NEW YORK -- "This is my garden," says Rise Stevens, looking at a bit of Central Park -- trees, grass and an arc of pond -- from a window of her Fifth Avenue apartment. "I told Mayor Dinkins to trim some of my trees, but he says it's very expensive." Her voice is low, warm, vibrant. As any opera fan would expect.

And, as befits a superstar in retirement, Stevens has a luxurious apartment. The size of the high-ceilinged, uncluttered rooms is as impressive as the original paintings by Paul Klee and Marc Chagall that hang on the walls. To the uniformed doorman dozens of stories below, this tall, slender woman, still strikingly good-looking at 77, is Mrs. Surovy, a married name she has borne for 51 years. To fans of classic movies, she is the star who sang with Nelson Eddy in "The Chocolate Soldier" and with Bing Crosby in "Going My Way." More people have heard her sing the Habanera from "Carmen" in "Going My Way" than in the 75 performances she gave of that opera at the Met, plus all the others at La Scala, the Vienna Staatsoper and elsewhere. But to generations of opera-lovers, she is the ultimate Carmen, Delilah and Octavian. Many prefer her 1951 recording of "Carmen," which has been reissued on RCA compact disc, to all others.

Stevens's singing career ran from 1936 to 1964 -- actually from the mid-1920s if you include a four-year stint as a child singer on radio station WJZ in New York. In the 1940s, a star in Hollywood, she turned her back on movies, had an epic fight with Louis B. Mayer and returned to the operatic stage. But when she receives the Kennedy Center Honors tonight, it will be for much more than a mezzo-soprano voice of extraordinary warmth and expressiveness and an acting talent that made some music critics wonder if the drama was eclipsing the music. Since her retirement, she has been involved in the development of young singers. As the director of the ill-fated Metropolitan Opera National Company, she provided an example and incentive for the establishment of local opera companies all over the American landscape. She also taught at the Juilliard School, and in the late 1970s she was president of the Mannes College of Music.

Now she is enjoying the status of a grandmother, planning a trip to California to visit her granddaughter Marisa. "She's named after both her grandmothers, Maria and Rise," Stevens says proudly, "but they put an 'a' on the end. My son said to me, 'Mother, I'm not going to put her through what you've been through.' " That brings up the subject of her unusual first name, which almost rhymes with "Lisa" when pronounced properly:

"It's Norwegian; it was my grandmother's name and my great-grandmother's name. In school I was called everything but Rise; I was called Rose; I was called Rise {rhyming with "eyes"}; I was called Rise' {rhyming with "play"}; even Teresa. In school, it was terrible; I would have arguments with the teachers. I would say, 'I should know how to pronounce my own name.' "

Born in New York to a Norwegian father and an American mother, Stevens was the first professional musician in her family's history, although, she says, "my dad loved to sing and my grandmother had a lovely contralto voice. She used to sing in churches. But as far as making a career of it, the family had no previous experience. In fact, my father was totally against my going on the stage; he was typically European as regards his daughter, but he once said to me, 'Rise, I don't like to see you on the stage, but you should never forget that if it all doesn't turn out you always have us; you always have a home to come back to.' He was very frightened for a long time, not knowing what was in store for me.

"My mother never had that problem; my mother had a tremendous desire to see me achieve what I wanted. She really didn't know what opera was all about, but achievement and success were what she wanted for me."

Her voice was discovered early: "When I was 10 years old, we had a player piano and my dad on Sunday mornings used to love to sit down, put in a roll and pump that piano. It would play 'When Irish Eyes Are Smiling' and all those old tunes, and he would say, 'Rise, sit down next to me on the bench and read exactly what the words are saying and listen to the music and sing along with it.' One day, when I was between 9 and 10 years old, my mother called to my father, 'Chris, I think Rise has a voice.' She listened to a children's hour on WJZ with Milton Cross every Sunday morning, and she took me down to the station for an audition. I didn't know what was happening, but sure enough they took me and put me on the air. I was on that program every Sunday until I was age 14, and I sang practically everything. There was a man who played the piano who taught these children how to sing certain songs; he used to vocalize with us to make us conscious of what we were doing with our voices, even at that young age, and he would teach us the Quartet from 'Rigoletto,' the Sextet from 'Lucia,' things like that. It never registered with me; I didn't know anything about opera, but I was singing it."

Her husband, Walter Surovy, was an actor, born in Czechoslovakia, and she met him backstage at the National Theater in Prague, where she had been engaged as a singer early in her career. He continued to act occasionally in films, but gradually phased it out. "Walter really spent his life running my career," Stevens says, "and I must say everything he has done for me was correct. I used to argue with him a lot and say, 'I don't want to do it and I won't do it,' but I would wind up doing it, and it was right."

Walter Surovy was in the Army, during World War II, when Edward Johnson, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, asked her to do "Carmen." She still recalls her reaction: "Mr. Johnson, I am really not ready for 'Carmen.' I would like to take some time to pursue this and find out everything there is to do with Carmen: the dance, the castanets, the way she walks, the way she thinks, her environment, I have to find out these things."

Her first "Carmen" was sung in Cincinnati with Fausto Cleva. "As I expected, it was not quite the way I wanted it the first time," she recalls. "There was a lot more I wanted to do with it. I had to learn to move my body and feel like this Spanish woman."

Her career has included some scenes offstage that were as dramatic as any she sang; for instance, there was the episode of the Metropolitan Opera National Company, which was established to let young American singers begin substantial careers without going to Europe. "Rudolf Bing {general manager of the Met from 1950 to 1972} was totally against it," she recalls, "but ... we launched our company. Bing came to see the first performance, and he was overwhelmed. It was Carlisle Floyd's 'Susannah' -- I insisted on starting with an American opera -- and at that time it was not well known, but it was a huge success. In the elevator afterwards, Bing was with my husband and me; he suddenly turned to me and said, 'That's the greatest performance I have ever seen of any opera.' Later, my husband said to me, 'Rise, this was the kiss of death.' I'll never forget that.

"We toured for two years with wonderful success; we would go into areas and promote the idea that they should start American companies like this. And Houston and other opera companies started coming up in places where we had gone. We pioneered in this.

"The third year came, and there was a real drain on the Metropolitan Opera; they had to move to Lincoln Center, and this was a multimillion-dollar undertaking. So who had to be sacrificed? The National Company. At that time, Lila Wallace, who owned the Reader's Digest, came to see our 'La Boheme.' She and her husband were so stunned they couldn't move, and I thought, 'Oh, no, they don't like it.' Well, they did. She had heard that we were coming to an end, that this was our last year, and ... she asked, 'What would it cost to keep this company going?' I said, 'I'm told, a million dollars.' She said, 'All right, I will give you the million dollars.' ... Weeks later, Bing and his supporters on the board called me a liar and said this had never happened and closed down the National Company. Well, when the New York Times asked her, Lila Wallace confirmed what I had said. She also said that she would never give a penny to the Metropolitan Opera as long as Rudolf Bing was the general manager. We were never able to go into our third year. They thought they would be able to get the million dollars for the Metropolitan Opera but instead it was given to Juilliard."

A minute later, Stevens is defending Bing, whose older years as a victim of Alzheimer's disease have made him known to millions of people who have no interest in opera. "He was a great general manager," she says. "I could argue with him and I didn't get along with him in many instances, but he brought things to the opera house that we never had thought possible."

Equally stormy was her final meeting with Louis B. Mayer. "He wanted me to stay on and just concentrate on the movie business," she says. "He had a very hard time realizing that my life was in opera and that I was basically an opera singer and intended to remain one; I had worked hard to get where I was, and that was my field. He could not understand that this was my real goal. 'I'm offering you everything, anything,' he said. I answered, 'It's not for me,' and he got furious. He put me on suspension, and I said to Walter, 'Come on, let's get out of here, this is ridiculous. My life is not here.' Of course, the suspension meant nothing to me; I kept going to my concerts and opera performances. That annoyed MGM at the time, because they hadn't released me. It was the understanding that I would return to opera when I made 'Chocolate Soldier,' but I suppose they forgot.

"I guess that's what happened with Nelson Eddy; they said, 'Stay, and we will make a great star of you,' and they thought they could do the same with me. They thought movies were the epitome, and perhaps understandably. The success was gigantic. It made me a household name. I probably would never have reached that vast public had I not done films. At least, I won a lot of people over to opera. ... They would come up to me after a performance and tell me so. In those days, the Metropolitan Opera used to travel. We went to Chicago, we went to San Francisco, we went to Los Angeles, Dallas, San Antonio ..."

That was long before there was a Kennedy Center, before television sets became a standard fixture in American homes, and before hundreds of American opera companies, including the Washington Opera, had come into existence. But when she comes to the Kennedy Center tonight to receive her citation in a ceremony that will be broadcast to a television audience of millions, Rise Stevens can reflect that -- with the grudging help of men like Rudolf Bing and Louis B. Mayer -- she helped change the performing arts scene in this country.