Ms. Stevens pursued one purpose in life: bringing opera to anybody, anytime, anywhere. As The Washington Post once noted, more people heard Ms. Stevens sing Carmen’s “Habanera” in “Going My Way,” which co-starred Bing Crosby and swept the Academy Awards for 1944, than in all her theater performances combined. Such was the power of playing an opera diva on-screen compared with actually being one onstage.
In her frequent radio and TV appearances, Ms. Stevens exemplified the class of opera singers — including Lily Pons, Dorothy Kirsten, Gladys Swarthout and Lawrence Tibbett — who took their music out of the opera house and into American homes.
“The entire country . . . was her audience,” said opera scholar Roger Pines, “not just people who went to the Metropolitan.”
Ms. Stevens led a fast-paced career, beginning in the 1930s and powering through the mid-’60s. In April 1954, she sang in an evening performance at La Scala in Milan, caught a plane to New York and did a matinee at the Metropolitan Opera, where she was a reigning mezzo-soprano.
Among her most celebrated roles were Delilah in Camille Saint-Saens’s “Samson and Delilah” and Octavian in Richard Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier,” in addition to her signature Carmen. Her 1951 RCA recording of “Carmen” remains a standard-setter. So was the Tyrone Guthrie production in which she starred in the 1950s, transforming herself — the daughter of a Norwegian — into the quintessential Spanish gypsy.
Accidental pop star
Ms. Stevens won mass appeal by bringing her classical training to recognizable, beloved songs. Her rendition of Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria” is one of the most memorable moments in “Going My Way.” She was Anna in the production of “The King and I” that inaugurated the Music Theater of Lincoln Center in 1964. And, in the view of a Boston Globe critic, the sultry mezzo sang “Begin the Beguine,” by Cole Porter, “so insinuatingly she could have gotten herself arrested.”
Yet Ms. Stevens never set out to become a pop star. Her Hollywood career came about, she recalled in a 1990 interview with the Washington Times, when she caught the attention of MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer. It did not hurt that Ms. Stevens was about as far from the fat-lady stereotype as an opera singer could be.
After he heard her sing in San Francisco, Ms. Stevens said, Mayer called her in for a screen audition and booked her for “The Chocolate Soldier,” a 1941 film co-starring Nelson Eddy. She enjoyed the project enough to make “Going My Way,” but her life was not in the movies.
“People in the motion picture industry did not think of having a person who would want to go back to opera after having a chance to stay in Hollywood,” Ms. Stevens told the Washington Times. “Mayer told me, ‘What do you mean? I’m offering you this incredible chance at MGM.’ I told him that was my life.”