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'Sills' documentary tells only part of famous soprano's unique story

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"Beverly Sills: Made in America," to be aired Monday night on KCTS/9, is a valentine to the former soprano and arts executive.

Even though she did not leave public life upon her retirement from the stage at the age of 51 -- going on to multiple careers as an arts executive -- she has said she wanted to be remembered for her singing.

The documentary does just that. Indeed, it is virtual survey of Sills, from a radio appearance at the confident age of 7 to her farewell in 1980. There is essentially nothing about her second life, first as the general director of New York City Opera, the company that nurtured her and allowed her to develop into a great artist; then, chairwoman of Lincoln Center, and subsequently chairwoman of the Metropolitan Opera, the company that disdained this American-made singer for so long. And only a short reference is made to her phenomenal ability to raise money, for instance, getting Charles Simonyi, who made his fortune at Microsoft, to donate a cool $1 million to the Save the Met Radio Broadcasts Campaign over lunch one day in New York.

While Sills is a self-acknowledged inveterate talker -- and a good one, with enough wit and intelligence and common sense for two people -- there are few interviews, almost none recent. Mostly they are clips of appearances on various television talk shows, such as Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett, David Frost, Mike Wallace and Dinah Shore. Telling but too brief. However, there is no mistaking her huge, winning smile, ebullience and charm.

She worked hard for her singing fame. With diligence and brains and immense talent, she studied and studied, all with one teacher, Estelle Liebling, and sang wherever she could -- nightclubs for tips and minor-league touring companies. She was a house soprano at City Opera, respected certainly but with little star value. That is until 1966 when she sang Cleopatra in Handel's "Julius Caesar," and the world "discovered" her. She was in her mid-30s. Major European debuts -- London, Vienna, Milan -- quickly followed. The Met waited nearly 10 years before issuing a suitable invitation.

Equipped with a light voice, secure top and dazzling technique -- no smudges in all the tough passages and accurate high notes -- Sills made her fortune with operas such as "The Magic Flute," "Don Pasquale," "Manon," "La traviata," "The Ballad of Baby Doe," "The Barber of Seville," "Lucia di Lammermoor" and "La boheme," each represented in part in "Sills." She sang three of those operas in Seattle -- "La boheme," "Lucia" and "Traviata." Her only genuine rivals in that repertory were Montserrat Caballe, Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland.

When she sang the trio of Donizetti operas on Tudor queens -- "Anna Bolena," "Maria Stuarda" and "Roberto Devereux" -- the critics said the roles would "kill her." She knew that better than anyone, saying in a P-I interview in 1994, "I had to sing those three queens, and I knew they would shorten my career. But I would rather have 10 to 12 exciting years than 20 nice ones." A long selection in "Sills" from her portrait as Queen Elizabeth I tells us exactly what she accomplished.

Even though "Sills" tells only part of the soprano's one-of-a-kind story, and her astonishing hold on the American public, there is much to savor and appreciate. For those who never heard her on stage, the documentary is a must.

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