My first introduction to opera was through The Ed Sullivan Show in the late 50’s and through the 60’s. On Sunday nights I could hear Roberta Peters or Robert Merrill or Renata Tebaldi and many more. I didn’t really “get it” but I did enjoy it. It wasn’t until college, at UNC-CH, where as a music (voice) major I began my real introduction to opera and to all other areas of the classical vocal repertoire.
In my senior year, I was fortunate to take a graduate level course on American opera taught by one of my favorite professors, Dr. Wharburton. One particular opera stood out that semester, Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe. I’m not exactly sure why. As a young baritone there really wasn’t anything in the opera that I could work on with my voice teacher—the big arias all belong to the heroine. I do recall Prof W saying how he attended the New York City Opera’s premiere in the late 1950’s and thinking how cool that was.
To date I still have not seen a full production of the opera. But I still enjoy listening to it…and I think I’m in the minority. That said, my selection today is “The Willow Song.” In the video clip, the composer himself sets up the scene. And the singer, well, is Beverly Sills, who did the NYCO premiere that Prof W heard. Sills was of course one of the many opera singers I heard on the Sullivan show. Her voice was in its prime in 1962 and this enchanting performance—with the composer sitting just a few feet away along with an audience and orchestra and camera crew—is beautiful. Hope you agree.
“The Willow Song” from The Ballad of Baby Doe by composer Douglas Moore with libretto by John Latouche performed by soprano Beverly Sills (1962)
It’s so touching to hear Beverly when her voice still had this kind of purity. She always remained impressive but…when she was young everything was in line, poised, sweet. My first live-Sills performances were in 1965, “Magic Flute” at Tanglewood, and “Hoffmann” at City Opera. The sound was a bit more spread even by then–but of course there was still a huge amount to enjoy. I liked her a lot as a performer in those early, pre-superstar days. She sang with passion and truth.