Risë Stevens, the internationally renowned mezzo-soprano who had a 23-year career with the Metropolitan Opera, where she practically owned the role of Carmen during the 1940s and ’50s, died on Wednesday at her home in Manhattan. She was 99.
Her son, Nicolas Surovy, confirmed the death.
On the Met’s roster from 1938 to 1961, Ms. Stevens was a superstar in an era when operatic superstardom was conferred mostly on sopranos and tenors. A Bronx native from a modest background, she was widely admired as a populist who help democratize the rarefied world of opera. She was known to a large public not only through her recordings and recitals, but also through her appearances on radio and television and in motion pictures.
After retiring from the stage, Ms. Stevens had a prominent second career as an arts administrator with the Met and as president of the Mannes College of Music in New York City.
As a singer, Ms. Stevens was known for her acute musicianship, her expansive repertory, her accomplished acting and, in particular, her warm, velvety voice. (In 1945, Lloyd’s of London insured her voice for $1 million.) Though she occasionally sang Wagnerian roles early in her career, she soon abandoned them in favor of the less heavy, though no less rich, parts to which her voice was ideally suited.
Besides Carmen, her best-known roles included Octavian in “Der Rosenkavalier,” by Richard Strauss; Dalila in “Samson et Dalila,” by Camille Saint-Saëns; Cherubino in Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro”; Prince Orlofsky in “Die Fledermaus,” by Johann Strauss; and the title role in “Mignon,” by Ambroise Thomas.
Ms. Stevens appeared regularly with leading opera companies around the world, among them the Glyndebourne Festival Opera in England and La Scala in Milan. In Hollywood, she sang in “The Chocolate Soldier” (1941), with Nelson Eddy, and in “Going My Way” (1944), with Bing Crosby; she also supplied the voice of Glinda in the animated film “Journey Back to Oz” (1974). On television, she appeared often on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show.”
Despite her acclaim, Ms. Stevens was by all accounts a down-to-earth diva, as comfortable singing Broadway musicals — as she did in a 1964 production of “The King and I,” by Rodgers and Hammerstein, at Lincoln Center — as she was singing Bizet. As the magazine Opera News wrote in 2006, Ms. Stevens “was perhaps one of the sanest big opera stars of her time.”
The daughter of a Norwegian-born father and an American Jewish mother, Risë Gus Steenberg was born in the Bronx on June 11, 1913, and reared in a railroad apartment there. (Her given name is pronounced REE-suh; her middle name was after an aunt, Augusta.) Her father, Christian Steenberg, was an advertising salesman and by all accounts a heavy drinker. Her mother, the former Sadie Mechanic, recognized Risë’s vocal talent early and was an enthusiastic steward of her youthful career.
As a girl, Risë earned a dollar a week singing on “The Children’s Hour,” a Sunday-morning program on the local radio station WJZ. (The program’s host was Milton Cross, who later became famous as the voice of the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday-afternoon radio broadcasts.) She took the professional name Risë Stevens as a teenager.
When Risë was 14, the family moved to the Jackson Heights section of Queens. By the time she was 18, she was appearing regularly, sometimes in leading roles, with the Little Theater Opera Company, a Brooklyn troupe. (The company was later known as the New York Opéra-Comique.) In the audience one night was Anna Schoen-René, a well-known voice teacher on the faculty of the Juilliard School. She began teaching Ms. Stevens privately, and arranged for her to attend Juilliard on a scholarship, starting in the fall of 1933.
The summer before her scholarship took effect, Ms. Stevens helped support herself and her family by working in the garment district of Manhattan as a fur-coat model, an unenviable job in the days before widespread air conditioning. She later earned money singing on the radio show “Palmolive Beauty Box Theater.”