Opera Legend Beverly Sills Dies At 78

Beverly Sills, the world-renowned soprano who became the most popular opera singer in America in modern times, died last night (July 2) in New York from inoperable lung cancer.

Beverly Sills, the world-renowned soprano who became the most popular opera singer in America in modern times, died last night (July 2) in New York from inoperable lung cancer. Sills, 78, died at her home after being released from the hospital on Friday where she was being treated for a broken rib, her manager Edgar Vincent told Reuters.

Sills was diagnosed with the disease in May, but it was in late June that the news of her cancer was made public.

Sills rose from the ranks of sopranos to become a great American diva in the 1960s and 1970s, and expanded her career beyond performing to run two major opera companies, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera.

The award-winning singer recorded 18 full-length operas and several solo albums, appearing on television specials and hosting her own shows in the United States.

Well-loved among connoisseurs and everyday opera lovers, Sills was nicknamed "Bubbles" as a child for her effervescence and striking red hair. Later in life, her gifted coloratura soprano voice added to the characterization.

Sills was born Belle Miriam Silverman in 1929 in Brooklyn, N.Y., and first appeared on a New York radio show in 1933. Three years later, she changed her name to Beverly Sills and continued performing. By 1939 she was a regular on radio's "Major Bowes' Capitol Family Hour."

She debuted with the New York City Opera in 1955 in Johann Strauss's comic operetta, "Die Fledermaus," and received her first widespread acclaim portraying Cleopatra in the company's version of George Frideric Handel's "Giulio Cesare."

Her breakthrough performance came during the opening weekend of a new Metropolitan opera house, on a night when "The Met" was dark. The numerous reporters in town for the opening went to Sills' performance instead, and gave her rave reviews.

Sills career began to soar and in the ensuing years, she expanded the number of roles in which she performed to more than 70. She sang at famous opera houses around the world, including in Italy, Germany and Britain.

Sills starred in operas on TV, and performed in TV specials like "Stills and Burnett at the Met" with her friend Carol Burnett. She hosted two shows of her own: "Lifestyles with Beverly Sills" and "Skyline with Beverly Sills."

A pivotal year in her career was 1980, when she received the Medal of Freedom from President Jimmy Carter. In October, she gave her final singing performance and accepted the position as general director of the New York City Opera.

When she took the company's reins, its finances were low, so Sills set about raising money and boosting performances. She pioneered the use of "sub-titles," providing English translation of foreign-language operas. The practice was decried by purists but loved by general audiences. She resigned in 1990.

In 2002, the Metropolitan Opera made Sills its chairwoman and, with typical humor, she explained her return this way: "I know that when I retired ... I said I wanted the leisure time to smell the roses at our country place. So, I smelled the roses and developed an allergy." She retired from the Metropolitan Opera in 2005.

She underwent successful surgery for cancer in 1974, before her recent diagnosis. Her husband, Peter Greenough, died in 2006 at age 89. The couple had two children, both of whom survive her.

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