At first glance, the election of one-time operatic diva Beverly Sills as chairman of the board of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts seems to be a good thing. At a time when high culture and its institutions are more and more subject to destructive commercial marketing techniques, it is welcome to have an artist instead of a businessman at the head of America’s largest performing-arts presenter. And at a time when the institutions of high culture are routinely called upon to advance a radical social agenda, it is equally welcome to have an artist from the classical tradition, instead of an ideologue, in a position of such responsibility.
Furthermore, Miss Sills is no stranger to Lincoln Center and its constituents, which include both the Metropolitan Opera and the City Opera. Although she made some late-career appearances at the Met, Miss Sills owes her artistic reputation almost entirely to the New York City Opera, where she sang as that company’s greatest name until 1980. In 1979, she became general director of the company, a post that she held until 1989. During her administrative tenure, Miss Sills performed prodigies of fund raising, but she had rather less success in repertory and casting. Since the main work of Lincoln Center is indeed centralized fund raising—programming is left largely in the hands of the individual constituents—Miss Sills would seem to be an ideal choice for her new position. And yet memories still linger of the abrupt way in which Miss Sills left the City Opera’s directorship, and with it her aggressive work on its financial behalf, to move, after a suitable pause, to an important role on the Metropolitan Opera board of directors. At the Met she immediately began to serve in a major fund-raising capacity. For this reason, as well as others that have nothing to do with Miss Sills, the City Opera is now in straitened circumstances, while the Met goes triumphantly from financial (if not artistic) strength to strength.
Miss Sills deserves every good wish in her new responsibilities. At Lincoln Center, she will not only have to raise money but also settle squabbles among the constituents. Perhaps even more important, she will have to serve as a spokesman for the idea of high culture which animated the establishment of Lincoln Center in the 1950s. That idea is hardly in fashion today, when cultural centers are supposed to concern themselves as much with political and social issues as with artistic goals. But it will not be enough for Miss Sills, in her role at Lincoln Center, to talk good art; she will have to resist pressures from inside as well as outside her domain to “open up” Lincoln Center to popular culture and close it to “elitist” art. To resist these pressures will take energy and constancy. We know that the vivacious Miss Sills has the energy, but after the sad story of the abandonment of the City Opera for the Metropolitan, she will have to prove her constancy.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 7, on page 2
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