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Mezzo-Soprano Risë Stevens, a 1936 Alumna, Is Dead at 99

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Alumna Risë Stevens, a longtime Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano who subsequently made a career of helping young singers, died on March 22, less than three months before her 100th birthday. Her husband, Walter Surovy, a Hungarian actor whom she married in 1939, and who later managed her career, died in 2001. She is survived by her son, Nicolas Surovy (Group 3), and a granddaughter.

Risë Stevens

Risë Stevens had the title role in Juilliard’s production of Orpheus (above). A New York Times review on January 31, 1935, called her performance “creditable and graceful” and said she “towered above the rest of the cast in singing and dramatic ability.”

(Photo by Vandamm Studio)

Risë Stevens as Cornelia Bayard in the world premiere of Robert Russell Bennett's Maria Malibran at Juilliard, April 8-11, 1935

(Photo by Benedict Frenkel)

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Born Risë Steenberg—she adopted the last name Stevens as a teenager—she grew up in the Bronx and later Queens and starting singing professionally at the age of 10, when her mother took her to Manhattan to perform on a children’s radio show. Her mother also persuaded one of the show’s music teachers to take on her daughter as a pupil free of charge, which was the young singer’s first formal training. At 16, Risë had joined the Little Theater Opera Company in Brooklyn as a member of the ballet and chorus, and one day the head of the Juilliard voice department, Anna Schoen-René (faculty 1925-42) was in the audience. She offered to teach the girl, who said she was interested in Broadway, not opera. But Mrs. Steenberg intervened and Schoen-René ended up teaching her privately for the year before Stevens was admitted to Juilliard on a scholarship; she studied here from 1933 to 1936. 

At Juilliard, Stevens sang Dryad in the New York premiere (and second U.S. performance) of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, the title role in Gluck’s Orpheus, and Cornelia Bayard in the world premiere of Robert Russell Bennett’s Maria Malibran. She made her formal operatic debut in 1936, as Mignon, in Prague, where she also met her future husband.

Stevens’s Metropolitan Opera career began in 1938, when she sang Octavian with the company in November and Mignon in December; the latter was her first performance on the company’s stage. She would sing with the company 384 times in 15 roles over the next 23 years. Her signature role was Carmen; she sang it 124 times at the Met and it was her final role with the company, in April 1961. 

In addition to the Met, Stevens sang regularly with the world’s leading opera companies and was a popular recitalist. She was also able to indulge her original preference for popular music. In 1964, she starred in The King and I, the inaugural production of the short-lived Music Theater of Lincoln Center. Stevens was also in a number of movies including The Chocolate Soldier (1940) with Nelson Eddy and Going My Way (1944) with Bing Crosby, and she appeared frequently on The Ed Sullivan and Tonight shows as well as in various televised operas and operettas. She also made numerous recordings.

Shortly after her retirement from the Met, Stevens had a historic role in a labor rift between the Met and the musicians’ union. As the dispute dragged on, threatening to cancel the season, Stevens telegraphed President John F. Kennedy asking him to intervene, which he did: he sent Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg to mediate and the 1961-62 season was saved. 

Stevens’s second career mentoring young artists began three years later, when she was named co-general manager of the Metropolitan Opera National Company, a new touring group that was eventually shut down for budgetary reasons. In 1975, Stevens was about to join the Juilliard faculty when she was asked to become the president of the Mannes College of Music, as it was then known. The school was in dire financial trouble, but a shutdown was averted after Stevens oversaw an emergency fund-raising drive that brought in $183,000. Among the high-profile actions Stevens took to help the school was convincing Vladimir Horowitz, famously uninterested in taking on private students, to join the faculty, which he did without pay. Stevens’s time at Mannes ended up being short. In 1978, she announced that she would be leaving at the end of the school year, citing irreconcilable differences with the board, several of whose members were subsequently removed by the state board of regents. Mannes gave Stevens an honorary doctorate in 1980. In 2011, when she was 98, she received opera honors from the National Endowment of the Arts, as did composer and former Juilliard faculty member Robert Ward.

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