Risë Stevens: A Living Legend

Risë Stevens poses with a young Gen-Y fan, New York City (2006).
Risë Stevens poses with a young Gen-Y fan, New York City (2006).
Risë Stevens as Carmen, her signature role at the Metropolitan Opera for 20+ years.
Risë Stevens as Carmen, her signature role at the Metropolitan Opera for 20+ years.
Risë Stevens (c), honorary chairperson of the 2004/05 Career Bridges award program supporting promising young opera singers at the outset of their careers.
Risë Stevens (c), honorary chairperson of the 2004/05 Career Bridges award program supporting promising young opera singers at the outset of their careers.
This past week, a living legend in the world of the arts has celebrated a birthday. When Risë Stevens was born in Bronx borough 96 years ago, New York City was very much like it is today … the largest city in the United States, with a rich ethnic diversity including many first-generation immigrants. A city of amazing contrasts, from dirt-poor neighborhoods to districts of fabulous wealth and style.

Miss Stevens’ background was typical of many. Her father was a first-generation Swedish Protestant, her mother a second-generation Russian Jew. Growing up on the tough neighborhood streets of the Bronx, the bright lights of Manhattan must have seemed a world apart rather than just a few short miles away.

In her rise to the top of the billboards at the Metropolitan Opera, Stevens would have her share of luck – the onset of World War II in Europe gave American-born soloists their best chance ever to star in the limelight. But it also took years of practice, sheer hard work and “paying her dues” on provincial stages in places as diverse as Prague and Buenos Aires. Much of those early years are recounted in her biography Subway to the Met, published in the late 1950s.

Miss Stevens’ rich mezzo-soprano voice, coupled with her highly attractive physical appearance, made her a natural for several femme fatale operatic roles such as Dalila in Saint-Saens’ Samson & Dalila, Giulietta in Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann and, most notably, the title role in Bizet’s Carmen. But early in her Met career, management seemed disinclined to cast her in this role, perhaps because several other stars were already filling the honors there. Not willing to accept this situation, Stevens did a true star turn, getting herself cast opposite Bing Crosby in the Hollywood blockbuster movie Going My Way in which, as Father O’Malley’s erstwhile neighborhood chum and now star of the opera, she sang the famous Habañera from the opera Carmen.

That seemed to do the trick, as the American public now clamored to see her sing the role. Dutifully, the Metropolitan Opera cast her as Carmen within the year, and for the next two decades, Stevens would practically own the role at the Met. (And it was as Carmen that Stevens made her last performance before retiring from the Met stage in 1961.)

The number of people who were introduced to the world of opera through Miss Stevens during the 1940s and 1950s is astonishingly large. Her compelling portrayal of Bizet’s cigar-factory worker temptress has been cited as THE defining catalyst for opera lovers in countless postings all over the web (you can read some examples here, here and here).

But beyond the limelight and the marquee board, there is another reason why Risë Stevens has been loved by so many: she has always been true to herself, and to her art. You can see that in how, despite the fact that she probably made more money starring in just three Hollywood films than she made in her entire career on the opera stage, she left Hollywood and returned to opera because it was her true love.

… You can see it by her loyalty in promoting the art of opera and her beloved Met Opera company. Even today, she remains on the board of directors of the Metropolitan Opera Guild, making her association with the company more than 70 years running.

… You can also see it in her compelling “up-from-poverty” personal story … and in her long and loving 65+ year marriage to her Viennese-born Hungarian husband, Walter Surovy.

And you can see it in the genuine interest she takes in people of all backgrounds and generations. Unlike so many stars who, once they are famous, become absolute personality horrors – full of arrogance and snobbery — Risë Stevens has never lost her connection to the “real world.” My own two daughters have carried on a correspondence with their “Miss Risë” for 15 years, who they’ve come to regard as a kind of special relative who lives far, far away and is larger than life in some respects.

From them, and from so many others: Happy Birthday, Risë … and may you celebrate many more!

Marabel Chanin: A Symbol of a City

Marabel Chanin, speaking to reporters outside her home in Detroit's North End in summer 2008.
Marabel Chanin, speaking to reporters outside her home in Detroit's North End in summer 2008.
One of the sadder stories to hit the television airwaves in recent days concerns Marabel Chanin, an elderly woman living alone in an urban “ghost” neighborhood. When Marabel, a single woman, moved to Detroit’s North End back in 1964, the area, adjacent the Palmer Park Golf Course, was a beautiful, established Detroit neighborhood graced by roomy, circa 1920s single-family homes and lush landscaping.

Moving forward some 45 years later, Marabel was the last person on her block of Robinwood Avenue, living in daily (and nightly) fear of break-ins, gunfire, or worse. Complaints to police went nowhere, so her phone call to the local Detroit Fox News affiliate TV station (WJBK’s Problem Solvers) was a last-ditch attempt to find a solution to her dilemma.

Marabel’s story, profiled by the station last summer, brought the issues of crime & grime, urban decay and danger down to the most personal level and struck a nerve with viewers across the Detroit viewing area. The story ended up on the Internet, where I viewed the news clip on YouTube while researching my blog entry on the city of Detroit’s decline. It was so moving, I felt compelled to contact WJBK-TV, hoping to hear a good end to the story.

Unfortunately, as was chronicled in a follow-up report by the station broadcast last week, there was no good end. In fact, Marabel passed away in her home right around Christmas and was discovered days later. And now, five months on, her body remains at the county morgue, claimed by no one. Because of severe budget shortfalls, there are no funds to bury her or the nearly 100 other unclaimed bodies that are being kept there.

A story like this is gripping enough on a purely personal level … but it is also powerful in a larger context. To what degree does someone like Ms. Chanin — a single person of middle-class means but without close relatives — bear the blame for allowing herself to become the last person living on her city block in a trashed neighborhood? Or are there also larger forces at work that overwhelm the ability of someone of modest means (and elderly as well) to figure out a solution and act on it?

It was the southern agrarian writer Andrew Lytle who wrote in an essay years ago about the potentially dehumanizing effects of urban living. Lytle believed people were meant to live in smaller communities, where folks know each other and look out for neighbors in need. He also warned against large-scale industrialization, arguing that economic downturns lead to massive unemployment and thus dislocation of workers, whereas people who work the land usually can get by in a bad economy.

Of course, Lytle did not anticipate the advent of “industrialized agriculture” and the effect that would have on small farmers. But when you consider the economic landscape in 2009 and its effects not only on Detroit but also communities like Elkhart, IN, Lytle’s essay suddently takes on a very contemporary significance.

And what of Marabel Chanin? WJBK-TV has established a fund to provide a burial ceremony for her — and to do the same with some of the others unclaimed at the morgue. Tax-deductible donations to the “Marabel Chanin & Friends” fund are being accepted c/o National City Bank/PNC (First National Bank Building, 660 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, MI 48226). Reportedly, community response has been strong.

Holy Smoke! Social Marketing Gets Religion

As if we needed further proof that today’s social marketing phenomenon is seeping into every corner of people’s lives … faith-based web sites are now embracing the latest social techniques full-on.

One such example is Tangle, a site that provides family-friendly content and forums with a Christian perspective. Since merging with GodTube earlier this year, Tangle has experienced rapid growth. Particularly popular is the site’s interactive “prayer wall,” a kind of cyber equivalent to Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall where members can post prayers and petitions to the Almighty.

But in a 21st century twist, other members can comment on those prayers, a kind of running commentary from the spiritual side chamber. Talk about spilling the beans! It’s certainly a far cry from the Holy Week tradition of private auricular confession to a priest.

Not all of the action is on the Christian side of the ledger, either. Our Jewish Community, a project of Cincinnati’s Congregation Beth Adam, provides information, insights and discussion points related to Passover and other Jewish holidays – complete with blog entries and Twitter feeds.

These social marketing initiatives, in combination with the proliferation of faith-based informational web sites, prove yet again that old-time faith is flourishing in new-world cyberspace. Indeed, the web has provided the most effective means yet for like-minded, smaller or geographically far-flung religious communities such as Eastern Orthodox Christians, Traditional Anglicans/Episcopalians and Sephardic Jewish communities to find themselves and nurture their shared beliefs and culture. Hey, more power to them.