Washington — Coloratura Beverly Sills sits back against her ``Support the Arts -- Kiss A Soprano'' needlework pillow and tells a story: ``I was talking to Leontyne Price and telling her there was a woman who followed me around in a department store and said, `Didn't you used to be Beverly Sills?' And Leontyne said, `That's nothing.' She said she was in a department store and someone came up to her and said, `I know you. You're Joan Sutherland.' And she said, `No, ma'am, I'm Beverly Sills.' '' Then the redheaded diva known as ``Bubbles'' whoops with laughter at the story she has just told.
The ``former'' Beverly Sills she's not, this woman who will be saluted Sunday at the Kennedy Center Honors for a lifetime of significant contribution to the performing arts. She will be one of Kennedy Center's six honorees at the gala this year (televised later over CBS), along with actors Bob Hope and Irene Dunne, dancer-choreographer Merce Cunningham, playwright-lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, and composer Frederick Lowe.
Beverly Sills, alias the Daughter of the Regiment, Manon, Cleopatra, and Queen Elizabeth I, perches for a photo under a teal blue velvet wall hanging that looks like a picture quilt. The Sills banner, hand-stitched by the women of the San Diego Opera Guild, pictures her in 15 of her most famous roles. She glances up at the banner's tiny costumes, which remind her of the real ones she wore before retiring in 1980 from singing with the New York City Opera.
``Not one of [the costumes] is left, they all burned in the fire,'' she says, speaking of the blaze that swept the warehouse where everything was stored: ``Twelve thousand costumes, a $7 million loss, 74 productions,'' she murmurs. A tragic loss for Beverly Sills, not just as memories up in smoke but also as the present and future productions of her second career: general director of the City Opera at Lincoln Center.
Diva-director Beverly Sills, still in her 50s, is a toddler compared with many of the past Kennedy Center honorees; actress Lynn Fontanne was 93, Jimmy Cagney was 81. Was she surprised to be chosen while still in the prime of life? A cadenza of laughter, then ``You think I've broken the age barrier? Yes, I guess I am one of the youngest ones, if not the youngest.'' And does she think of this as a tribute to her career as what The New Yorker's Andrew Porter called ``Diva of the People'' or as City Opera director, or both? ``I think it's a combination of a great many circumstances. And I think I'm in a unique situation, in that while I no longer do what made me famous, I'm still pretty much of a driving force in the same area.''
Roger Stevens, chairman of Kennedy Center, says in a gentle growl that Beverly Sills ``certainly is very deserving of [the award], as one of the great singers of the last several decades, whose managerial skills have also kept the New York City Opera growing at a quite fast pace.''
Friend and colleague Schuyler Chapin speaks of Beverly Sills's ``rich contribution'' to opera: ``her unique combination of artist, singer, impresario, and caring human being.'' Chapin, former general manager of the Metropolitan Opera and now dean of the School of Arts at Columbia University, says, ``She's helped to bring American opera into view as a world force.''
Bubbles's career began at three, when, as Miriam Belle Silverman of Brooklyn, she sang ``The Wedding of Jack and Jill'' in The Most Beautiful Baby of 1932 contest. She was dubbed ``Bubbly'' by her family, not because of her ebullient personality but because she was born with a bubble of saliva on her lips. She says of her childhood, ``Oh, I always knew I was going to be an opera star, not just an opera singer, an opera star. The moment I saw Lily Pons on the stage, I knew that.'' She was eight at the time, and the opera was Delibes's ``Lakme.'' She had already memorized 22 arias from her mother's collection of Galli-Curci records.
As a child she had already appeared in a radio soap, ``Our Gal Sunday,'' and won a weekly spot on Major Bowes's Amateur Hour when impresario J. J. Schubert sent her out on the road at 15 to tour in ``The Merry Widow'' and other operettas. He billed her as the youngest prima donna in captivity. Later, after nine auditions, she was hired by the New York City Opera.
While on tour with the City Opera in Cleveland in 1955, she met editor Peter Greenough, whose family owned the Cleveland Plain Dealer. ``He winked, which I thought was pretty corny, but it worked, so obviously it wasn't,'' Beverly Sills remembers.
After their marriage she continued to tour, but only during school vacations when she could take along their total of five children (three from his first marriage, two from their marriage).
It was a 1966 revival of Handel's ``Guillio Cesare'' that skyrocketed her career from leading soprano of the City Opera to the Metropolitan Opera and international raves at La Scala, London's Covent Garden, and the Vienna Staatsoper in her more than 70 roles. After her farewell appearance in 1980, Opera News editor Robert Jacobson wrote, ``Her combination of warmth, humor, earthiness, frankness, and good cheer -- plus the voice, its bright, pale gold color, its astonishing range and agility, and the wit
and deep feeling of the delivery -- captivated people who may not have had a shred of interest in opera.''
The crowning roles in her career may have been the three Donizetti Tudor queens -- Elizabeth I in ``Roberto Devereaux,'' Anne Boleyn in ``Anna Bolena,'' and Mary Stuart in ``Maria Stuarda.'' One of them was tough to shake. ``I used to come into the theater very early,'' she confides, ``and put on the skin of the performer. But when I went home, I went home to five children and my husband, and it would have been very difficult for me to go home as Queen Elizabeth.''
But she says, ``Elizabeth was the most difficult one to take off after a performance. . . . It's not a role that can be superficially performed. You portray a person who lived, an historical person.'' It was also a taxing role physically, having to actually climb into a costume that weighed 55 pounds; its velvet skirt was decked with 2,000 pearls. ``And that's a lot of weight, dear, to schlep around.'' Still, the most memorable note of her career she says came in that opera: ``Th e high D pianissimo at the end of the last act aria. It always came out just the way I wanted it to.''
We are talking in her cozy office at Lincoln Center, where the City Opera makes its home. Even offstage, off-camera, and out of costume she is a dramatic-looking woman -- statuesque, with a mass of 24-carat goldish red hair, wide brown eyes, and a certain merriment around the mouth. She is dressed comfortably in a chocolate brown turtleneck sweater, matching tweed skirt, gold hoop earrings and tall brown leather boots.
She speaks in a warm, vibrant voice considerably lower than the cool, clear alpine heights of her famous bel canto soprano. About that fabulous voice, she has garaged it permanently: ``I don't sing anymore. Not at all. I don't sing in public. I don't sing at home. . . . I don't sing for myself,'' she says, not even in the shower. Enough already, is her feeling: ``I never became a singer as if it was a marathon, to see if I could last longer than anybody else. Thirty-five years is
not an instant career.'' Now, she feels, ``It's time for a rest. Time to give the other ones a chance.''
And give them a chance she does as general director of the City Opera, where her dream is to turn that company into the American National Opera. ``I want this to be the place that promotes, protects, and preserves American artists,'' she says with determination. Her friend Kay Shouse, founder of Wolf Trap performing arts center, describes Beverly Sills as ``vibrant, supportive, sympathetic'' -- qualities that may be the reason they call her ``earth mother'' at City Opera. Bubbles Sills says, ``The singe rs certainly know they have a sympathetic ear. I have lived through everything they have lived through. I never judge a performance by one missed note. . . . Go back next time and you'll make it.''
What does she look for in a singer? ``A kind of magic, a presence. You can spot it when somebody walks on stage. My mother once described it as `somebody who doesn't have to be lit.' They bring their own light with them.''
The Sills magic has already been captured on her Grammy Award-winning records, 18 full operas worth, and on eight televised operas for PBS. She's also an Emmy award winner (``Lifestyles With Beverly Sills'' and a BBC documentary on her aired by PBS). She's written her own words for the music of her life, too: the chatty best sellers ``Bubbles -- A Self-Portrait'' and ``Bubbles -- An Encore'' have dealt with the joys of her life as well as the challenges she faced in raising two handicapped children. At this moment she's working on a third ``Bubbles'' book. As Porter of The New Yorker noted when she retired from the diva business, ``Her career belongs to the history of music in America.''