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Beverly Sills -- a farewell and a forward look

Beverly Sills has sung farewell to the operatic stage. The gala dinner has been consumed, the balloons, confetti, and streamers have all fallen, the dancing to the Woody Herman Band in the special tent in Damrosch Park is but a distant echo on the Lincoln Center Plaza. And the final vocal page has been turned for the singer who became one of the most popular, widely known, and beloved singers of American operatic history.

Sills the singer has given way to Sills the artistic director of her beloved New York City Opera. And that company organized to give her a sparkling, show-biz romp of a farewell with a roster of guests that included some of today's biggest names in opera, two of Broadway's grandest oldtimers, and celebrities from ballet, TV-land, and other walks to celebrate BEVERLY! -- the actual name of the event.

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People paid up to $1,000 a ticket to be a part of it all. The dinners were held in Avery Fisher Hall and the New York State Theater. The musical format was the second act of Johann Strauss' "Die Fledermaus," with a vintage city Opera cast. The action was bubbling along in typical City Opera style (with the eloquent Julius Rudel in the pit) when Carol Burnett dropped by -- a visitor from the 20th century dropping into 19th century Vienna. And the "Gala Sequence" was on.

"Thank you all for a superb love affair," Miss Sills said before singing "The time has come for me to leave you, 'tis the moment for goodbyes. . . . We have shared so much together, 'tis not the end but a new start. . . ."

But was the event fitting for the star it was honoring? Miss Sills had been chugging along at the City Opera for many years before fame really hit. She had made noise and a recording with Moore's "Baby doe," but the superstar did not become fact until the first season in the company's new home at Lincoln Center, when she sang Cleopatra in Handel's "Julius Caesar." Suddenly a bel conto a artist of the first ordr was breathing new and fiery life into those roulades, trills, and runs of the coloratura's language, and making them work dramatically as well as musically.

Roles poured out after that. Most of her important work was done at the City Opera. This writer knew her mostly from her Boston appearances with Sarah Caldwell's Opera Company of Boston.

I did not see her Manon on stage until a few seasons ago, and still, the magic was breath-taking. I was a student in London when she made her Covent Garden debut in 1970 -- one of the fondest memories of my opera-going experience.

In Sills' golden years, she was consistently great. Two performances after her Covent Garden debut, her Lucia was just as fresh and electrifying. Before she lost her stamina in the last seasons through a complicated convolution of physical problems and frantic scheduling, there was never any notable loss of vocal (not to mention dramatic) quality in a Sill run of performances. And that silvery voice -- even from top to bottom -- seemed to encompass an entire shower of colors and emotions.

The recorded legacy for this singer will not be quite as kind as it should, since so much of it came late in her career. In addition to many gems from the regular recordings, my favorite among the pirated 'underground' pieces is Pamira from the La Scala "Seige of Corinth," -- the prayer is as stunning, evocative, and inexpressibly beautiful a few minutes of sustained, quiet singing as exists.

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To most Americans Sills was more than a diva, she was the lovable Bubbles, heroine of talk shows, magazine covers, adn TV specials -- a media event. "Look , friends, opera can be fun. Opera stars are human; we laugh and cry and have a grand old time doing what we love to do more than anything else in the world," she was proclaiming to the world. The final years of her career were spent dashing from this studio to that stage, from "Tonight Show" guest hostess to Met performance, choosing ever so carefully the roles that would allow her to make a Sillsian effect without overtaking a failing instrument. Still the audiences loved her, because Beverly, or Bubbles to her friends and fans, was the embodiment of what most Americans wanted their opera stars to be.

Her Met farewell was as Norina, and the final bow at the last performance was given over to a wave of sentimental acclaim and love, something suprisingly missing at the City Opera Monday night.

Perhaps everyone was worn down by the celebrity performances. All that amplified singing from Vegas and TV people, that conspicuous lack of operatic magic, that stream of guests some of whom were friends, others admirers, others just names, all put together with no evident thread or purpose, added to the diffused sense of occasion.

Sad to say magic was in short supply. Ethel Merman brought the only real goose-bump thrills with her larger-than life "No Business Like Show Business," Mary Martin's endearingly dimunitive "my Heart Belong to Daddy" was an audience favorite, and who could resist Galway's melting "Danny Boy" on his magical flute? The opera stars sang Broadway -- Milnes lovely "Maria" Miss Price an awkward, oddly unaffecting "Kiss Today Goodbye," Miss Scotto an eccentric distracting "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

Donald Gramm offered one of the few tailored-to-the occasion versions of a song when he turned "I want What I Want When I Want It," to "She Gets What She Wants When She Wants It."

Now Beverly Sills could comfortably wake up Tuesday morning as general director of her favorite company, knowing that the singing is finally behind her (what a mixed bag of emotions that must be for anyone who has known the glamour and glitter of success as consistently as Miss Sills has known it). She can now forge on to revitalize the City Opera and bring back to it something of the magic she instilled in her days as reigning queen there.

Brava, Beverly. And on with the next phase of a remarkable career.

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