Beverly Sills died last night. She was 78, and besides Tony and Carmela, the only soprano who ever really moved me. I’m vowing today to stop letting chances go by to tell people I admire how much their work has meant to me.
I had nearly 30 years to tell Beverly Sills how she blew my mind one night, back when I was a 21-year-old college dropout whose favorite singer was Tom Waits and who mostly listened to Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea, and The Beatles. And I never sent her that letter. I wonder what it would have said? Before I played the aria for a group of Hallmark word people at our annual coffeehouse last year, with a backdrop of a huge outer space photo--stars, galaxies, nebulae--this is part of what I read:
This song you’re going to hear is a silver arrow that hit me, pierced me, left me slain, in the rain of my own tears, in my bachelor pad, in a towel, just out of the shower, which was just a bathtub where I dumped water from a plastic bucket over my head — and now this music pouring down on me like light. Was it an arrow, or was it light? Or was I just so young and vulnerable, an open groove for the needle to slip into, record turning, world turning, needle of diamond, stars of dust wheeling above me, who will love me, 21, in a towel on the third floor of a big red house, dumbstruck, starstruck, gooseflesh rising, eyes blurring, everything I had ever lost returned to me, everything I would ever love already leaving, all that was impossible made suddenly real by this unreal voice.
How does a human voice become a willow tree and the bird in it by day, the stars in it by night? Both dark and light, particle and ray, longing and longed-for, everything and void. How can a voice waver on either side of a note but hold the note so true? And isn’t light that same vibration, too? How does music do this to you? What place inside does the bird find to light, the star to flutter and flicker its way to us? I don’t have a clue.
I confess that for years I used this piece of music as a litmus test of soul. If I played it and it didn’t move you, you were dead inside. It was alright if at first you laughed or fidgeted, because almost all of us come armored against the full-throated blast of old-time art-as-religion that is opera. But if by the end the music had not broken through your defenses, broken you down, opened you up at least a little, you were less than human.
I was young and stupid. I didn’t yet know that there are no litmus tests, no absolutes, no one true faith or song or voice or love. Coleman Barks had yet to translate Rumi, so I hadn’t heard of the hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground. I adored Tom Waits, but had yet to hear his anecdote about the first time someone played him the aria “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot. He said, “It was like giving a cigar to a five-year-old. I turned blue and I cried.” I hadn't heard much of anything, really. I certainly hadn't heard anything like this, a song debuted ten days before the day that I was born. It had been there, my whole life, and I had not known. I wept like a willow in my bachelor pad, the first place I called my own.
So that scene is set.
The scene for the aria is this: Leadville, Colorado. 1880. Elizabeth “Baby” Doe, “the miner’s sweetheart,” first woman ever to work in a U.S. silver mine, has her eye on silver magnate Horace Tabor. Both married to other people. Can't end well. Doesn’t matter. It’s destiny, and when she picks her moment, sits at a piano and sings where she knows he will overhear her, the song does to him pretty much what it did to me. If he’d been wearing a towel, it would have dropped right there. Or maybe she’d have torn it off him after his beautiful baritone reply. Anyway, it’s love at first song for Horace Tabor. And so it was for me.
Ladies and gentlemen, the “Willow” aria from The Ballad of Baby Doe, by Douglas Moore and John Latouche, sung by the stratospheric Beverly Sills...
Then there was a little coda I'd written to wrap up with, but after I played the music, there was no point in reading it.
If I knew how to load the iTune on here so you could just listen, I would. That old footage isn't great. But who can deny the power of that big D (I think it's a D) she hits shortly after the video does that skippy little flutter? It still takes the top of my head off. I could tell that a few Hallmark people were knocked out, too, when I forced them to listen to it. But it's opera, man. Hardly anybody wants to kneel at that altar.
Why did I never send her a thank-you note for cracking me open enough to let a little light in? I still don't care for most operatic voices (can't stand Wagnerian opera, which seems preposterously self-important and repetitive to me), but every so often, I’ll hear something that gets through, thanks to Douglas Moore, John Latouche, and this amazing woman who put the color in coloratura.
She had a deaf daughter, an autistic son, and she finally saw her husband through the last stages of Alzheimer's last year. Through it all, she radiated joy, served her art, and took humanity higher, literally.
I just listened to the final aria, sung right before Baby Doe dies. Beverly Sills holds a note at the end that seems impossible. It’s still going. It will never stop.
Getting a little misty here. I'm just glad I got through that without calling her "Bubbles."
Next post: a list of people who are going to get gushy, big-ass fan letters from yours truly...