Speaking Volumes: Renowned opera singer Beverly Sills was a true game-changing diva

Renowned opera singer Beverly Sills would have celebrated her 90th birthday on May 25.

She was born in New York City to Jewish Eastern European immigrants who valued hard work and appreciation of the arts.

Sills quickly gained success as a child actor, becoming a weekly fixture on the children’s show “Rainbow House” at age 4, and then going on to sing and tap-dance on “Major Bowes Capital Family Hour” and act in the radio soap “Our Gal Sunday.”

At age 12, her parents ended her budding career so that she could focus on her studies at the Professional Children’s School in Manhattan.

Sills began performing again at 16, beginning a decade of touring with small opera companies until she caught her big break. In 1955, on her eighth audition, she was accepted into the New York City Opera and gained critical acclaim.

Sills married and began raising a family while continuing to take on roles, and by 1965 was the New York City Opera’s headlining female performer. Much of Sills’ success came later in life and she did not follow the path of a typical performer.

She did not debut at the famous Metropolitan Opera House until she was 45 and never performed at many of the most well-known European opera houses.

In 1979, Sills retired from opera and continued to carve her own path by becoming the first woman and first singer to manage the New York City Opera. Sills became a prolific fundraiser for the opera company. Her retirement tribute alone raised more than a million dollars, and during her 10-year tenure she pulled the New York City Opera out of debt and into financial success.

Sills became a national spokesperson for the arts, appearing frequently on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” She also appeared in many television specials, where she promoted the arts with Carol Burnett and sang to President Ronald Reagan.

Sills was awarded four Emmy Awards, a Grammy Award, the New York City Handel Medallion for contributions to the city’s arts and culture, and a 1980 Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Sills died in 2007.

For those looking for more about Beverly Sills, check out her memoir, “Bubbles: A Self Portrait,” and Kay Hutchison’s “American Heroines: The Spirited Women Who Shaped Our Country,” in which her remarkable story is featured.

For those interested in learning more about the art and industry of opera, the library has many interesting reads. Check out John Martinez’s “Fantastic Opera: The Great Operas” for images and descriptions of the world’s most famous operas and “Opera for Beginners” by Ron David, a humorous comic book introduction to opera.

The library also has several CDs featuring the musical talents of Beverly Sills, including the operas “Barber of Seville” and “Rigoletto.”

Call your local branch for more information on available titles.

Central Library — 941-748-5555;

Braden River — 941-727-6079;

Island — 941-778-6341;

Palmetto — 941-722-3333;

Rocky Bluff — 941-723-4821;

South Manatee — 941-755-3892.

You also can access the library via the internet at

Katie Fleck is a librarian at the Central Library in downtown Bradenton. Speaking Volumes, written by Manatee County Public Library System staff members, is published each Sunday in the Bradenton Herald.

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