Thursday, July 5, 2007

An Aria from the Next Dimension

Some deaths remain in the news for weeks (Anna Nicole comes to mind) for no discernible reason; others are barely noticed, even though the life that has been transfigured could be richly celebrated over a month's worth of daily columns.

Beverly Sills, the extraordinary soprano who died Monday, is a case in point. Her life touched millions of people who became interested in opera through her direct influence. Sills, mainly in her work with the New York City Opera, poured a fresh charge of energy into opera, and gave it new life. She made that art appealing and affordable to countless visitors to Lincoln Center. I should know: I am one of them.

Back in the 1980's, I was making enough money to afford a subscription to a box at the Met. I would take my girlfriend along; we would dress up for every show, knowing that when we stepped through the curtain and into the box, folks would look to see if we were someone famous. It was fun, but a little disconcerting.

I always felt more at home in the balcony of NYCO than in that box at the Met. For that, I credit Beverly Sills, who made it her mission to give opera the same life and simple human energy that you could get from a Broadway show or a play or a television sitcom. To be sure, it was still opera: the singers were first-rate, the musicianship professional, but there was a familiar passion to the performances that gave them life.

I can recall a performance of Carmen some 20 years ago, featuring a hand-picked Sills protege who sang the famous Habanera with a unique sizzle. As she sang the refrain, she lay back on a bench on the set, parted her legs and let her hand stray suggestively between them. It was an electric moment that was kind of revelatory for me: Sills had brought open sensuality right onto the stage, made the story live in a way that perhaps no one else had ever tried.

That's how she lived, too: pushing boundaries, exploring alternatives, making mistakes, and always seeking more from the art, to make it a truer experience for those of us who came to watch and listen.

Sills was able to make opera popular because she transcended all the received truths and formalities of opera, mastered and then challenged its traditions, and transformed it into something poignantly direct and human. Those of us who love opera will miss her; but in some dimension to which our ears are not tuned, I'm betting they're hearing a hair-tingling, crystalline Cleopatra this week.

Good night, Bubbles, and thanks.

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