Mezzo Risë Stevens has died aged 99

James Jolly24th Mar 2013
A live Met Carmen captures Stevens's fiery heroine in its primeA live Met Carmen captures Stevens's fiery heroine in its prime

The American mezzo Risë Stevens has died at her home in New York three months short of her 100th birthday. Stevens, born Risë Steenberg in New York City, studied at Juilliard and then in Vienna, making her professional debut as Mignon in 1936 in Prague where she met the Austrian actor Walter Surovy. He would become not just her husband but her manager: they were married for more than 60 years until his death in 2001. One of Surovy's biggest PR stunts was the publicity he attracted when he announced in 1945 that Stevens's voice was insured by Lloyd's of London for $1 million.

Stevens was celebrated for her performances as Bizet's Carmen, a role she performed at New York's Met 124 times, invariably opposite the Don José of Richard Tucker. Stevens sang an aria from Carmen in the Oscar-winning Bing Crosby musical Going my way in 1944 and a 1952 performance of Carmen was telecast from the Met to more than 30 television theatres in the US giving it, probably, the biggest audience ever for a single opera. 

Her repertoire embraced a number of trouser roles, including Orfeo in Gluck's opera, Orlovsky (Die Fledermaus), Cherubino (Le nozze di Figaro) and Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, a role for which she was greatly admired. She appeared with the Vienna State Opera company at Buenos Aires's Teatro Colón as Octavian and at Glyndebourne in the 1939 season as both Dorabella and Cherubino. 

She recorded the role of Carmen for RCA, opposite Jan Peerce, Robert Merrill and Licia Albanese, conducted by Fritz Reiner. It was an immediate hit which has not left the catalogue. On discs she can also be heard as Cherubino, Octavian, Dalila, Hansel and Orfeo (under Pierre Monteux for RCA). A live recording from the Met, also conducted by Reiner, has also been released by Sony Classical.

Her career also included television and movie appearances alongside Bing Crosby and Nelson Eddy (she appeared in The Chocolate Soldier opposite Eddy in 1941): the movie producer Louis B Mayer tried to lure her into the movies, but Stevens stuck with her first love, opera. But she acknowledged the role her film appearances played in establishing her name to a wider audience.

She said farewell to the Met in 1961 as Carmen and late in her life, Stevens became a great evangelist for opera, touring with the Met's National Company whose general manager she was, advising the Met's Young Artist Development Program and, between 1975 and 1978, she served as president of Mannes College in New York, helping to restore this prestigious music college's finances to robust health.

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