finest servants. But, thankfully, so much of Beverly Sills remains.
For a reminder of that legacy, listen to the perfection of line, steadiness and purity of tone, and superb taste she brings to Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben from Mozart's Zaide.