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Carol Burnett Remembers Friend Beverly Sills

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The death of Beverly Sills robbed this country of the most popular American opera singer of recent decades and also of one of the most gifted arts administrators we've known. Many people also lost a personal friend, and one of those people is actress and comedienne Carol Burnett. She and Sills were friends and they also performed together.

(Soundbite of a musical)

Ms. BEVERLY SILLS (Opera Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. CAROL BURNETT (Actress; Comedienne): Good-bye.

Ms. SILLS: (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. BURNETT: To our little table.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. SILLS: (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. BURNETT: Good-bye.

Ms. SILLS: (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. BURNETT: To the past.

Ms. SILLS: (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. BURNETT: (Singing) All alone. I'm so all alone.

Ms. SILLS: (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. BURNETT and Ms. SILLS: (Singing in foreign language)

SIEGEL: Carol Burnett, Beverly Sills was someone you performed with, also a very good friend of yours, I guess.

Ms. BURNETT: Yes.

SIEGEL: Tell us about her.

Ms. BURNETT: Well, it's very seldom that you have something like this with somebody. You don't get a lot of those kinds of friends in life. Bubbles and I talked to each other quite often. And no matter what she was going through, she was always cheerful.

SIEGEL: Now, I should say here that when - for example, when I interviewed Beverly Sills as I would ask her whether it was miss, miss, Ms. Sills? Oh, just call me Bubbles, was the answer. That was always the response to what she wanted to be called.

Ms. BURNETT: Well that was her personality.

SIEGEL: Bubbles.

Ms. BURNETT: Bubbles.

SIEGEL: Now, one of the things one hears in that very funny duet that we heard a bit of, is both the difference between you and Beverly Sills and how you sang and what you sang, but also the similarity that you're both singing for people to make them listen, to make them happy.

Ms. BURNETT: Yes. I think that was probably one of my favorite specials of all the specials I've done. We laughed. I tell you, we laughed for two weeks. And the opening was quite remarkable. It was called "We're Only an Octave Apart."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BURNETT: And it was brilliant because I started out about, you know, our voices aren't that different. There were only eight notes on the musical line. You know, what's the difference between your voice and mine? And I'm singing this and then she comes out an octave higher, of course, with that gorgeous voice. And I just stared at her.

And the audience just settled down, you know. And then we - tapped danced at the end of it. Bubbles have taken tap when she was a kid and I'd never tapped dance so we both kind of had to learn, relearn. And it was a fun time. We tapped dance with 20 boy dancers. And when it was over, we both cried. We wanted to do it all over again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BURNETT: We had such a good time.

SIEGEL: This was a quite an emotional roller coaster, this special, of laughing and crying quite at the same time.

Ms. BURNETT: Yeah but good - the good kind.

SIEGEL: How did she describe her own role as a, well, one the great figures of American high culture, you know, the great soprano of her day, who was obviously known beyond the opera house? Did she see herself as an emissary of opera to a broader popular culture, for example?

Ms. BURNETT: If she did, it would be to spread the good word, not to the effect of, say, standing up there and saying, look at me and how important I am. She would never do that. She would help people, as I say, to spread the good word about opera and to make it so that everybody would want to go see it and not be afraid of it.

I guess people would say she was a diva. But what is the definition of diva? You know, sometimes it has a bad connotation. Oh, she's a diva, you know? I would not say she was diva in that sense of the word. What is the definition of diva, Robert? Do you know?

SIEGEL: I'm trying to think right now. Diva. Is it from some kind of goddess thing? Is that where diva comes from? I don't know.

Ms. BURNETT: Well, if that's the case, she was down-to-earth goddess.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Well, first, on the lost of your friend, our condolences.

Ms. BURNETT: Thank you. I - this is a big one for me.

SIEGEL: Well, thank you very much for talking with us about Beverly Sills.

Ms. BURNETT: Thank you. And say a prayer, okay?

SIEGEL: Okay. It's Carol Burnett speaking to us from Santa Barbara, California, about her friend, the late Beverly Sills.

Our remembrance of Beverly Sills continues at npr.org where you can video of the opera star and listen to some of her performances. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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