Distant Voices : Risë Stevens

Distant Voices : Risë Stevens

On September 18, 2013, the Metropolitan Opera Guild will present “Risë: A Celebration of Risë Stevens” at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College in New York City. The event, hosted by Frederica von Stade, is a tribute to mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens, who passed away on March 20, 2013, less than three months before her 100th birthday. From 1938 to 1961, Stevens was on the roster of the Metropolitan Opera, where she reigned as one of the company’s brightest stars.

Stevens was born Risë Gus Steenberg to a Norwegian-born father and an American-born mother in New York City on June 11, 1913. As a teenager, she sang several roles with the Little Theatre Opera in Brooklyn and adopted the professional name Stevens. She studied on scholarship for nearly three years at Juilliard with the famed teacher Anna Schoen-René. Schoen-René, a student of Pauline Viardot-Garcia, instilled in Stevens the principles of Bel Canto technique through strict training in the Garcia method. While a student, Stevens earned extra money singing in the chorus of “Palmolive Beauty Box Theater” radio show, which featured Met mezzo Gladys Swarthout in regular appearances.

In 1935, on the advice of Schoen-René, Stevens turned down an offer from the Met, opting instead to study in the summer with Marie Gutheil-Schoder at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. Such was Schoen-René’s belief in Stevens’ potential—and in the artistic development she would gain from European experience—that she funded the trip with a loan and accompanied the young singer to Salzburg to introduce her to her new teacher.

Gutheil-Schoder was a distinguished German soprano who was especially well regarded as a singing actress. Schoen-René’s choice of her for Stevens was savvy: Gustav Mahler selected Gutheil-Schoder for the first Vienna production of Der Rosenkavalier as Octavian, a role that would eventually bring Stevens great acclaim. Whereas Schoen-René focused primarily on vocal and musical issues, Gutheil-Schoder was especially skilled with regard to details and subtleties of characterization, the influence of which would remain with Stevens throughout her career.

Gutheil-Schroder died on October 4, 1935. That winter, Stevens returned to New York and entered the first Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air. Despite not winning the competition, she was offered the role of Orfeo in Orfeo ed Euridice, but she declined the production, which would have had her singing from the orchestra pit while George Balanchine’s dancers populated the stage. Instead, Stevens returned to Europe to further prepare for the level of career she desired.

Stevens made her way to Prague, where she made her debut as Mignon in December 1936. The production’s Frédéric was the well-known Vienna-born actor Walter Surovy, to whom Stevens was married from 1939 until his death in 2001. Stevens received rave reviews as Mignon and, in January 1937, she essayed the role of Octavian for the first time. Other roles in Prague included Cherubino and Orfeo. While there, she was heard by then Met general manager Edward Johnson and then Glyndebourne and future Met general manager Rudolf Bing, both of whom subsequently offered Stevens contracts.1 In 1939, Stevens performed both Cherubino and Dorabella at Glyndebourne. She was also heard at the Vienna State Opera, La Scala in Milan, and the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. Her artistic home, however, was unquestionably the Met under the administrations of Johnson and Bing.

Stevens made her first appeared with the Met company in Philadelphia on November 22, 1938, as Octavian, and then she sang the title role in Mignon in New York on December 17. Over the course of the succeeding 23 years, she would attain a level of fame and recognition (and would command the fees) previously known only to sopranos and tenors. Stevens sang a total of 351 performances at the Met, of which 124 were as Carmen, the role in which she is most famously remembered—both for the luminous singing and for vivid, realistic acting.

A highlight of her Met career was a new production of Carmen that Bing had mounted for his star in 1952. Conducted by Fritz Reiner, the production was staged by Tyrone Guthrie and co-starred Richard Tucker as Don José. On December 11, 1952, a performance with Stevens, Tucker, and Robert Merrill as Escamillo was transmitted to 30 “television theaters” and was, at the time, thought to be the single largest audience for an opera performance. A live recording with Paolo Silveri as Escamillo was made in 1952 and is a good complement, if not in many respects superior, to the 1951 studio recording also conducted by Reiner with Stevens, Jan Peerce, Licia Albanese, and Robert Merrill. Both reveal the depth and nuance of Stevens’ characterization, as well as the beautiful vocalism of her performances.

Other roles she sang with frequency at the Met included Octavian, Dalila, Mignon, and Orfeo. These roles comprised the core of her repertoire in which she was their preeminent exponent during her tenure with the company. Stevens retired voluntarily while her voice was still radiantly in its prime, singing her final performance at the Met as Carmen in 1961.

In addition to her almost unparalleled success on one of the world’s great stages, Stevens gained popularity with the wider public through appearances in Hollywood films, which her husband, who was instrumental in steering her career, helped negotiate. In 1941, Stevens starred opposite Nelson Eddy in a film adaptation of Oscar Strauss’ The Chocolate Soldier. In 1944’s Going My Way, starring Bing Crosby, she sang an excerpt from Carmen and was billed as “Risë Stevens, famous contralto[!] of the Metropolitan Opera Association.” The film was a tremendous commercial success and won seven Oscars at the 1945 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Crosby.

Stevens also was a frequent guest on The Ed Sullivan Show and on radio, displaying as natural an affinity for popular music as for classical, thus helping to further her appeal to non-opera-going audiences. She appeared as Carmen with a cigarette in hand in a print ad for Chesterfield cigarettes and, in 1945, Lloyd’s of London insured the singer’s voice for $1million.

In retirement, Stevens became a powerful advocate for young singers and for the art form itself. Immediately following the conclusion of her stage career at the Met, Rudolf Bing tapped Stevens as general manager of the Met’s short-lived national touring company, which was intended as a means of cultivating both talented young singers and opera in regional settings. The 1961-1962 Met season almost didn’t happen because of a labor dispute between the musicians’ union and Met administration. Cancellation of the season was averted, however, when Steven called President Kennedy asking him to intercede, which he did by sending his Secretary of Labor to mediate.

In 1975, Stevens accepted an appointment as president of the then financially troubled Mannes College of Music, where she also taught a course in role study. Among the notable achievements of her tenure was convincing illustrious pianist Vladimir Horowitz to join the faculty, which he did without pay. Her appointment at Mannes was even the subject of a brief article in People magazine, a testament to the position Stevens had attained in the public eye.

For much of the 1980s, she was executive director of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Regional Auditions. The position allowed her to keep the pulse on rising operatic talent in the United States and to foster its further growth. In 1990 she was named a Kennedy Center Honoree and was awarded the Opera Honor from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 2011.

For those interested in further exploring the art and personality of Stevens, a series of videos related to her NEA Opera Honor, available on YouTube, is a suitable point of departure. The videos include an endearing tribute to Stevens (www.youtube.com/watch?v=JYHUsYQcYDw), an interview with mezzo-soprano Susan Graham on Stevens (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wjx5X7nMJCo), and an extended interview with Stevens herself (www.youtube.com/watch?v=9zkmWKxlab4), which gives the viewer an excellent example of why the artist was so beloved.

Numerous audio and video recordings of Stevens as Carmen, Dalila, Octavian, and Mignon are easily available online. Each displays the beauty of her vocal tone and the integrity of her portrayal. Perhaps the most persuasive example of the culmination of what made Risë Stevens so special is found in her video of the Card Scene from Carmen (www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_ctb1e5W1U).


1 John Pennino. Risë Stevens: A Life in Music, Great Voices, Vol. 10 (Ft. Worth, TX: Baskerville Pub.), 74-5.

Dean Southern

Dean Southern, DMA, is on the voice faculties of the Cleveland Institute of Music and the American Institute of Musical Studies (AIMS) in Graz, Austria.