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Beverly Sills Dies at 78

Beverly Sills, 1968.Photo: Leonard Mccombe/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Last November, the opera world shrieked with gratitude when David Letterman put a few singers from the Metropolitan Opera on his show. It was a one-off, a novelty highbrow gesture, whereas a generation ago, opera singers and pianists were regulars on the talk-show circuit. Yes, many of those appearances led viewers to feel as if they were getting a medicinal dose of culture — or just led them to the fridge — but the music was there for the taking, and today it is not. And nobody did those gigs better than Beverly Sills, the Brooklyn babe made extremely good, who died yesterday at 78.

The former Belle Silverman was an impossibly charming public figure who (one got the sense) could shout down an obnoxious cabbie if need be, then go straight to the stage and start trilling. In between stage performances, she was as much a presence on television as pop-music stars were, doing talk shows, variety shows — even hosting The Muppet Show.

Even if you were indifferent (or worse) to opera, you'd find yourself paying attention, roped in by her charisma. In later years, she employed that charisma as chair of Lincoln Center, where she was actually able to manage the egos and cross purposes of that madly Balkanized institution's various companies.

We are unlikely to see her kind again, certainly not on TV, and probably not even on the plaza. But City Opera, the institution she loved, will bear her stamp for a long time to come. Once regarded with condescension, it's now a pretty respectable outfit, and you can trace a good portion of that change directly to her administrative and artistic brio. Bravissima. —Christopher Bonanos