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Rise Stevens: Opera star charted own career course

| Thursday, March 21, 2013, 6:33 p.m.

NEW YORK — Mezzo-soprano opera star Rise Stevens, who sang with the Metropolitan Opera for more than 20 years spanning the 1940s and 1950s, has died. She was 99.

Stevens passed away Wednesday night in her Manhattan home, said her son, Nicolas Surovy.

Stevens started singing with the Met in 1938, on tour in Philadelphia. Among her greatest roles was the title character in the opera “Carmen,” which she sang for 124 performances.

The Met called her “a consummate artist, treasured colleague and devoted supporter of the company for 75 years.”

Stevens knew that the soaring notes and huge themes of opera “was her medium,” Surovy said. “She knew it, felt it, lived it.”

Always one to chart her own way, Stevens turned down an early chance to sing at New York's Metropolitan Opera when she felt she needed more study in Europe. She turned her back on Hollywood in the 1940s after roles in two successful films because she loved opera so much. And in 1961, she retired from performing opera, saying she wanted to bow out when she still had a great voice.

Although she largely left performing behind, she remained active behind the scenes as an administrator of a touring opera company and as an educator, helping to foster the growth of opera across the country and the rise of singers trained in the United States.

In 1990, she was chosen for the Kennedy Center Honors, hailed as a singer “who raised the art of opera in this country to its highest level.”

Her earthy portrayal of Carmen brought her particular acclaim in the early '50s, spotlighting her acting as well as her singing.

In those pre-PBS days, she made history of a sort in 1952 when her “Carmen” was seen coast to coast — telecast from the Met to more than 30 “television theaters.” It was believed to be the largest audience ever to see a single opera performance.

Among her other celebrated roles were Octavian in “Der Rosenkavalier,” Orfeo in “Orfeo ed Euridice,” Orlovsky in “Die Fledermaus,” Cherubino in “The Marriage of Figaro” and Dalila in “Samson et Dalila.”

Her brief Hollywood career began in 1941 opposite Nelson Eddy in “The Chocolate Soldier.” (“He really could have had an operatic career, but he just made too much money, too soft and too easy,” she recalled.)

The success of “The Chocolate Soldier” led to a role in the 1944 Bing Crosby smash “Going My Way,” which won several Academy Awards, including best picture.

“I probably would never have reached that vast public had I not done films,” she said. “At least, I won a lot of people over to opera.”

She was born Rise Steenberg in New York City; her unusual first name, pronounced REE'-zah, came from her Norwegian forebears.

A leading voice teacher, Anna Schoen-Rene, heard her in a little theater opera production when she was 16, and that led to scholarship study in the Juilliard School, and later, study in Europe.

She made her professional opera debut in Prague, and it was there she met her husband of more than a half-century, actor Walter Surovy. Nicolas Surovy was their only child.

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