She was, mostly likely, "the last opera star you saw on TV," writes Steve
Metcalf about Beverly Sills, and there lies sadness beyond the individual
loss of a great artist.
The Last Opera Star You Saw On TV
By STEVE METCALF / The Hartford Courant
Whenever somebody important in the arts dies, especially someone
I've personally admired, I tend to melodramatically think about
how that person will be irreplaceable.
The death of Beverly Sills, who succumbed to lung cancer a few
days ago at 78, got me thinking about the irreplaceableness of
an entire category: the serious artist who is also a popular
"Hero" is the right word, I think. Millions of ordinary people
in this country and around the world revered Beverly Sills, not
because they had necessarily ever seen her complex and poignant
portrayal of the title character in "The Ballad of Baby Doe,"
or heard her spectacular vocal agility in Rossini's "The Siege
of Corinth." Rather, they admired this woman because she was a
genial, charming and passionate advocate for music and the arts,
and because she made the arts seem human and approachable.
Crucially, though, Sills was only able to make an impression in
the wider culture because she was permitted a regular and ongoing
place within it.
She turned up with some frequency on "The Tonight Show" with
Johnny Carson, reportedly because Carson genuinely liked her and
thought it was important, at least occasionally, to have people
from the arts world on his show. In fact, although I had forgotten
this until I read it a few days ago, she actually guest-hosted
the show a few times, again with Johnny's blessing.
She also appeared on "The Muppet Show," on variety shows and
random talk shows, and on several network specials hosted by her
friend Carol Burnett.
But we're talking years ago.
I can't remember the last time a serious musician showed up on
a network show, unless you count the occasional cute-as-a-button
kid prodigy trotted out for novelty value, always performing
something very short and with a lot of sixteenth notes. How about
that, ladies and gentlemen? Can you believe she plays so well
and she's only 7 years old!
Even at the annual Grammy Awards, ostensibly devoted to celebrating
the variety of our musical culture, classical music, like jazz,
is all but invisible, usually relegated to the yawn-inducing "in
ceremonies held earlier" portion of the show, which is the portion
during which most viewers sensibly run to the kitchen for a fresh
The press, in turn, is less and less interested in covering
anything that hasn't been pre-certified by television. Except,
strangely, to call attention to its own indifference: There have
been several widely circulated stories recently about the many
newspapers (and in all honesty, this newspaper is one of them)
that have reduced or eliminated their coverage of the serious
arts, particularly music.
This is an issue that has been years in the making, of course,
but with Sills' passing, the landscape looks suddenly and
unexpectedly barren. Her successor, at least in her role as
arts cheerleader-in-chief, is not even remotely in view.
We could use the help. How many of us can name a single living
American opera singer? How about a living American classical
instrumentalist? Don't be embarrassed - a few months ago, The
Washington Post, as an experiment, deployed Joshua Bell, one of
the most celebrated violinists on the planet, to stand in a
subway station and play to passers-by. In almost an hour, more
than a thousand people hustled by, of whom a grand total of one
Sills has been rightly hailed, in the past few days, as someone
who preached and embodied a single message: that the arts are
essential, and that they belong in the life of every human being.
But if our vast news and entertainment machine is no longer
interested in conveying that message, then perhaps it will turn
out that Beverly Sills was, though not exactly in the way she
would have wanted, irreplaceable indeed.
/Steve Metcalf, who was The Courant's music critic from 1982 to
2001, is director of instrumental studies at The Hartt School
at the University of Hartford./
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