Opera Singer. A mezzo soprano who sang leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere, she shall probably be best remembered as the title ‘cigarette girl’ of Georges Bizet’s “Carmen”. Born Rise Steenberg, she was raised in New York and after gaining experience singing on “The Children’s Hour” and at the Little Theatre Opera of Brooklyn studied for three years at Juilliard with the legendary Anne Schoen-Rene, a protégé of the great Johannes Brahms, while supporting herself as a fur coat model in the Garment District. Traveling to Europe, she trained at the Salzburg Mozarteum and while in Paris was spotted by Maestro George Szell and signed for Prague where she made her 1935 bow as the title lead of Ambrose Thomas’ “Mignon”. Rise earned praise at the Vienna State Opera (VSO) but in 1938 returned home with her new husband, Hungarian actor Walter Surovy (or Szurovy) who was to become her manager, and on December 17th of that year made her Metropolitan Opera debut in a Philadelphia performance of “Mignon”. First heard at the venerable opera house on 39th Street three days later in the trouser role of Octavian from Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier”, she quickly became a valuable member of the company where she was eventually to appear 348 times. Over the next two decades she was to be seen as Cherubino from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro”, as Prince Orlovsky in Johann Strauss II’s “Die Fledermaus”, as the seductress Delilah from Saint-Saens “Samson et Delilah”, and even in her early days as two Wagnerian characters, Erda of “Das Rheingold” and Fricka in “Die Walkure”, though her signature piece was to be Carmen, a role she sang first on December 28, 1945, and eventually assumed 124 times. Rise’s looks and voice were noticed in Hollywood leading to her 1941 silver screen debut as Maria Lanyi in “The Chocolate Soldier” and to her 1944 performance as Bing Crosby’s friend Genevieve Linden in Paramount’s multi Oscar winning “Going My Way”. With the coming of television Rise became a frequent guest on the small screen where she was seen on the Voice of Firestone, the Ed Sullivan Show, the Tonight Show, and similar fare of the time. In 1955 she assumed the role of Orfeo in Gluck’s “Orfeo e Euridice”, a part which she considered perhaps her favorite though she only sang it 10 times. Still young and in perfect voice, Rise retired following an April 12, 1961, performance of “Carmen”; in 1964 she was a hit on Broadway as Anna of “The King and I” and voiced Glinda the Good Witch for 1974’s “Journey Back to Oz”. President of the Mannes College of Music from 1975 until 1978, she headed the Metropolitan’s Young Artist Development Program between 1980 and 1988. The subject of two biographies, Kyle Crichton’s “Subway to the Met” (1959) and John Pennino’s 1999 “Rise Stevens: A Life in Music”, she received the 1977 University of Pennsylvania Glee Club Award and was bestowed Kennedy Center Honors in 1990. Rise lived out her days in Manhattan and died at her home of the infirmities of advanced age. At her demise much of her large recorded legacy remained available including many archived Met broadcasts, complete preservations of “Carmen” and “The Marriage of Figaro”, and a large excerpt of “Samson et Delilah” conducted by Leopold Stokowski. (bio by: Bob Hufford)
Rise Stevens in Milan, Italy, in 1954. Stevens sang with the Metropolitan Opera
I have many visual memories of Stevens in that performance, but few vocal ones. Guthrie set last act in Escamillo’s dressing room at the bullfight stadium, and when Don Jose, who had gained entry, got angry and tried to prevent Carmen from leaving, she vigorously clutched the heavy drapery in her desperation and the drapes fell to the floor in a loud thud. It is amazing that fifty years later certain rather trivial details remain in one’s memory.
Article and photos Charles Mintzer
Photo Courtesy of cantabile – subito