Photo: Jim Harrison
Arts & Humanities
2nd Heinz Awards - 1995
Beverly Sills received the 2nd Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities category for her lifelong commitment to art that is both excellent and accessible.
In her singing career and as an administrator, Miss Sills became known for reinvigorating opera by taking difficult roles and staging unusual performances. Concerned with the future of opera in the United States, she threw herself into arts administration with the same passion that characterized her singing career. She stabilized the troubled New York City Opera, and, in the process, found ways to make opera more accessible through her use of surtitles and television. Just as important, throughout her career, Miss Sills has cultivated young talent and reached out to young audiences. And, in response to considerable adversity in her personal life, she added humanitarianism to her repertoire of skills. Above all, Miss Sills has demonstrated a consistent concern for making the artistic signature of this nation both meaningful and legible.
Miss Sills was born in Brooklyn, New York, an unlikely cradle for a future operatic diva. But by the time of her departure from the stage in 1980, the moniker once given her by the Milanese, “La Fenomena” (the Phenomenon), had come to characterize her entire singing career. Hailed by critics for her intelligence and erudition as well as her voice, she performed during her career in virtually every major opera house in the world and recorded 18 full-length operas and numerous solo recitals.
Upon retiring from the stage, Miss Sills took on a new role as General Director of the New York City Opera. With characteristic intensity, she mastered the business skills essential to arts management and moved quickly to stabilize the Opera’s troubled finances. Artistically, she made the Opera a training ground for new talent, and, at the same time, helped the company establish a reputation for an adventuresome repertoire and provocative productions.
Committed to popularizing her art, Miss Sills pioneered the use of English surtitles and appeared on numerous television programs, including the highly successful “Sills and Burnett at the Met,” with Carol Burnett. In an effort to encourage young performers and reach young audiences, she hosted and narrated the televised Young People’s Concerts of the New York Philharmonic.
Miss Sills has also been endlessly generous with her time and her ideas. She served on the President’s Task Force on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, where she vigorously argued that the value of government funding for the arts lies in its recognition of cultural life as a vital part of American society. Additionally, Miss Sills began working with the March of Dimes in 1971. As national Chair of the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation, she helped raise more than $80 million.
In January of 1994, Miss Sills returned to arts administration when she was unanimously elected Chairwoman of Lincoln Center. True to form, she has said she wants to expand educational programs and draw young listeners into the halls. “La Fenomena” remains a phenomenon, not just as an artist or businesswoman, but as someone whose love of the arts is ultimately fueled by a profound love of people.
Note: This profile was written at the time of the awards’ presentation.
Beverly Sills passed away on July 2, 2007.