Celebrity the Way it used to be

American opera legend Beverly Sills died last week at 78. Readers of a certain age don’t have the slightest clue who she is, of course — they’re fixated on the modern variety of celebrity, the Parises and Anna Nicoles who are famous for nothing more than being attractive, completely talentless, and very, very wealthy. But slightly older readers will remember Sills — not so much for her stage performances, which few of us late-’70s ‘tweens saw (or, frankly, cared much about) but for her infectious populist celebrity, which made her a regular fixture on television programs like The Muppet Show and The Tonight Show and a two-time covergirl on Time magazine. She even had her own View-style talk show, Lifestyles with Beverly Sills.

Is it remotely possible for a mere opera singer to become a household name today? It’s tempting to say the only sopranos we’re likely to see on television going forward will be limited to PBS and HBO. But last year the Metropolitan Opera started simulcasting its operas into movie cinemas across the U.S. and Canada as an experiment (an initiative Sills supported enthusiastically). The project was so successful that the Met plans to double the number of participating cinemas in the coming season.

In the few days since Sills’ death, the encomiums have come like a flood. She’s no stranger to Charleston, either. Spoleto Festival USA founder Gian Carlo Menotti wrote the lead role in his opera La Loca especially for her, and Sills’ longtime accompaniest was none other than Spoleto Chamber Music series host Charles Wadsworth, who played with her at her final public performance at the New York Opera in 1980. There’s a YouTube video of that gig, which is worth viewing for the hair alone.

An opera singer may never again achieve the prime-time prominence of an artist like Sills, but, then again, a principal appearance in Ariadne auf Naxos may someday be as widely viewed as a turn in House of Wax. But, then, that’s still not saying a lot.