Sunday, March 20, 2011

Rise Stevens - American Mezzo Soprano

I first heard Rise Stevens in "Going My Way" alongside costars Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald. 

Rise Stevens was the Met's leading mezzo from 1938 to 1961.
To begin with, her voice is simply gorgeous; her chiaroscuro is beautifully balanced, and her vocal control is fantastic (though a mezzo, she performs acrobatics one would expect from a great lyric soprano). There is also a rare natural intensity to her sound. Her Carmen ranks among the very best; contemporary reviewers described it as "earthy," "alluring," and "sublime." I prefer it to any other I have heard.

Her name is probably unknown to most of you. She is possibly the only major singer left from the glorious days of the Old Met.

She was born in New York City on 11 June 1913. From her debut at the Met in 193, until her retirement as a singer in 1961, she was not only the Met’s leading mezzo (virtually owning the roles of Carmen and Octavian), she was a superstar, appearing in opera, films, and in advertisements.

Here’s her biography from the Kennedy Center website; she was an honoree in 1990 for her “Lifetime Contributions to American Culture through the Performing Arts:”

“Mezzo-soprano Rise Stevens saved not only the day at more of than one performance of the Metropolitan Opera–in 1961 she saved the entire season. After the company had canceled its entire 1961-62 schedule due to stalled labor negotiations, a persuasive telegram from Rise Stevens convinced President Kennedy to intervene, and he ordered the Secretary of Labor to arbitrate the dispute. Just three weeks later, the entire season was reinstated on schedule. President Kennedy and the nation had been devoted fans of the Met’s reigning mezzo for almost a quarter of a century.

A pupil of Anna Schoen-Rane at the Julliard School, Stevens showed her famous independence and good judgement early on when she tuned down a tempting contract offer from the Met in the mid-30s in favor of developing her artistry in Europe. She returned to this country in 1938, making her debut with the Met on tour in Philadelphia as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. Later that same year, she made her New York Met debut as Mignon. From then until her retirement in 1961, she virtually owned many of the great mezzo roles, including Orpheus, Mozart’s Cherubino and Dorabella, Delilah of Biblical fame, La Giocanda’s Laura, and Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus. Her Carmen, a role she performed more often that any of her Met predecessors, was described as voluptuous, earthy, and white-hot in her alternating moods of passion and anger. Millions more fell in love with Stevens through her frequent radio appearances and the films The Chocolate Soldier with Nelson Eddy and Going My Way with Bing Crosby.

After her 1961 retirement from the Met as a performer, Stevens assumed several important roles in developing the future of opera in this country. She was named director of the Met’s brand new National Company, which was dedicated to taking opera to hundreds of American cities where opera was not available and to giving many young singers–and designers, conductors, and directors–their first chance at professional opera performances. She also served as president of the Mannes College of Music (1975-78) and rejoined the Met to direct its National Council Auditions from 1980 to 1988. For her numerous activities “in the discovery, training, and championing of young American singers,” Stevens was honored by the National Opera Institute in 1982.”

My bet is that those who remember her at her peak will find it hard to believe that she’s not better known today. For those of us who came after, the magnitude of her career can only be guessed at by examining the historical record. Her early career would be exceptional today; it was virtually unheard of in the 1930s. And there aren’t many opera singers today who appear in advertisements or Oscar-winning films.

I believe she’s the subject of one of my favorite “singer stories.” A reviewer of one of her early Met Octavians criticized her for her “faulty” German accent. Soon after, Ms. Stevens is reported to have met the reviewer in question, and began to speak to him in fluent German. He said “Pardon me, Miss Stevens, but I don’t speak German.” She reputedly said “You don’t? But I DO!”

Here she is in an excerpt from “Going My Way”, the highest-grossing film of 1944, winner of Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Story, Best Supporting Actor, Best Song, nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing. It’s also the only movie where an actor (Barry Fitzgerald) was nominated for BOTH Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for the SAME role. (He won Best Supporting!)

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