Beverly Sills, coloratura soprano, devoted supporter of the arts and longtime Vineyard seasonal resident, died on Monday at her home in New York city of lung cancer. Ms. Sills, who was 78, was the wife of the late Peter B. Greenough, a retired financial writer for the Boston Globe, who died last September.
During her career, Ms. Sills had sung some 70 operatic roles. She performed principally with the New York City Opera, but also with the Opera Company of Boston. When she made her 1975 debut at the Metropolitan Opera, singing in Rossini's The Seige of Corinth, she received 75 curtain calls. And after a performance at Milan's La Scala, an Italian critic called her "an angel of the lyric stage." A New Yorker music critic urged visitors to put Ms. Sills at the top of their list, "way ahead of such things as the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building."
She was, it was said, the most popular opera singer with this nation's general public since the days of Enrico Caruso. She made frequent television appearances with such personalities as Danny Kaye, Johnny Carson and Carol Burnett, and had her own weekly NBC talk show for two years. For many years she also hosted the Live from Lincoln Center program of concerts and opera produced by Public Broadcasting.
She was a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980, the National Medal of Arts in 1990 and was a Kennedy Center honoree in 1990. She was also the recipient of two Emmy Awards.
Personally, she was warm, funny and outgoing, with a deep, throaty laugh and an earth-mother quality. Though her singing voice was high, her speaking voice was low. She was statuesque - five feet, eight inches tall, and buxom. She remarked cheerily when the La Scala orchestra gave her a standing ovation after her first rehearsal there: "It's probably because Italians like big women, big breasts and big backsides."
Ms. Sills retired from opera singing when she was 50 and embarked on a new career. She served as the New York City Opera's general director, as chairman of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and as chairman of the Metropolitan Opera. She also served for many years on the boards of the March of Dimes and the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation. And for privacy and relaxation, she and her family would come to the Vineyard each summer. For her, she told Martha's Vineyard Magazine some years ago, the Island had "magical charm."
The Vineyard became a part of her life after her 1956 marriage to Peter Greenough, whose grandfather. Charles Pelham Greenough of Brookline, had in 1890 built one of the first houses on the West Chop bluff. Peter Greenough had spent his childhood summers nearby in a spacious weathered shingled cottage his father had bought overlooking the West Chop beach. It was the house where Ms. Sills spent her first Vineyard summers.
West Choppers of those days welcomed her somewhat lukewarmly because she was not of their set, but they listened with delight as she sometimes practiced her singing at the casino. For her part, she loved the hushed quiet of the Vineyard there above the Sound but found living in a big old house daunting. And so in the 1970s, Beverly Sills and Peter Greenough chose a more private site for a home in the Makonikey woods, overlooking the shore.
While still under construction, the house was destroyed by an arsonist, but the Greenoughs wasted no time in rebuilding.
They filled their airy, gambrel-roofed new home with big, brightly upholstered furniture. They covered the walls with colorful Haitian art and paintings by the late Vineyard artist Michael O'Shaugnessy. Friends remember that there was so much cheery painting that it was even hung where the ceiling slanted. "Looking at paintings at Beverly and Peter's was rather like looking at the paintings at the Vatican," longtime friend and antiques and art dealer Brandon Wight remembers.
The Greenoughs' Makonikey home was also decorated with mementoes of Ms. Sills's travels - gay pieces from Mexico and bright copper pots. Each year, the Greenoughs would be sure to go to the Martha's Vineyard Antiques Show to look for copper miniatures - which Miss Sills especially liked - and which Vineyard Haven antiques dealer Allen Hanson was usually able to supply.
The Greenoughs were always on hand at Island art openings. At Brandon Wight and Bruce Blackwell's Main street, Vineyard Haven flea market, they looked for this or that to decorate their house, and Ms. Sills's choices were often whimsical. "Every single thing in my house means something," she told Martha's Vineyard Magazine. There's a wonderful Yiddish word, ‘tchotchke,' and it means ‘thingie.' Every little tchotchke here has a 10-minute story."
Ms. Sills had hired the late Craig Kingsbury to do her gardening. She wanted "a crazy, wacky flower garden," she said and a vegetable garden. Under Craig's magical touch, blueberries and radishes in particular flourished. Weekends, the Greenoughs were regulars at the West Tisbury Farmers' Market, both to buy fresh fruits and vegetables and so Ms. Sills could chuckle at the fact that, on no farmer's stand could she find radishes or blueberries to equal hers.
Other Island pastimes included beachcombing, clamming, swimming in the pool in front of their house, and playing tennis on the family court.
Ms. Sills was happiest on the Island, however, simply sitting on her deck, looking out at the Sound, relishing the Vineyard's beauty and reading, or being alone there with her family. Sometimes her vivacious mother would also be with them.
But enjoying the Island as she did, there were times, too, when she wanted to share it with such off-Island friends as ABC interviewer Barbara Walters, actor Joel Grey and Carol Burnett whom she would invite to visit. Or the Greenoughs would have dinner parties for Island family and friends. Among the latter were the William Styrons, the Mike Wallaces and the late Art Buchwald, Joanna Simon and Jayne Ikard. Often, Mr. Greenough, who had studied at Dionne Lucas's Cordon Bleu cooking school, would prepare the dinner - and it was likely to include smoked bluefish pate made from bluefish he had caught himself on a fishing expedition in the boat of his late Makonikey neighbor, Roger Feldman, or a superbly grilled steak.
But sometimes Ms. Sills would join him in the kitchen, preparing the grandest of desserts - ice cream and cake, chocolate sauce and fresh berries - served in stem glasses the size of soup bowls.
In the same way that the décor of her house was colorful, so, too, were the clothes she wore on the Island. For entertaining, she favored flowing muumuus during the day and, for the evening, caftans of bright green or orange - both colors that coordinated with her red-gold hair.
Ms. Sills was renowned on the Island for her warmth and generosity. She was a frequent visitor to Longhill in Edgartown when her sister in law, the late poet Barbara Greenough Bradley, was a resident there. When a toy antique fire truck caught her eye in an antique store, she immediately, delightedly, bought it as a gift for her friend Carol Burnett, who she knew collected them. At the time of Beverly Sills's birth, because, her mother said, she had arrived with bubbles in her mouth, she was called Bubbles and it was a nickname that perfectly suited her exuberant, effervescent personality.
Beverly Sills was born Belle Miriam Silverman in Brooklyn, N.Y., May 25, 1929, a daughter of Morris and Sonia (Shirley) Markovna Silverman. Her father had come to the United States from Bucharest, Rumania; her mother from Odessa, Russia. She began her musical career at the age of three, singing in a Most Beautiful Baby Contest. Her star-struck mother had hopes early on that her blond, curly-haired daughter would be another Shirley Temple and, as a child, Bubbles Silverman appeared on Saturday morning radio shows, took singing lessons and played in a radio soap opera. At four, she was on the Saturday morning children's radio show Uncle Bob's Rainbow House; at seven, she was tap-dancing and singing arias that she had learned from her mother's Amelia Galli-Curci records. She was on the soap opera, Our Gal Sunday and on Major Bowes Capital Family Hour. When she was 12, she was singing the commercial "Rinso White, Rinso Bright, Happy Little Washday Song."
But that was when her father, an insurance salesman, felt it was time she concentrated on her studies and put a temporary hold on the youthful career in entertainment that her mother was fostering. Ms. Sills went to Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, but also - as a nod to her mother - to the Professional Children's School in Manhattan.
She graduated from the professional school in 1945 when she was 16 and spent the next decade touring with various opera companies. Although she had a number of auditions for the New York City Opera, it was not until 1955 that she was accepted for it. A year later, when she was on tour with the opera in Cleveland, Mr. Greenough, whose family owned the city's notable newspaper, The Plain Dealer, and who was an associate editor there, saw Ms. Sills at one of her performances.
As she later recalled it, "He winked at me and that's how it all started." Mr. Greenough was in the midst of a divorce. Once it was granted, the couple married and for the next 50 years the Milton Academy, Harvard and Columbia School of Journalism-educated Mayflower descendant Peter Greenough and the Brooklyn-born Jewish diva Beverly Sills, daughter of immigrants, were inseparable.
They first stayed in his 23-room house in Cleveland and Ms. Sills commuted to New York for her City Opera performances. Later, they lived for a time in Milton and then in New York. They had two children. Peter (Bucky) who is autistic and institutionalized, was born in 1961, and Meredith (Muffy) who is deaf and suffers from multiple sclerosis, was born in 1959. Ms. Sills would often say wistfully how much she wished that her daughter could hear her sing.
With adversity so often dogging her private life, when asked how she could be happy under such devastating circumstances, she would reply, "I may not be happy, but I'm always cheerful."
When she had first learned of her children's disabilities, Ms. Sills, for a time, considered abandoning her singing career to care for them. But Mr. Greenough wouldn't hear of it and instead gave her 52 round-trip airline tickets on the Boston-New York shuttle when the family was living in Milton, so she could start studying music again with her favorite coach.
The Greenoughs' strong link with the Vineyard continued until eight years ago, when Mr. Greenough became ill and they sold their Makonikey house. Ms. Sills had mixed emotions about it.
"She loved the Vineyard when it was still a simple place," her longtime friend and fellow seasonal Islander Joanna Simon says, "but she was terribly upset at the high-powered types who began flying in on private planes. She felt the Island changed after the Clintons came. Suddenly it seemed, too, that everyone on the Island wanted a piece of her. It was no longer an escape. The Island was celebrity-ridden and becoming overbuilt. The quiet Vineyard life she had so enjoyed was over.
In addition to her daughter, who lived with her in New York, she is survived by her son, also of New York; her stepchildren, Lindley Thomasett of Bedford, N.Y., Nancy Bliss of Woodstock, N.Y., and Diana Greenough of Lancaster and her brother, Stanley of Boca Raton, Fla.