Rise Stevens Dies at 99

Rise Stevens 1952 recording of Carmen.(Photo: Capital Public Radio)
Rise Stevens 1952 recording of Carmen.(Photo: Capital Public Radio)

My memories of a Catholic boyhood include being marched into the gym at Sacred Heart Parish twice a year to watch two movies, The Song of Bernadette and Going My Way.

The first of these had apparitions appearing on rocks and a lot of off-screen singing of AH! with plenty of harp. Going My Way was showbiz. Nice guy singing priest comes to a Brooklyn parish shepherded by a dottering old Monsignor. Add a glamorous opera star and you have the Academy Award Winner for Best Picture, 1944. The old Monsignor was played by Barry Fitzgerald, typed by Hollywood as, well, dottering old priest. He was in fact a founder of the Abbey Theater and had manned the barricades in the Easter Rebellion. Bing Crosby played the singing priest.

Rise Stevens played the glamorous opera star. She was a glamorous opera star.

Ask your grandparents. She was a nice girl from the Bronx, half Jewish half Norwegian (Rise Steenberg). She was good-looking and smart. Her voice was fine, not spectacular. Her personality and her drive were.

She sang in Europe, just missing the outbreak of World War II. She found a home at the Metropolitan Opera from 1939-1961. Then she went to Broadway and on to arts administration. She was on the Met Board of Directors up until her death two days ago at age 99. Last year she gave a pithy television interview after receiving the National Medal of Arts from President Obama.

The opera Carmen, box office gold, was never performed in her day without Stevens in the title role. Audiences wouldn’t go for it. She owned the role. Her 1952 recording with Fritz Reiner has never been out of print. She sang in the first televised operas. Here she is as Carmen on the DuMont Network in 1953.

Newspapers today have notice of her death on page one. Yes, below the fold, but not bad for an opera singer who stopped singing 50 years ago.

I knew her as a Park Avenue lady in a Chanel suit with perfect hair. Her’s was a regal manner that morphed into “How ya doin’, honey?” after a few seconds. She became a star through talent, ambition and hard work. I’m sure she had plans for her 100th birthday. I’ll spend it listening to her records.