From the Vaults: George Jellinek with Risë Stevens

Monday, October 18, 2010

As Bizet’s Carmen returns to the Metropolitan Opera in November, it’s instructive to look back at one of the all-time great singers who was affiliated with that role: mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens. In this 1983 appearance on The Vocal Scene, she tells George Jellinek about her unlikely rise to fame, her major roles, and some of her classic recordings.

Born Risë Steenberg in the Bronx in 1913, Stevens studied with Anna Schoen-Rene at the Juilliard School, and began working in Prague in the 1930s after being discovered by George Szell. She traveled to the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, continuing to mature and to draw increasing attention. She finally sang with the Met in one of its touring appearances in Philadelphia, as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. This led to a contract with the company, and she made her New York Met debut on December 17, 1938, as Mignon.

Stevens also made a name for herself in Hollywood, appearing in Bing Crosby's film Going My Way (1944), in which she sang the Habañera from Carmen. This led to her first actual stage performance as Carmen at the Met, in 1945. Her saucy approach to the role  allowed her to sing it there some 75 times. She debuted at Milan's La Scala in 1954.

Stevens retired from singing in 1964, though remained affiliated with the Met as director of its new Metropolitan Opera National Company and later as director of its National Council Auditions.

Courtesy of NYPR Archives

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Comments [8]

Jeffrey Shabman from Wisconsin

There are no mezzos singing today that can begin to resonate with the beauty power and hypnotizing full bodied range that God blessed in Rise Stevens. Some have come close such as Elina Garanca, Frederica von Stade, Susan Graham, and others but close doen't win the cigar.
I admire these and other singers for trying but Ms. Stevens vocally was among the gods.
She is now 99 and is still mentally sound. I wish her all the best.
One request I have in a message to the Met: please bring Thomas' Mignon back to the repertory before she is no longer with us.

Jul. 17 2012 02:59 PM
TINA CORONA from CALDWELL N.J.

I FIRST SAW CARMEN" @ THE OLD METROPOLITAN OPERA HOUSE, WHEN I WAS 13 YRS. OLD IN 1946. MY DAD TOOK ME , AS A BIRTHDAY GIFT. SUPREME... RISE WILL ALWAYS BE MY "CARMEN". EXQUISITE LADY SHE BECAME MY MENTAL-MENTOR AND I HAVE BEEN SINGING EVER SINCE..

BRAVA RISE STEVENS!

Nov. 04 2010 10:39 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from Lake Hiawatha, NJ

Recalling the ubiquitous GEORGE JELLINEK/WQXR should re-broadcast ALL his archived broadcasts. Conductors see/hear music from a different vantage point than the singers. Except for fellow Hungarian Matzenauer, he had heard my teachers in operaor concert performances. And his commentaries were consistent with what one would surmise from their teaching and their recordings, both commercial and off-air "Met" broadcasts. As he suggested, the heralds and seven foot posters for my third and fourth main hall, Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall solo concerts printed his critique.
On September 5, 1997, George spoke and played recordings at the Vocal Record Collector's Society and in June 2001 for the Jussi Bjorling Society, George moderated a panel of perforners who had partnered Bjjorling: Robert Merrill, Regina Resnik, Licia Albanese, and Lucine Amara, and his sons Anders and Lars. His scholarship and personal warmth were endearing to us as attending members.

Oct. 28 2010 04:39 PM
Linda from NYC

Always a gift when you air George Jellinek.
Thank you.

Oct. 23 2010 09:45 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from Lake Hiawatha, NJ

I had known George from the early 1970s, writing to him to both his WQXR address on 5th Avenue and his Hastings on Hudson residence regarding the techniques taught me, a heldentenor, by the "Met" Opera legends Friedrich Schorr, Margarete Matzenauer, Alexander Kipnis, Frieda Hempel, Karin Branzell, and John Brownlee.

Oct. 23 2010 05:07 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from Lake Hiawatha, NJ

IMHO there has NEVER been any singer to compare with her sexy, elegant "come hither" CARMEN, excepting the sultry Elena Garanca, who is playing the role for all its worth. Rise Stevens [Steenberg, originally] monopolized that role for generations. She projected a cunning, manipulative beauty, with a warm, rich full mezzo that vocally was the equal in timbre of even Mario del Monaco and Richard Tucker who often were her Don Joses.
In film who could forget her role in The Chocolate Soldier, especially when she sang My Hero. Her Delilah, Mignon and Octavian were peerless alhough not as much a signature role as her Carmen.
We love the singer actress siren Rise Stevens. Her admirers are legion for good reason.

Oct. 23 2010 02:45 PM
Andrea from New York, NY

My introduction to opera was Rise Stevens performing arias from Carmen on "The Voice of Firestone." I was about 7 or 8, living in Vermont, far from any opera house. My mother was a great fan of that show, and we watched every week, but all I remember ~ quite vividly~ was Rise. She captured my young imagination. Looking at her now, the reality is better than my memory. She has real charisma as well as great voice. Thanks so much for this.

Oct. 21 2010 12:03 AM
Eileen from New York, NY

I remember Rise Stevens from when I was a very small child. Although there have been many other great Carmens, for me, she was and always will be the quintessential singer for that role!

Oct. 20 2010 04:10 PM

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