21 March 2013

Risë Stevens, 99, One of the Met's Greatest Stars, Has Died

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Stevens as Carmen, her signature role
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RISË STEVENS

New York City, June 11, 1913 — March 20, 2013

If there is a single word to characterize Risë Stevens's long and diverse life in music, perhaps it's "class." Throughout her career, she never failed to maintain her self-respect as a performer; even her most famous role, Carmen, had a musically aristocratic feel to it when Stevens played it. She didn't go too far in her portrayal of Bizet's Gypsy; she never coarsened the character unnecessarily in the interest of calling attention to herself, as many others have done. Whether she was playing Octavian or Orfeo or Dalila, turning up on television, performing pop songs on The Voice of Firestone or making promotional appearances on behalf of her artistic home, the Metropolitan Opera, an appearance by Risë Stevens always promised the highest degree of professionalism. 

Stevens had one of the most successful Met careers of any artist of her generation, and her ascendancy at that company coincided with the outbreak of war in Europe in the 1930s. She was in good company: with the sudden shortage of European artists, general manager Edward Johnson paved the way for a number of gifted American singers who otherwise might not have had the opportunity to shine as brightly as they did — Eleanor Steber, Richard Tucker, Leonard Warren, Helen Traubel, among many others. 

Once Stevens arrived at the Met, she was smart about repertory, restricting herself to a relatively small handful of carefully crafted roles. Carmen was far and away the part the public demanded most: Stevens performed it 124 times with the company, both in the house and on tour. This was followed by Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, a role she sang with the Met seventy-four times; Dalila (thirty-two performances); and Mignon (twenty-eight), which she sang for her Met house debut on December 17, 1938. She herself often said that her personal favorite was Gluck's Orfeo, which she sang with the company ten times, beginning in 1955. Early on in her Met career, she was assigned to Wagner roles, but after a few performances of Erda (Rheingold) and Fricka (Die Walküre), she resisted further efforts to steer her in this direction. 

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She was born Risë Steenberg in New York City and grew up in the Bronx. As a child, she began vocal studies with Orry Parado, and in her teens she began appearing with the Little Theatre Opera in Brooklyn, later the New York Opéra-Comique. While singing there, she came to the attention of the renowned Anna Schoen-René, who headed up the Juilliard School's voice department. Stevens eventually got a Juilliard scholarship, studying with Schoen-René, an exacting teacher who developed her voice methodically, initially taking her through nothing but scales. "I used to pray before my lesson that today she'd let me sing a song," Stevens told OPERA NEWS's Martin Mayer in 1988. Eventually she began performing around New York. Among her engagements was the world premiere of Robert Russell Bennett's Maria Malibran at the Juilliard School in April 1935. With financial support from Schoen-René, Stevens went to Salzburg to study at the Mozarteum with Marie Gutheil-Schoder. 

While in Paris, she was spotted by George Szell, Prague Opera's music director, who signed her up as a company member. It was there that she developed the foundation of the stagecraft that would hold her in good stead throughout her career. She made very little money in Prague, but she did have a first crack at the role of Carmen, one that she found unsatisfying. She also met a talented young actor, Walter Surovy, who eventually became her husband and the principal architect of her career. In 1939, she sang Cherubino and Dorabella at England's Glyndebourne Festival, where the general manager was Rudolf Bing, who would later become both an important ally and an antagonist at the Met.  

Stevens quickly became one of the Met's most valuable artists, as much for her beautifully produced mezzo as for her strong and distinguished stage presence. She caught the attention of Hollywood. In 1941, she went to MGM to film Oscar Straus's The Chocolate Soldier. She didn't linger at MGM, but she was a frequent guest on radio, singing both classical and popular music. She had an easy, natural way with a pop song, and her English diction was unfussy and didn't sound much like an opera singer. 

In 1944, more people saw her than at any other point in her career when Paramount cast her as the female lead in Going My Way, a gentle drama about priests in a down-at-the-heels New York neighborhood. Stevens played the opera-singing old friend of Father O'Malley (Bing Crosby) who helps him give a musical education to a group of inner-city boys. The film won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1944 and was one of the great box-office successes of the war years. Stevens was a natural onscreen — calm, relaxed, unaffected. But she declined to stay on in Hollywood, rightly thinking that she had to be an opera and concert performer first.

In Going My Way, she performed an excerpt from Carmen. She did the role for the first time at the Met on December 28, 1945, conducted by Wilfrid Pelletier. She had coached the part with flamenco dancers and mastered both the castanets and tambourine in order to be fully compelling in the part. 

In a certain sense, things only improved for Stevens when Rudolf Bing arrived as Met general manager in 1950. Bing was intent on improving production values at the company and engaged a group of gifted theater and film directors for new productions. Stevens benefited from this move when Bing hired British director Tyrone Guthrie to stage a new Carmen, which opened on January 31, 1952. It was a pared-down version of the opera and one of the early triumphs of the Bing era. "Because our new production of Carmen has been rehearsed and mounted as a homogenous whole," she told OPERA NEWS shortly after the Guthrie staging opened, "there is no longer the danger of someone assuming a character that is completely out of tune with the rest of the cast.... Everything is motivated. Nothing is left to chance." Her Carmen became less passive than it had been earlier on, and more aggressive. Years later she remembered the audience's shocked response to the final scene, staged in Escamillo's dressing room, rather than the traditional arena. When Richard Tucker's Don José stabbed her, Stevens opened her mouth to scream, but no sound emerged. She fell, grabbing onto a curtain as she went down, until it ripped and fell around her. 

In the mid-1950s, she branched out of her heavily American-based career with an appearance in the world premiere of Virgilio Mortari's Figlia del Diavolo at La Scala. A year later she made a return appearance at Glyndebourne as Cherubino. She appeared regularly on television, including Richard Adler's 1958 musical version of Little Women for CBS, in which Stevens played the March girls' mother. 

By the early 1960s, Stevens decided she was no longer capable of performing at her usual high standard. On April 12, 1961, she said goodbye to the Met with one last performance as Carmen. "Risë Stevens is still by much the best Carmen the theater commands," wrote critic Irving Kolodin in The Saturday Review.

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Stevens as Rosenkavalier's Octavian
OPERA NEWS Archives

She continued to perform in concert and made an acclaimed recording of Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin's Lady in the Dark for Columbia. She also had a success in the first season of musicals at the newly constructed New York State Theater, as Anna in Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I. Soon she embarked on a new chapter when she was named general manager of the Met's National Company, designed to give solid professional experience to deserving young talents, and to promote the growth of regional opera. With the impending opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966, it was not the ideal time to launch such a complicated and expensive venture as the National Company. The first season, in 1965, included an acclaimed production of Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, which had never been done at the Met itself. But the National Company quickly ran into huge cost overruns, resulting in a Met bailout of $1 million during the second season. Rudolf Bing also began to regard Stevens as a possible rival and pulled the plug on the venture, over the singer's fierce objections. 

Stevens and her husband settled briefly in the Virgin Islands but returned to New York a few years later. Needing an outlet for her considerable energies, Stevens succeeded John Goldmark as president of the Mannes College of Music in the fall of 1975. ("Welcome to the aspirin club," Juilliard's ex-president William Schuman wrote to her.) Mannes was in serious financial trouble, and Stevens undertook a major fund-raising effort to bail them out, with great success. She also attempted to move the school away from its theoretical approach to music. "For her," wrote her biographer John Pennino, "theory was there to support performing. If you want to perform — perform." She clashed with the board, however, over many of her ideas, and she resigned in 1978. 

In 1980, she rejoined the Met, as advisor to the company's Young Artist Development Program and executive director of the National Council's Regional Auditions. During these years, she traveled the country, searching out promising young talent. She also showed up frequently on television, radio and on the lecture circuit, promoting the general interests of the Met. She remained in this capacity until 1988. Soon thereafter, she was made a managing director of the company; she had already been an active member of the Metropolitan Opera Guild board for many years. 

Stevens always conducted herself like a star, in the most positive sense. She had an enormous sense of personal pride and dignity, but she was seldom petty. She could be tough and self-protective: when Rudolf Bing offered her some late-career performances of Orfeo as a last-minute substitute for Giulietta Simionato, she made her displeasure known — as always, through her husband. Two books were written about her: Subway to the Met (1959), by Kyle Crichton, and Risë Stevens: A Life in Music (2005), by John Pennino. 

Stevens took pride in many things — her country home on Long Island; her lifelong passion for cooking; her 1990 Kennedy Center Honor; the success of her son, the talented actor Nicolas Surovy, in the theater and on television. But she was proudest of her lifelong association with the Met. Despite her ups and downs with the company over the years, she characteristically declined to vent any of her bitterness in public, always remaining the class act that the public had long expected her to be. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

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