Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Beverly Sills: Cheerful to the End

Though I'm not the world's biggest opera fan (I used to attend the Virginia Opera regularly with my mother during my teens, but not much since then), I was a big fan of Beverly Sills, who died this week. In one of the many ironies of her life, she had lung cancer--though she never smoked.

People have all kinds of role models in their lives, and she was one of mine. Not so much for her musical ability--few of us could hope to compete in that area--but in how she lived her life: with style, with kindness, with grace. As her obits point out, other opera singers of her era had nicknames like "la Stupenda" -- Beverly was called "Bubbles."

She managed to have a great career, both as a performer and an arts administrator, while always being herself--which was a damn fine thing to be. She spent important parts of her career in the Boston area and was a leading light of Sarah Caldwell's Opera Company of Boston. Her husband, Peter Greenough (who died last year) was a financial columnist for the Globe during the 1960s.

Though she had by all accounts a happy marriage, her children were born with physical and mental disabilities, including a daughter who is deaf:
It was an ironic trick of the gods to give me a daughter who couldn't hear me sing," Ms. Sills said on a PBS special last year devoted to her career, Beverly Sills: Made in America. "It affected my singing. The best times I had were moments on stage. To be able to pretend to be somebody else for three hours was such a relief.
Here's where the role model stuff comes in. I'm a naturally upbeat person, but sometimes you just have to push through on attitude, like Beverly Sills. Whenever I'm down, physically or emotionally, and feel like being catty or snippy or just plain cranky, I try to remember what she famously said many years ago (and thanks to my mother for first introducing me to this quote):
I'm not happy, I'm cheerful. There's a difference. A happy woman has no cares at all. A cheerful woman has cares but has learned how to deal with them.
I learned a lot about perspective from Beverly Sills and about how you treat the people around you even when things aren't going great for you. For me, that's a legacy that will last as long as memories of her beautiful voice. Wherever she is now, I hope she's not just cheerful, but happy, too.

Photo by Joseph Sinnott from the Concise Encyclopedia Britannica.

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