San Diego was privileged to feature opera diva Beverly Sills in eight productions from 1970 to 1980, the year of her retirement from the opera stage.
Sills was committed to performing opera in English, fitting San Diego Opera’s original artistic policy, and had close professional ties with Maestro Walter Herbert and Tito Capobianco, the company’s first two general directors.
They brought the popular soprano back to the Civic Theatre year after year.
Sills’ local debut in the Capobianco production of “The Tales of Hoffmann” in 1970 was a smashing success. Partnered with her frequent stage colleague, bass Norman Treigle, they made history by each singing four challenging roles composed by Jacques Offenbach for his dramatic and colorful opera.
Her second appearance in San Diego was in 1973 with a vivacious performance in “The Daughter of the Regiment,” a role that suited Sills, an acting coloratura soprano with a sense of comedy.
The sold-out performances were so popular that Pacific Telephone used a scene for the cover of the 1974 San Diego telephone book.
Each of Sills’ performances in San Diego was memorable — paired with future superstar Tatiana Troyanos in “Norma;” “The Merry Widow;” “La Traviata;” “Don Pasquale;” and a world premiere of Gian Carlo Menotti’s “La Loca.”
Her last appearance, paired with Joan Sutherland in “Die Fledermaus” in 1980, was an international opera event — the only time the two reigning divas appeared together onstage.
Born Belle Silverman in Brooklyn, N.Y., Sills lived up to her symbolic title of “Made in America” as a superstar who received all her training and most of her artistic fame in the United States.
She died at age 78 on July 1, 2007, ending a career as an opera diva supreme, TV show hostess and administrator of New York’s City Opera, Lincoln Center and Metropolitan Opera. Americans who did not even like opera knew her name and recognized her cheerful voice and effervescent personality.
Besides “The Tales of Hoffmann” tour de force singing in three soprano styles, Sills was renowned for her revival of bel canto opera in America. Most notable were the three queen roles composed by Gaetano Donizetti: Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots and Anna Bolena, which earned her the cover of Time magazine in 1971.
Other acclaimed opera heroines not sung in San Diego were Manon, Lucia and Cleopatra.
In fact, it was the New York City Opera’s 1966 production of George Frideric Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” that launched the Sills’ career into the top echelon of opera singers and started a revival of baroque opera on U.S. stages.
I was privileged to know Sills during her San Diego appearances. My first encounter was in Walter Herbert’s residence during rehearsals for her debut here.
As president-elect of SDO, I was to represent Herbert at the organizational meeting of Opera America in Washington, D.C., and would miss opening night.
The maestro was kind to arrange a dinner for my wife and me with Sills and Treigle, her co-star.
Since Herbert drove a small, sporty convertible, he asked me to drive the five of us to the restaurant in our larger station wagon.
As we wheeled down to Mission Valley with the three key persons in the back seat, Herbert exclaimed, “Oh, my God, if we have an accident, the opera can’t be performed!”
Did he really mean to say “Drive more slowly?”
Other occasions with Sills were a trip to Los Angeles with Kenneth Caswell, business manager during my presidency for some opera business that coincided with the New York City Opera’s annual tour at the Music Center.
Sills and Treigle were doing their famous “Hoffmann” production after we had seen it in San Diego. Backstage between acts, we watched both of the stars applied their radical makeup, Treigle for his sinister role as Dr. Miracle and Sills as the mechanical doll, Olympia. What a job. Sills glued fancy cellophane toothpicks to her eyelids.
San Diego’s lasting tribute to Sills is the designated upper foyer of the Civic Theatre as the Beverly Sills Salon. Then-Mayor Pete Wilson, a fan of Sills, had a City Council resolution for the dedication May 21, 1979, on the occasion of Sills’ 50th birthday gala celebration at the theater. Wilson presided as master of ceremonies.