Beverly Sills R.I.P.

Beverly Sills and Ann-Margret????? (And throw in a !!! for good measure.)

This two-part clip (posted by mcrtnyfan to YouTube) pairs the opera star (who died yesterday) in a duet with the 60s trashpop sex kitten, from a 1978 television special saluting Radio City Music Hall. (Note: Since “the owner of the clip does not allow embedding,” a single click won’t do the usual and make the video play on this page. The good news is that a second click will take you to right to the YouTube page where it will.)

My first reaction to the idea of this pairing was that it was absurd, if not cruel. A stunt concept only a hack TV flak could love. But the over-10-minute medley is carefully rehearsed–by the singers and by the director and the tech people–and the result is, well, pretty awesome. The two voices find more common ground than I expected, meeting each other halfway so that the result isn’t a compromise of either of its constituent parts but something new. The place they meet halfway is the world of The Musical; if we use the topography of our culture as a metaphor, Sills adjusts “downward” from the world of opera, and A-M adjusts “upward” from the world of junk pop, to produce an entirely credible result. A-M, in fact, sounds remarkably like Judy Garland much of the time, in a way that’s almost unnecessarily emphasized by a snippet of “The Man That Got Away”–given the Garland-like warmth of her voice during the whole medley, that one moment inevitably sounds like imitation, which is mildly distracting. Nevertheless, by the end of the ten minutes, the medley–the concept of which is clever, and the shot design and direction of which are brilliant–had achieved the emotional effect it was after. I had goosebumps.

Last Friday when I watched the clip, I recognized in it some of the signs of decline in Sills’ voice by 1978 that the writer of this New York Times obituary points to this morning–a degree of uncertainty on some of the notes, a bit of wobbliness in the vibrato–but these were overcome by the sheer communicativeness of her voice, which the obit writer also points to. Since I am not an opera buff, but am a devotee of musicals, watching this performance made me “get” Beverly Sills (not exactly for the first time, since I was around in her glory years, but yes, refreshing my memory in a way that it needed refreshing), which made me “get” the obituary in a way I otherwise might not have. It, too, gave me goosebumps.


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