Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Magic of Beverly Sills by Nancy Guy

The Magic of Beverly Sills by Nancy Guy

In our lives we can experience definitive moments that electrify our awareness, as if we had been merely sleeping before and were suddenly alive. Like Dorothy's arrive in Oz, our world changes from black and white to color. We are changed and our life's trajectory veers into new frontiers that previously we didn't even now existed.

Our encounter can be with natural beauty, an artistic creation, an encounter with our deepest reality, a spiritual transformation. It is a moment of magic. "You must change your life," Rilke wrote about the power of art.

The morning of Beverly Sill's death musicologist Nancy Guy listened to recordings of Sills after a break of two decades. Ms. Guy heard Sills sing for the first time in 1977 at a recital in her small Midwestern hometown; it was a turning point her her life, an experience that remained with her always. As Ms. Guy heard Sill's performances again she became invigorated and discovered a deep admiration, even love. It inspired her to write The Magic of Beverly Sills.

As a doctoral student Ms. Guy turned her academic study to the Peking Opera with a focus on context, not on music and performance. Revisiting Sills inspired Ms. Guy to break from academic tradition and focus on musical performance and the emotional and experienced meaning of the music by the audience.

"Fans" are often marginalized and dismissed. Beverly Sills created a widespread fan base that crossed class lines, inspiring people with no background in the 'finer arts." As Bubbles, Sill's public persona reached people who admired her skill, found her approachable and real, and were inspired by her optimism and determination. She became a cultural icon through her media performances, interviews, and books.

Sills married the love of her life; he was her rock and her protector. Sadly their daughter was born deaf as was their son who was also profoundly handicapped. Operatic roles allowed Sills to escape from her personal sorrows. Sometimes the roles were too close to her personal life.

As a performer Sills excelled at bringing the music alive, eliciting an emotional reaction from the audience. Even in operatic roles that were not best suited to her voice her interpretive performance moved audiences.

The book includes interviews and quotes from Beverly Sills fans. I identified with the people from working class backgrounds, the kind of folk who didn't grow up surrounded by opera and symphonic concerts. Seeing Sills in concert changed their lives.

As I read about her career I turned to Youtube to watch and her performances. The book notes that her voice did not record well, that hearing her live was very different. But seeing Sills performances was wonderful and I could better understand what Ms. Guy was writing about.

Sills was warned by her vocal coach against taking roles that would shorten her career by straining her voice. "But what was I saving it for?" Sills commented, "Better to have ten glorious years than twenty safe and ultimately boring ones."

Sills gave everything she had to her audience, and they knew it.

Opera and Me

My mother and grandmother wanted me to take up the piano. They had both quit lessons and regretted it. I started lessons at eight years old. Because I could read music and liked to sing I found myself singing alto in the elementary school choir. Choir became my first scheduled class throughout high school (along with journalism!) As a young adult I was in masterwork choirs in Philadelphia, performing the Verdi Requiem with The Mastersingers, and on stage with the Philadelphia Orchestra while in The Choral Arts Society.

In junior high my choral teacher Russell Henkle introduced us to Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe . He played an LP recording while an overhead projector showed the words. He also took us to see a movie version of La Boheme. I loved stories, and I loved singing, and I discovered that opera brought both together. In later life I listened to the Metropolitan Opera weekly on Saturday afternoons and was able to see the Met perform at the Mann Music Center in Philadelphia and visit Lincoln Center in New York City to see the New York Opera.

I thank the publisher and NetGalley for the free ebook in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

from the publisher:
With her superb coloratura soprano, passion for the world of opera, and down-to-earth personality, Beverly Sills made high art accessible to millions from the time of her meteoric rise to stardom in 1966 until her death in 2007. An unlikely pop culture phenomenon, Sills was equally at ease on talk shows, on the stage, and in the role of arts advocate and administrator. 
Merging archival research with her own love of Sills's music, Nancy Guy examines the singer-actress's artistry alongside the ineffable aspects of performance that earned Sills a passionate fandom. Guy mines the memories of colleagues, critics, and aficionados to recover something of the spell Sills wove for people on both sides of the footlights during the hot moments of onstage performance. At the same time, she analyzes essential questions raised by Sills's art and celebrity. How did Sills challenge the divide between elite and mass culture and build a fan base that crossed generations and socio-economic lines? Above all, how did Sills capture the unnameable magic that joins the members of an audience to a performer--and to one-another? 
Intimate and revealing, The Magic of Beverly Sills explores the alchemy of art, magnetism, community, and emotion that produced an American icon.
The Magic of Beverly Sills
by Nancy Guy
University of Illinois Press
Publication October 15, 2015
$29.95 hard cover
ISBN: 978-0-252-03973-7

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