The first gift I remember ever buying for my mother when I was young was a copy of “Bubbles: A Self-Portrait,” the autobiography of opera singer Beverly Sills who died yesterday at her home in New York. My mother was a huge fan of Beverly Sills. With her red hair and Russian Jewish background, Sills looked like she could easily be a member of our family. My mom was not an opera fanatic, but she had a prenatal connection to this art form. After seeing a production of Verdi’s famous opera at Chicago’s Lyric Opera House a few months before my mother’s birth, my grandmother gave her baby Aida as a middle name. Naming a Jewish girl after an Ethiopian princess was a fairly radical move in 1934, and I can only imagine the reaction of my ultra-orthodox great-grandparents. I suppose my grandmother drew her in-laws’ attention to my mother’s first name, the very traditional Judith which means “Jewess.”
My main contact to the opera when I was growing up was through one of my grandfather’s closest friends, Danny Newman, public relations maven for Chicago’s Lyric Opera for nearly 50 years. I saw Danny regularly at my grandfather’s synagogue and was always transfixed by his glamorous Warsaw-born wife, Dina Halpern, Grande Dame of the Yiddish Theatre, who got stuck in New York while on tour in 1938 and thus became the only member of her immediate family who did not perish in the Holocaust. Danny and Dina were tight with the top echelon of opera singers from around the world. I’m sure they knew Beverly Sills quite well.
My mom worshipped Sills, not only because of her incredible voice, but because they seemed cut from the same cloth despite their wildly different career paths. Beverly Sills was born Belle Miriam Silverman, in Brooklyn, New York, to first generation Jewish immigrants. “Bubbles” Silverman spoke Yiddish as a kid and was just as precocious as a certain Judith Aida Karoll in Chicago. At the age of 7, Bubbles was already showing off her impressive pipes and trademark gusto in a short 1938 film called “Uncle Sol Solves It.” Take a look:
Beverly Sills broke all kinds of boundaries in the world of opera as an American Jewish woman. Her lifelong quest to make opera lovers out of the widest possible audience was a resounding success. This afternoon I heard an interview that Sills gave to NPR in 2002 in which she told a story about one of her many fundraising exploits as general manager of the New York City Opera, a post she took after she retired from performing. She had approached a philanthropist who did not care for opera for a huge donation of a million bucks. In their conversations, she made it clear that she didn’t just want his money, she also wanted his body in the audience. The rich guy gave her a choice: he’d give the million dollars if he never had to attend the opera or he’d give $900,000 if she did insist that he go to a few performances. Sills chose the $900,000. The man and his wife attended the opera several times over the next year. Finally, at a big party at the man’s home, Sills noticed that all of the guests but her had a small gift on their plate. “How come everyone got a trinket except for me?” Sills asked. “Look under your damn plate, Beverly,” he replied. She lifted up her plate and found a check for the remaining $100,000 made out to the opera company. She had turned him into an opera lover after all!
Sills’ frequent appearances on Johnny Carson and other talk shows, her playful TV outings with the Muppets, her wonderful specials with Carol Burnett, and her popular recitals with symphony orchestras around the country went a long way in introducing people who would never think of stepping foot in an opera house to this vibrant art form. She was kind of like the Gomer Pyle of the opera world, never losing her thick Brooklyn accent when she spoke or her down home sense of humor, and then transforming herself into one of the world’s most serious coloratura sopranos as she sang all the great operatic roles. Reviewing her 1969 performance in “Manon” in “The New Yorker,” critic Winthrop Sargeant wrote: “If I were recommending the wonders of New York to a tourist, I would place Beverly Sills at the top of the list—way ahead of such things as the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building.”
I remember when Beverly Sills shocked the opera world by retiring from singing when she still seemed to be in her prime. “My voice had a long, nonstop career,” she said in 1980. “It deserves to be put to bed with quiet and dignity, not yanked out every once in a while to see if it can still do what it used to do. It can’t.” Yet Sills herself went on to lead several opera companies and become chairman of Lincoln Center. She worked tirelessly for many charities, especially her lifelong commitment to children with special needs. What a mensch she was. I’ll never forget her amazing smile and infectious laugh.
Like my mom, Sills died of a particularly aggressive form of lung cancer. And she never even smoked. Although my mother had perfect pitch and a great passion for all types of singing, she couldn’t sing a note. But if Judith Aida could have played the title role in the opera she was named after, I bet this is how she would have looked. I only hope that my mom now has a front row seat for Beverly Sills’ latest gig.