2007_07_arts-sills.jpgLast night Beverly Sills lost her battle with lung cancer, she died at her home in Manhattan at the age of 78. While she was a lifelong non-smoker and only found out about the cancer a few weeks ago, this wasn't her first experience with it - she underwent a successful surgery for cancer in 1974.

Sills, born Belle Miriam Silverman (and called "Bubbles" in her youth), was a Brooklyn-born soprano, and one of the best known American opera singers. Raised in Crown Heights, the first of many apartments she recalled living in was a one-bedroom, shared by her parents and two older brothers. She started singing by age 3, you can see her perform at age 7 in this video and by 16 she was going on long stints with touring opera companies. The NY Times describes her powerful voice:

"Though she essentially had a light soprano voice, her sound was robust and enveloping. In her prime her technique was exemplary. She could dispatch coloratura roulades and embellishments, capped by radiant high D’s and E-flat’s, with seemingly effortless agility. She sang with scrupulous musicianship, rhythmic incisiveness and a vivid sense of text."

Beyond her voice she had a sense of humor which "demystified opera" and helped her get the general public more in to the fine arts. She frequently made appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Carol Burnett, Danny Kaye, the Muppets (video here), and even hosted her own talk show for a brief time.

In 1959 Sills gave birth to a daughter and two years later to a son. Around the same time, it was discovered the former was deaf and the latter was "significantly" mentally challenged and autistic. Her two children, both of whom survive her, never heard her sing. Sills used her celebrity to bring attention to and further the charity work she did for the prevention and treatment of birth defects. Her son, Bucky, has spent most of his life in an institution while her daughter, Muffy, discovered she had MS eleven years ago. Sills husband, who suffered from Alzheimer's, died last year.

The Times points out that in the 1960s Sills was beginning to become an opera superstar. New Yorker critic Winthrop Sergeant even wrote of her: “If I were recommending the wonders of New York City to a tourist, I should place Beverly Sills as Manon at the top of the list — way ahead of such things as the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building.” Manon was a title role she had in 1968, just after her famous "Cleopatra". An extensive timeline of her life and career can be found here.

Although she was loved worldwide and spoke five languages, she didn't perform in Europe until she was 36 years old - often citing she didn't like to leave her family for very long. Sills retired from the stage in 1980 at age 51 and became a leader of New York's performing arts community. First she was the general manager of the New York City Opera, in 1994 she became the Chairman of Lincoln Center and in 2002 of the Metropolitan Opera. She also hosted Live From Lincoln Center on PBS for many years.

She will be inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame later this year.