The scores of Beverly Sills come to the Music Division

By Bob Kosovsky, Librarian
October 27, 2009
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

A few of Beverly Sills's scores

Beverly Sills musical scores have arrived at Lincoln Center in a venue in which she never sang: The Music Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. We take pride in announcing that we received the collection of her scores from her estate auction at Doyle's New York on October 7, 2009. (We also obtained two costume designs by Thierry Bosquet, a frequent designer for the New York City Opera, which I'll discuss in another post.)

Estate of Beverly Sills auction at Doyle's New York on October 7, 2009

The auction was filled with people seeking interesting furniture and artwork. There was also a strong coterie of devoted Sills fans determined to come away with mementos of someone who gave so much pleasure. Someone even wore a button proclaiming "Beverly Sills Is a Good High" - a vintage 1970s slogan.

Once we had won the lot of scores, many of those seated near us wondered who we were. When we revealed ourselves as staff members of the New York Public Library, those within earshot applauded and cheered, knowing that the scores of Beverly Sills would be available to the public for research.

In numerous interviews, talk shows, and autobiographies, Sills revealed herself as a cheerful and ebullient personality. But her scores reveal a different side of her. They show that she was a hard-working and dedicated performer. A number of her scores are marked (some in great detail), indicating her great commitment to singing with a striking attention to detail.

The role of Queen Elizabeth in Donizetti's opera Roberto Devereux was one of her signature roles. In one of her two scores of the opera she has not only marked her part with a red highlighter, but has also penciled in translations of key words and penned in more elaborate and dramatic embellishments than that of the composer.

A passage from Sills's score of Donizetti's Roberto Devereux

Her two scores for Rossini's L'assedio di Corinto are fascinating. Sills first essayed this infrequently-performed opera at her La Scala debut in 1969, making it also the vehicle of her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1975. In his book, "Divas and Scholars," musicologist Philip Gossett briefly explains the contortions that Rossini's opera went through to be put on stage in these productions which haphazardly conflated different editions, adding a few excerpts from other Rossini operas. He recollected that in 1975, right before Sills's Met debut, he gave a lecture at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, explaining the problems with the Met's version (apparently pioneered by conductor Thomas Schippers). He then quotes Sills's response: "I think some so-called musicologists are like men who talk constantly of sex and never do anything about it." With Sills's scores (and a recordings of her Met broadcast as well as her La Scala broadcast), we now have a chance to re-examine and re-assess the controversies surrounding this work and Sills's performance of it. Shown below are one of the many passages she chose to elaborate, this one with paste-overs to the original score.

A page from Sills's score for Rossini's L'assedio di Corinto

Just as she became deeply involved with so many activities throughout her life, it is now possible to view her scores as the result of a serious and consummate performer. Her scores reveal her creativity, as they are the springboard for her thoughts on performance. Used in conjunction with her recordings, one can begin to gain keen insight into what made Beverly Sills such a striking performer.

On occasion her scores attest to Sills's working relationships. So many vocal students begin their studies with Italian arias and songs, familiar to nearly all vocal students. Sills was no different: in her volume of Italian arias, her teacher Estelle Liebling entered markings as well as dates. The resulting album gives us unique view of the progression of Sills's vocal study.

Sills's score marked by her teacher Estelle Liebling, dated September 29, 1938

For many years, Roland Gagnon was Sills's vocal coach. At the time of his death in 1979, he was in the process of coaching Sills in the role of Juana, in La Loca by Gian Carlo Menotti -- her last new role and a world premiere (there are two scores of this opera in her collection). On her score of Bellini's Norma, Gagnon wrote the inscription pictured here, as well as marked up her score.

Gagnon's signature and comment on Sills's score of Bellini's Norma

Sills was one of Douglas Moore's favorite singers for the role of Baby Doe in his opera, The Ballad of Baby Doe. Into the flyleaf of her score, Sills pasted in a heartfelt Christmas card from Moore, sent in appreciation for her efforts.

Moore's Christmas greeting, pasted into Sills's score of his opera The Ballad of Baby Doe

Beverly Sills's scores now join collections of other opera singers such as Lorenzo Alvary, Frieda Hempel, Louise Homer, Mathilde Marchesi, Giuditta Pasta, Jan Peerce, Rosa Ponselle, Marcella Sembrich, and Leonard Warren - all to be found in the Music Division. We look forward to allowing the public to access these unique scores.

Beverly Sills's name embossed on a the cover of one of her scores