By Martin Bookspan
Some forty years ago, when I was Music and Dance Critic for Channel 7 News in New York, one of the events I covered was the opening night performance of Handel's "Julius Caesar" by the New York City Opera. Soprano Beverly Sills sang the starring role of Cleopatra. I had heard Miss Sills in a variety of other roles at the City Opera, as well as at Tanglewood in concert performances of operas conducted by Erich Leinsdorf. She was also soprano soloist in a recording of Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony conducted by Maurice Abravanel.
She was a singer of considerable accomplishment, but nothing had prepared me for the stunning performance she delivered that evening. Handel's Cleopatra is a role that demands near super-human technique, agility and flexibility---qualities that Miss Sills provided in extraordinary abundance. That "Julius Caesar" run marked the entrance of Beverly Sills into the galaxy of opera immortals.
She was integral to Live From Lincoln Center almost from the beginning. The fourth telecast of our first season, 1976, was a performance by the New York City Opera of Rossini's "The Barber of Seville". Singing the central role of Rosina was Beverly Sills. Just under a year later our cameras and microphones were back in the New York State Theater to capture another of Beverly Sills's signature roles, the title character in Massenet's "Manon". Her easy grace and good humor made her a favorite of the LFLC team. It was almost inevitable that Executive Director John Goberman invited her to serve as Host for one of our productions. This happened for the first time in April, 1978 in our telecast of Menotti's "The Saint of Bleeker Street". Six months later she sang the leading role of Donna Fiorella in the telecast of another Rossini opera, "The Turk in Italy".
She was one of the first artists of modern times to bring opera into the mainstream of American experience. In addition to Live From Lincoln Center, television audiences saw Beverly Sills as a frequent guest on NBC's "Tonight Show" in its glory days when Johnny Carson was Host. She also sometimes served as a substitute Host for Carson when he would take a night off. That she bridged many musical disciplines was evident to our Live From Lincoln Center audience when we were there for her Farewell Performance in January,1981. Entertainment for the evening was provided by many of her operatic colleagues, but there were also Special Appearances by, among others of her friends, Carol Burnett, Dinah Shore and Bobby Short
The world-at-large knew Beverly Sills as a consummate artist, with a power to communicate and to connect with people granted to very few. After her Farewell Performance she began a new career as an administrator, first with the New York City Opera, then Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera. Her dedication to each constituent was untiring, and her record as a fund raiser is legendary. She was also a role model for young artists, many of whom sought her out for advice and guidance.
Live From Lincoln Center has attracted a list of prominent personalities who have served as Hosts over the years. Beverly's tenure as Host began in the mid-1990s and continued uninterruptedly through our most recent program last May. None of us, least of all she, realized that she would not be with us for our next program on August 16. She was taken from us much too soon, but her "memory will be for a blessing".