Sills’s parents were Jewish emigrés to the USA: her mother came from Odessa in Ukraine and her father, an insurance salesman, from Bucharest, Romania. Convinced that her blond daughter, nicknamed ‘Bubbles’, would be a show business success, her mother pushed the child into radio work when she was very young: she made her broadcasting debut at four, quickly becoming a regular in children’s shows and gradually moving up from dialogue to tap-dancing and singing. When she was twelve her father brought this work to an end so that she could concentrate upon her studies, but she continued to have singing lessons, begun when she was nine, with Estelle Liebling, who had coached Galli-Curci.
After completing her schooling when she was sixteen, Sills joined Jacob J. Shubert’s touring company performing Gilbert and Sullivan, in which she discovered her great talent for comedy. The following year, 1947, she made her operatic stage debut as Frasquita / Carmen with the Philadelphia Grand Opera. During 1951 and 1952 she toured the USA with the Charles Wagner Opera Company, singing Violetta / La traviata (1951) and Micaëla / Carmen (1952). She made her debut with the San Francisco Opera in 1953 as Helen / Mefistofele (Boito) followed by Donna Elvira / Don Giovanni and (unusually) tackled the title role of Aida at Salt Lake City in 1954.
Sills appeared for the first time with what was to become her home company, the New York City Opera (NYCO), in 1955 as Rosalinde / Die Fledermaus, enjoying considerable success. She took the title role in Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe at its New York premiere in 1958. In 1956 she married and in 1959 and 1961 her children were born, each with considerable disabilities, as a result of which she initially curbed her professional activities. She made her debut in 1962 with the Boston Opera Company in the title role of Massenet’s Manon, a role in which she excelled, and struck up a close relationship with the company’s director, the conductor Sarah Caldwell, singing the Queen of the Night / Die Zauberflöte for her in 1964.
International success arrived for Sills in 1966 when she took the role of Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, mounted by Julius Rudel at the NYCO for the bass Norman Treigle and seen by many international critics who were in New York at the same time for the reopening of the Metropolitan Opera. Her success continued at the NYCO with parts such as the Queen of Shemakha / The Golden Cockerel, Manon again, the four heroines / Les Contes d’Hoffmann, the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor and the three Elizabethan queens of Donizetti.
In 1969 Sills made her debut at La Scala, Milan as Pamira / L’assedio di Corinto, the Italian critic Franco Abbiati comparing her favourably with Maria Callas. Her next international debut was at the Royal Opera House, London as Lucia in 1970. Other international appearances took place in Italy at La Fenice, Venice and the San Carlo, Naples and in South America in Buenos Aires, Santiago, Lima and Mexico City. During this period Sills also made her debut as a talk show guest on American television: she was quickly popular and was active on television either as guest or host for the rest of her career.
After successful surgery for cancer in 1974 she sang Marie / La Fille du Régiment with the San Francisco Opera and (following the departure of Rudolf Bing from the Metropolitan Opera) in the spring of 1975 finally made her Met debut as Pamira to great acclaim, although by now the vocal demands of some of the heavier parts which she had sung earlier, such as Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux, were beginning to take their toll upon her voice. Later Met parts included Violetta, Lucia (both 1976), the title role in Thaïs and Norina / Don Pasquale (both 1978), the role in which she made her final Met appearance in 1979.
By then Sills had already announced that she would retire as a performer in 1980, with the parallel intention of becoming co-director of the NYCO with Rudel. However when he unexpectedly left in 1979 she became fully responsible for the company. Under her direction, (she retired in 1989) the company increased its budget three-fold and turned a deficit into a surplus. She then turned her unique set of skills firstly to the Lincoln Center, of which she became chairwoman in 1994, and secondly to the Metropolitan Opera, becoming chairwoman in 2003: her most significant act there was to oversee the appointment of Peter Gelb as General Manager in 2006.
Sills possessed a relatively light and highly flexible soprano voice which she used with consummate ease, grace and musicality, allied to a delightful stage presence. Off-stage she was always warm-hearted and generous to all her colleagues.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).
Role: Classical Artist