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Dead Sopranos

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"Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.
Let's chose executors and talk of wills."

Richard II, Act III, Scene 2

On July 2, 2007, Beverly Sills died of lung cancer. On July 5, 2007, Régine Crespin died of liver cancer. Two remarkable women are gone. Opera lovers, who cherish the past with an ardor rivaled only by baseball fans, are crushed.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy issued a statement: "Through her voice and her talent, but also through her humor and her generosity, Régine Crespin was a great ambassador for French culture. She leaves us today, but we will always remember her enduring performances." I had asked a number of my operaphile friends if they could ever recollect hearing Ms. Crespin sing an ugly note. The unanimous answer was "no." Most deemed the very idea unthinkable.

There were not many sopranos in the Twentieth Century who could master roles in the Italian, French and German repertoires; two out of three was the best that usually could be expected. A soprano as much at home in Parsifal as in Les Troyens, Crespin was above all the consummate communicative artist. You did not have to understand a word of French to know what was in the heart of her Marguérite (in Gounod's Faust) at all times, just as you could be utterly illiterate in German and still be deeply moved by her Walküre Sieglinde. This particular trait is summed up in one word: Artistry. Few could match her ability to move an audience in whatever role she undertook.

When we seek to belittle the talents of a singer, we note that he or she "sang beautifully", implying that what we heard was all the notes and none of the heart. Crespin gave us the notes and the heart, every time she walked on stage or in front of a microphone.

When Beverly Sills passed away, The White House did not see fit to issue a statement. Perhaps she did not own enough shares of Halliburton to merit official recognition of her passing. But what The White House neglected the American public certainly noticed.

The great tragedy of Ms. Sills' career is that she did not make it The Metropolitan Opera -- which at the time exclusively occupied the operatic heights in the United States -- until she was past her vocal prime. Her 1975 Met debut in Rossini's The Siege of Corinth was a sensation, but much of the wild cheering, flowers and praise was for her, not for her by then diminished abilities. For Ms. Sills was, in all honesty, an utterly beloved figure.

In an era when opera singers were seen as haughty prima donnas and primo dons, Ms. Sills had a genuine earthiness that was wildly popular with the American public. She could portray queens or courtesans on stage, but off it she was what she always was: Bubbles Silverman from Brooklyn. She could crack jokes on The Tonight Show with the same ease as she could toss off some of Massenet's toughest music, she could sing with Carol Burnett with the same obvious pleasure as she could sing with Norman Triegle. Off-stage she always gave the impression that she was having an absolute ball, and that sort of cheerful optimism always resonates with the American public. On-stage, however, she was a complete professional.

Beverly Sills left some of her greatest characterizations -- and no small piece of her voice -- at the City Opera, where she achieved a success that has not been equaled, before or since. The good news is that the recording industry had the good sense to commit some of her best performances to disc, regardless of the fact that she did not have "Met credentials" at the time. And as those recordings testify, her talent and her skill were not of the "manufactured by the William Morris Agency" variety -- they were the genuine article. The public adored her, and for good reason.

After her retirement from the stage Ms. Sills devoted herself to arts administration and to honing her estimable skills as a fund raiser. She still had the ability to show up in the oddest places: In the broadcast booth or in the quiz-master's chair at The Metropolitan Opera on a Saturday afternoon, hosting a PBS special or rattling the tin cup for public broadcasting. She was a tireless fund raiser for organizations combating birth defects.

But long after the memories of light banter with Johnny Carson and Margaret Juntwait fade, there will still be those recordings: Handel's Giulio Cesare, Donizetti's three queens prime among them, to enchant and captivate us all over again. Both Ms. Sills and Ms. Crespin left extensive recorded evidence of their greatness, their warmth, and their artistry. They will be missed.

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