Beverly Sills was just before my time. I saw her give a recital in Kansas City in the late Seventies, but it made no impression on me–recitals were not her medium, and I can’t even remember what she sang–and she’d long since retired from the operatic stage by the time I finally made it to New York a quarter-century ago. Alas, Sills is poorly represented by her records, few of which were made when she was in her prime, and in any case the bel canto repertory in which she specialized has never appealed to me strongly. Nor did I see her on Tonight or The Muppet Show, or interview her in her latter-day capacity as celebrity arts administrator. For all these reasons, her death meant little to me personally. Several critics, including Tim Page, Tony Tommasini, and Manuela Hoelterhoff, have written eloquently about her in recent days, and I commend their pieces to your attention, yet they make me wonder how long she will be remembered by those who, like me, never saw her on stage.
Most of the obituaries made prominent mention of the fact that Sills’ TV appearances brought classical music to the attention of millions of people who might otherwise never have heard of it. I wonder about that, too. She was by all accounts a charming on-camera buffoon, but I’ve never met anyone who got the opera bug from seeing her swap stories with Johnny Carson. Yet these appearances, taken together, may nonetheless have added up to the most consequential thing she ever did.
I wrote a few months ago in The Wall Street Journal about a concert in which my operatic collaborator Paul Moravec took part:
Last Sunday I went to a concert by the Amelia Piano Trio, an exciting young chamber-music group whose fresh-faced members teamed up with the great clarinetist Richard Stoltzman to perform Tempest Fantasy, a piece by Paul Moravec that won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for music. Mr. Moravec, who lives in New York City, was there as well, and he talked to the audience about his piece, explaining in a clear, no-nonsense way how its various themes were musical portraits of the characters in Shakespeare’s play. As Mr. Moravec spoke, the musicians played the themes associated with Ariel, Prospero and Caliban. Then they played the whole piece from start to finish, and when they were done, Tempest Fantasy received the kind of ovation that any composer of modern music would die for.
It occurred to me as I listened that what Mr. Moravec had to say about Tempest Fantasy, illuminating as it was, was no more important than the mere fact that he was willing to get up on stage and talk about his work in so plain-spoken and unassuming a manner. Most concertgoers, after all, have never met a major classical composer, much less heard him tell a self-deprecating joke.
All at once I remembered another Sunday afternoon years ago when I tuned in one of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. The topic was American music, and at the end of the program Bernstein introduced an ordinary-looking man in a business suit who proceeded to conduct the finale of a symphony he’d written. The man, Bernstein explained, was Aaron Copland, and the piece was his Third Symphony, one of the permanent masterpieces of American art. Young as I was, I got the message loud and clear: art doesn’t just drop from the skies. It’s a normal human activity, something that people do for a living, the same way they paint houses or cut hair. It is a message that every artist in America should be sending as clearly–and frequently–as possible.
Beverly Sills was sending that message at a time when comparatively few American artists thought that it needed to be sent. Now we know better.
Greg Sandow blogged the other day about his belief that “the [fine] arts–as an enterprise separate from our wider culture, and somehow standing above it–are over….any attempt to revive them (this includes classical music, of course) will have to mean that they engage popular culture, and everything else going on in the outside world.” Up to a point, I think Greg is right. If we want to see a revival of anything remotely resembling the middlebrow culture of the pre-Vietnam era, in which most middle-class people who were not immersed in the fine arts were nonetheless aware and respectful of them and made an effort to engage with them, then artists will have to shake off what I have called their “entitlement mentality” and go where the audiences are.
Should they? There’s a serious case to be made for not doing so, the case for elitism in the arts, and I don’t need to restate it here. Clement Greenberg put it best when he claimed that “it is middlebrow, not lowbrow, culture that does most nowadays to cut the social ground from under high culture.” True enough–but if you care about the continuing fate of museums, symphony orchestras, ballet, opera, and theater companies, and all the other big-money institutions that were the pillars of American high culture in the twentieth century, you’re going to have to accept the fact that these elitist enterprises cannot survive without the wholehearted support of a non-elite public that believes in their importance.
Sills understood that, and did something about it. Perhaps more than any other American classical musician of her generation, she did her best to communicate to ordinary Americans the idea that the making of high art is a normal human activity, one whose fruits are accessible to all who make a good-faith effort to understand them. That’s not quite true, of course, but it’s a noble and ennobling lie, and I wouldn’t be greatly surprised if Beverly Sills is remembered for telling it long after the particulars of her performing career are forgotten.
UPDATE: A friend writes:
Beverly Sills was my mom’s age, and for a time in my early teens we saw her perform during her years at the New York City Opera, before she went to the Met. This was long before English subtitles, and I knew next to nothing about opera, but I remember her work very well. She didn’t have a big voice, but she was a fine actress and knew how to use what she had to make the story real. I think my folks included me in their opera subscription to keep me out of trouble, which in hindsight is hilarious, because most opera plots are full of good clean fun like murder, adultery, treachery and such. Her Lucia will stay with me forever. I can still see her doing that mad scene in a long white nightgown, smeared with blood, arms raised and head cocked slightly as she sang in ecstasy to a lover who was clearly not present. I thought it was nifty. She gave me a greater appreciation for opera, which up till then had been a noisy collective of fat people stumping across the stage, booming in other languages. I totally bought her because she made me believe her story, which is the performer’s job. I’ve always felt that a classical singer who can also act is a powerful thing.
Me, too. I wish I’d been there.