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Rise Stevens: a fond remembrance

Written by Andrew Druckenbrod on .

By Robert Croan Post-Gazette Senior Editor

The great Rise Stevens was a presence in my parents’ home for as long as I can remember. On the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, on the Voice of Firestone, on radio, television and recordings her dusky, deep mezzo-soprano was indelibly imprinted in my ears. Her sound was immediately recognizable and unmistakably her own, her personality larger than life.

Ms. Stevens died March 20, at the age of 99. I spoke with her by phone seven or eight years ago, in connection with research on her longtime colleague Ezio Pinza, and found her sharp and alert, with all her memories intact.

The first time I saw Ms. Stevens was on the cover of an Opera News magazine. It was a sexy photo in the role of Mignon, a once popular opera by Ambroise Thomas that has inexplicably disappeared from the repertory. Not long after, she appeared in a rare televised performance of Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier,” the opening night of the Met’s 1949-50 season. Living in New York through my high school and college years, I was privileged to see Ms. Stevens live at the Met from 1949 until I left 10 years later to pursue doctoral studies in Boston. In her 23 seasons at the Met, she gave 348 performances of 15 roles including 124 performances of Carmen, her signature part, which she virtually “owned” during her entire tenure. When she walked on as Carmen, there was simply no one else on the crowded stage of the old Met. I can’t think of any singers today who “own” a particular role in quite that way. Her studio recording of “Carmen” fails to capture her fire and spontaneity, but Sony Classical recently issued a live performance from 1952, that brings her artistry vividly to life. She was also outstanding in portrayals of Saint-Saens’ Dalila, Gluck’s Orfeo and Octavian in  “Der Rosenkavalier,” but her Carmen was the absolute touchstone. Check out her Habanera on YouTube.

Without exaggeration, Ms. Stevens was the most glamorous opera singer I have known in a lifetime of opera going. She was movie star gorgeous in an era when opera singers were not expected to be beautiful. She reminded me of her non-singing contemporary Rita Hayworth, a similar physical and personality type. Ms. Stevens did, in fact, appear in two Hollywood films: “The Chocolate Soldier” and “Going My Way.”

Ms.  Stevens never appeared with Pittsburgh Opera, but she gave a recital here in March 1957, and returned 10 years later as co-general manager of the Metropolitan Opera National Company, a short-lived young artists venture that predated the operatic training programs that aspiring singers now take for granted in the United States. In 1980, Ms. Stevens returned to the Met as adviser to the Young Artists Development Program and executive director of the National Council Regional auditions. She maintained an active interest in helping aspiring young singers throughout her life.

An excellent biography of this beloved artist by former Met archives staffer John Pennino (Baskerville Press) contains an invaluable CD of rare performance ranging from “Carmen” excerpts to Snow White’s “Someday My Prince Will Come.”

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