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!