"When I grew up," Beverly Sills says, her eyes absolutely dancing as she reminisces about her old neighborhood, "community meant knowing who your next door neighbor was. Something as simple as that. It meant having friends to play with after school. In those days community meant people, as opposed to today when it means facilities. We never were rich enough to own our own home, so we lived in an apartment. But we always knew all the neighbors in the apartment building. I mean, it was just unthinkable not to know who lived next door, underneath us. The word community really meant people."

Sills is a pop legend. At the height of her singing career in the ’60s and ’70s, she was dubbed "America’s Queen of Opera." But she was cool. A star who didn’t take herself too seriously, did television with people like Carol Burnett, and made opera seem – well, fun. She invites us into her office at Lincoln Center – where, 30 years later, she is chairman of the prestigious center for the performing arts – to talk about community.

Beverly Sills was born in Brooklyn, where she spent the first 10 years of her life on Empire Street, right in the heart of Crown Heights. Her family was a typical middle-class, blue-collar family. She’s not ashamed of her pedigree. In fact, she’s proud of it. She credits much of her success to the sense of community she experienced during her childhood in Brooklyn.

"There wasn’t a rich kid in the neighborhood. All of our parents were blue collar workers. My father was an insurance man. My best friend’s father was a policeman. We were all on the same level in terms of riches. Nobody had a special apartment that we all liked to go visit. They all looked exactly alike, really.

"For social activities, we all went to the movies for 10 cents. We were very upset when they put a tax on it and it became 11 cents. It had a terrible impact on our family, because with me and my brothers it was three cents more – and in those days the Daily News cost two cents. So it might actually mean giving up one of the newspapers that came into the house. It was as basic as that."

The neighborhoods of Beverly Sills’s Brooklyn were a patchwork of ethnicity. While none of them realized it as kids, Sills says there were fringe benefits to be had from living in such richly diverse neighborhoods.

"Well, we were all multilingual, first of all. The most interesting thing I remember is that since, I would say, 99 percent of us were first generation Americans – we all had European parents – we came from a variety of cultures. When I was a child, I could speak Russian, Romanian, obviously English. Our neighbors were Italian. We were all speaking crazy, funny languages.

"There was no such thing as a Jewish, Irish, or Italian neighborhood. It was just all there. It never occurred to us that we were in any way different from one another, because we learned how to communicate with one another."

Just as community provided a fertile ground in which to grow, family was an important part of the mix for Sills.

"My family provided structure," she says. "Sundays were spent at Grandma Silverman’s house, and it didn’t matter what you wanted to do. I mean, Grandma with 16 children – you can imagine how many cousins there were. She cooked for us all, she and one elderly lady who helped her – a fellow Romanian. Oh, the joy of coming into that house. I can still smell the smells in that house.

"There were curfews. It was a real structured existence. And that took a lot of the burden off the children.

"My father didn’t want me to go on the stage because he thought only loose women went on the stage. When I asked him for his description of a loose woman, he said it was somebody who wore too much makeup, low-cut dresses, and changed the color of her hair. So there you are."

Sills tilts back in her office chair and roars with laughter at the joke about her hair color. I recall images of the diva flickering across my family’s television set when I was a kid. It was a black and white set, so it was only years later that I discovered she had red hair. Today she’s 68 and her hair is still red.

Sills hit the road at the age of 15, touring as an opera singer, even though her father told her she couldn’t come back home if she went. But Sills was determined to see her dream to the end and she went anyway. She tells us – in a softened voice, warm with emotion at the memory – of a night in Detroit when her father, at the urging of his brothers, finally came to see his daughter perform.

"I remember that he wore a Homburg and his double-breasted Chesterfield coat. He was a big, big man – a big, tall, handsome man. And he came to a performance of The Merry Widow. So, he knocked on the door at the end of the performance. I didn’t know he had come.

He was standing there, and he very slowly looked me up and down. And I realized that the Merry Widow dress was low-cut – and I was a very well-endowed 16-year-old and I had bright red hair and makeup with long false eyelashes. I thought, ‘Oh, God. I’m going to get it.’ And he said to me, ‘You look terrible.’ Then he paused and he said – gave me the best review of my life – ‘You sing like an angel. Come home. I’ll pay for everything.’ I was able to go home and study very seriously."

As the ’30s and ’40s faded into history, the old neighborhoods began to change. Sills doesn’t know when, exactly. It was sometime after World War II. People didn’t feel safe anymore. The advent of the atomic bomb caused people to start looking inward. Neighbors started not knowing one another. And crime became a common part of people’s lives. Even more change came in the ’60s.

"In the ’60s we got very lazy and we allowed one tradition after another to be torn down. We never took any pains to see that something was put up in its place. As a result, our children lost all ties. I think we became too permissive."

Family continued to play an important part in Sill’s life when she started her own. As her career blossomed, she struggled to maintain a balance between her work and family. Sills is not your stereotypical prima donna, delicate and snobby. She’s one tough-as-nails lady – a fact that she readily admits and says she has used, with relish, as a mother. She’s quick to share the credit for her success in juggling career and motherhood, however, with her husband and her mother.

"I’m not so naďve that I don’t realize that had my husband not been a man of means I could not have had this career. I have three step-children, two children of our own. Our two children, between them, have five birth defects. So, this was not a question of Mama going off to Vienna for three days to sing and leaving a nice nanny in charge of two little kids who were going off to a fancy private school.

"The solution was to take them all with me. I sang in Europe only during the children’s summer vacations. I never sang in Europe when all the children were not with me. Which meant nannies – and Grandma. Grandma traveled with us and was the Rock of Gibraltar."

But does she think her own experience as a mother can help other career moms of the ’90s – even single mothers? You bet she does.

"There’s only one leader in the house, and she’s it," she declares, without having to pause even for a second to ponder the question. "There isn’t any room for anything else. I raised my children that way. It was very difficult for them, because times had changed a lot. I don’t give an inch, and I never did. They tell me I was a very demanding step-mother, and I say, ‘That’s why you’re such nice people today.’ I still don’t give in."

Sills retired from the stage in 1980, but she has since become one of the most influential commentators and administrators in the world of the performing arts. Between 1979 and 1991 she was general director of the New York City Opera -- the company where she first gained international acclaim in the sixties. She was elected chairman of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in 1994. At a time when most people would be thinking about taking it easy, Sills keeps a schedule that would exhaust even those half her age. But she sees major changes on her horizon, changes she expects to make before the next Millennium.

"I don’t think a 70-year-old person ought to be running Lincoln Center. I came in here with a five-year plan, which will be completed just when I’m 70 – and I don’t intend to make another one. I don’t intend to do nothing when I’m past 70, but I certainly don’t think I should be in a creative job anymore. I don’t want to create anymore. It’s time to rest."