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Divine Diva Intervention: The Myth of the Male Maestro

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At last week's Tribute to Beverly Sills at the Metropolitan Opera House, celebrities, dignitaries, family, friends and fans eulogized the supreme soprano and extraordinary woman before a standing room audience of almost 4,000 admirers. Fans started lining up at 2 a.m. for tickets. However, one aspect of her esteemed career was overlooked in the accolades and worldwide obituaries.

Beverly Sills was not a prima donna in the pejorative sense. But she did use her formidable influence in 1976 for Sarah Caldwell to become the first female conductor at the Metropolitan Opera in 93 years. This was an historic event so auspicious, that more than 30 years later, Marin Alsop just broke the glass baton this week, to become the first female head of a major American symphony. Alsop, 50, opened her inaugural season as Music Director and Principal Conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on Thursday.

The key themes in my speeches around the country: "A Woman's Place in the 21st Century," books and writings are "Celebrate Women Every Day!" and "Women Support Women!" Beverly Sills' life personified these principles. It's important for young women especially to learn about the women who make history and challenge the system to advance equality for themselves and future generations. I frequently cite Sills as the quintessential example of "first female" achievements and for her support of Sarah Caldwell's success. Perhaps I should concede, I may also feel a special proud respect and affinity because she is the only famous namesake I've ever known about!

Researching this article, I went to a major bookstore. The two young women at "Information" had never heard of Beverly Sills. Hence, I resolved to write this tribute for the record. Daily updating my "Women in History and Making History Today - 365-Days-A-Year Database," I've confirmed that less than 10 percent of the references in new history textbooks are about women. Even today, women's achievements and contributions are not recorded. Anonymous may be a woman! I've made it my mission to record "first female" accomplishments and connect generations of women to support each other and inspire future leaders.

A study of obituaries in major publications found that women were significantly underrepresented. Consequently, efforts are being made to feature accomplished women. Check your local newspaper obits. You'll wonder why you haven't heard about these extraordinary women in their lifetime. Their stories will inform your historic perspective on our modern pioneer women and the hard-earned advances they've made in just the past 50 years.

In her autobiography, Sills notes how she faced sexism and anti-Semitism. Upon becoming the first female head of the New York City Opera, she said, "I got a lot of criticism for doing a man's job. My goal was to show that you don't have to be a bastard to run an opera company."

Sarah Caldwell became the first female conductor at the Metropolitan Opera because Beverly Sills took a stand to dispel the myth of the male maestro. They became good friends when Sills moved to Boston in 1960 with her family and became a patron of Caldwell's Opera Company of Boston. Sills did not intend to sing. She planned to focus on her family.

In 1962, she returned to performing when Caldwell cast her in the title role in Manon. Sills sang in 17 operas with Caldwell. A loyal friend and colleague, she had one unbreakable rule: "Sarah always came first."

Sills' own debut at the Met was a long and arduous odyssey, with many detours. Her mother took her to her first opera when she was eight. A brother related that she told the family then, "I'm going to be an opera star. Not just an opera singer, an opera star. I will sing at the Metropolitan Opera." After vocal lessons, she'd buy standing-room tickets to the Met.

She performed at the New York City Opera from 1955 to 1980. In 1966, the director invited an outsider to play Cleopatra in Handel's Julius Caesar, to inaugurate the City Opera's new home in Lincoln Center. Sills thought is should be a company hire and complained. She stated, "If I didn't get the role, I was resigning from the company." She felt it was about "doing the right thing." She got the breakthrough role that raised her to super stardom and became an overnight sensation at 37.

Long before The Three Tenors, the people's diva popularized opera. She was the only opera star invited to be a guest host on The Tonight Show. She also appeared on TV with Carol Burnett and the Muppets and as the host of the "Live from Lincoln Center" broadcasts. Ultimately, she fulfilled her dream to portray the three Donizetti queens: Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth and Mary Stuart. Time magazine declared her "America's Queen of Opera" in 1971. She limited her engagements abroad to care for her children. In 1983, under her direction, the New York City Opera became the first American company to use supertitles for all foreign-language operas.

"I had invitations to sing in every major opera house in the world - except, of course, the Met," Sills said. "I'd revolutionized American opera by proving you can have a big international career without once setting foot on the Met's stage." But Met manager Rudolph Bing favored foreign divas and kept her out of the Met for 20 years during his reign. He retired in 1972.

She finally made her Met debut on April 8, 1975, at 46, six years after her La Scala debut and Newsweek cover story and five years before her retirement. The opening night performance was a benefit for the Met. It was indeed, an event. They had to turn down 7,000 ticket requests. When the final curtain came down, she got an 18-minute solo ovation. True to her commitment to popularize opera, early the next morning, she taped a TV show with Danny Kaye.

In 1976, Sills was to sing La Traviata at the Met. She and Caldwell had done Traviata in Boston. "It was Prima Donna time. I told Schuyler Chapin, the director: Either Sarah Caldwell conducts Traviata or you can look for a new Violetta.. And so the Great Barrier came down. Sarah Caldwell, at 52, became the first woman ever to conduct an opera at the Met."

Caldwell conducted 16 performances at the Met, from 1976 to 1978. Australian Simone Young is the only other woman to conduct at the Met: 35 performances from 1995 to 1998. She was the first female to conduct the 156-year-old Vienna Philharmonic orchestra in 2005. The orchestra was ordered to accept women in 1997 if it wanted to continue receiving state subsidies. Opera World selected Young as the 2006 "Conductor of the Year."

I've also created the "Celebrity Weddings and Love Stories - 365-Days-A Year Database." The Brooklyn Belle (Silverman) and the Boston Brahmin Peter Greenough lived a true love story for almost 50 years, until his death in September 2006.

Beverly Sills made her New York City Opera debut in 1955, after auditioning unsuccessfully seven times in four years. Then the Opera only did a fall season and toured in the spring. She met Peter Greenough in Cleveland at a party in the Cleveland Press Club. He was president of the club and an editor at his family-owned Cleveland Plain Dealer. They sat at the same table. It was love at first sight for both. He was 39; she was 27. At the time, he had custody of his three daughters, one of whom was mentally retarded. His wife had gone off with another man. They wed on November 17, 1956, in her vocal teacher's studio. Her mother made the wedding gown and trousseau. Sills moved to Cleveland to raise her new family.

Greenough later became financial columnist for The Boston Globe and they moved to the Boston area. In 1961, shortly after the birth of their mentally-retarded son, within a six-week period, their daughter was diagnosed with profound hearing loss. She later developed multiple sclerosis. Sills raised millions of dollars as national chair for the Mother's March on Birth Defects. On her 33rd birthday, her husband gave her 52 round-trip tickets for the Boston-NY shuttle, so she could resume weekly vocal lessons and visit her mother.

In 1967, Greenough became a multimillionaire when the Cleveland newspaper was sold. He retired at 54. They moved to New York. She promised him she would retire when she was 50 and set 1980 as her farewell date from the City Opera. She had sung 35 roles there. He gave her a ring inscribed "I DID THAT ALREADY." Later, she would give the ring to her close friend, Barbara Walters, when she retired from 20/20.

Beverly Sills was the first (and only) female general director of the New York City Opera, 1979-1989 and the first female and first former artist named chair of the City Opera, 1979-1981. She was the first female and first former artist named the chair of Lincoln Center, 1994-2002 and the first female chair of the Metropolitan Opera, 2002-2005. Sills was a Kennedy Center honoree in 1985, for her lifetime contributions to the arts.

A prodigious fund raiser, she possessed perfect pitch for hitting the high musical notes and the high C-notes in fundraising for the two opera companies, the March of Dimes and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Friends joked that all her telephone calls were collect -- for her causes.

Her farewell performance, at the October 27, 1980 gala for the New York City Opera, ended with her own special lyrics for her popular encore number, a folk song arranged by her voice teacher for her tenth birthday: "We have shared so much together, 'Tis not the end but a new start, Ah, my dear, I'll always love you, You'll be forever in my heart."

Throughout her career, Sills objected to the opera press because she felt they didn't accurately report the audience's reaction to the performance. "The critic has totally ignored the fact that he witnessed an event, not just another performance."

The emotions shared at her memorial tribute reflected her own philosophy of life: "I've never considered myself a happy woman. How could I be with all that happened to me? But, I am a cheerful woman. Work kept me going." It was, indeed, an event worthy of a cherished divine diva for a life well-lived and well-loved.

Cheers! Brava, diva! Adieu!