Rise Stevens, opera star of ‘Carmen’ who took her talents to radio and film, dies

Rise Stevens, an opera star who defined the role of Carmen for a generation and brought opera to millions of Americans through her performances on the radio and in such films as “Going My Way,” died March 20 at her home in New York. She was 99.

Her son, actor Nicolas Surovy, confirmed her death but said he did not know the medical cause.

(Wild World Photo/WILD WORLD PHOTO) - Rise Stevens died March 20 at age 99.

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.”

Nothing, it seemed, could keep Ms. Stevens off the opera stage. In an article headlined “Rise Stevens Proves a Trouper,” the New York Times reported on a 1951 performance of “Der Rosenkavalier” during which she dropped a wineglass on the Met’s stage, caught several glass splinters in the eye and finished the opera after a doctor removed them.

The next year, she was starring in “Carmen” when Don Jose (played by Mario Del Monaco) pushed his gypsy lover a little too realistically. The shove sent Ms. Stevens to the hospital, but only after she toughed her way to the end of the performance.

In 1961, Ms. Stevens helped put an entire Metropolitan Opera season back on course after a labor dispute threatened to derail it.

Making special note of the millions of Americans who listened to the Saturday afternoon broadcasts, she sent a telegram to President John F. Kennedy asking him to intervene. He did, and the show went on.

Rise Gus Steenberg was born June 11, 1913, in New York to a Norwegian father and an American mother. She kept her first name, which in Norwegian almost rhymes with “Lisa,” but later changed her last name to Stevens.

Her home life was encouraging in its own way. Ms. Stevens told The Washington Post that although her father did not like seeing her onstage, he promised that she would always have a home if the theater treated her unkindly.

Both parents recognized their daughter’s talent and arranged for voice lessons.

By the time she turned 10, she was singing on a children’s radio program, an early sign of her crossover appeal. Decades later, Ms. Stevens recalled learning at that young age warhorses such as the quartet from “Rigoletto” and the sextet from “Lucia di Lammermoor.”

Turned down the Met

After high school, Ms. Stevens sang with the New York Opera Comique and quickly rose from chorus to solo parts. She found a mentor in the revered Anna Schoen-Rene, whose students included singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson, and entered New York’s prestigious Juilliard music school on a scholarship.

Given her early success, Ms. Stevens could have immediately pursued a career at the Metropolitan. Instead, she went abroad for more practice.

Ms. Stevens racked up successes in Salzburg, Austria; in Prague under conductor George Szell; and in Vienna. Writing for the New York Times in April 1938, critic Herbert F. Peyser described the experience of seeing her in the Austrian capital in “Der Rosenkavalier”:

“I heard . . . a lovely, blooming voice . . . a voice beautifully cultivated throughout its scale. Further, a skill and a fastidiousness of taste in phrasing and nuance that betrayed artistry of a wholly exceptional order. . . . When Rise Stevens comes to America it will be a ripe and considerable artist who steps upon the scene.”

Ms. Stevens left soon after that performance, although not because she foresaw the political tensions that would soon lead to a world war.

“I didn’t feel what was coming,” she told the Washington Times. “I was that young. And I had a one-track mind, and it was only music, music, music.”

In November 1938, she debuted with the Met as Octavian in a performance in Philadelphia. Weeks later came her first appearance in the New York opera house: She took on the role of Mignon in a matinee performance broadcast on the radio.

It was a momentous time in Ms. Stevens’s life. In 1939, she married Walter Surovy, an actor she had met in Prague and her future manager.

Ms. Stevens’s husband died in 2001. Besides her son, of Los Angeles, survivors include a granddaughter.

After her retirement, Ms. Stevens became co-general manager of the short-lived Metropolitan Opera National Company, which took young artists across the country to communities where live opera was hard to come by. In the 1980s, she directed the Met’s National Council Auditions, and in 1990 she received the Kennedy Center Honors.

Looking back on her career and particularly on her forays into Hollywood, Ms. Stevens told The Post: “The success was gigantic. . . . At least, I won a lot of people over to opera.

More music content

Show more
 
Read what others are saying