By Merle Exit
With March being Women’s History Month, we take a look at some outstanding women in the arts, such as Risë Stevens, a long-time opera star.
Risë Stevens, born Risë Steenberg, sparked a career at the age of 10 as she sat at the piano with her father singing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.”
For more than two decades she would be known as the New York Metropolitan Opera’s leading mezzo-soprano and the only mezzo to command top billing.
Although most famous for her role in “Carmen,” she excelled in television and radio as well, singing what would be called The Great American Songbook.
And through it all, she remained a girl who grew up in Jackson Heights
Metropolitan Opera archivist John Pennino has authored a biography titled, “Risë Stevens: A Life in Music.”
Q: What prompted you to write Stevens’ biography?
JP: There are many reasons from profound admiration of the subject to total detestation, but with Risë Stevens mine was definitely the former.
I first saw her not on the stage or heard her on the radio but in an ad for Chesterfield cigarettes, when such ads were permissible. She was dressed as opera’s femme fatale, Carmen, and instantly captured the imagination of a boy still in early grade school.
None of my female relatives looked like that. It was a revelation! When my musically-inclined Italian family noticed my interest in Risë — after all, she was an opera singer — they were overjoyed that an appreciation in the arts was forming.
If Stevens could do it, then I was given her recordings, encouraged to listen to her on the radio — this was pre-television — and … best of all to be taken to see her live at the Metropolitan Opera House for a Saturday matinee performance of “Carmen.”
Q: That must have been a unique experience for you as a child. Tell us about it.
JP: Being a somewhat excitable child, I was not informed about this excursion until the morning of the matinee. As I told Risë many years later, … I still remembered much of that afternoon, but the thing that was the highlight was seeing the actual horse and carriage used on stage in the last act parked outside the stage door when the show was over. She got a big laugh out of that confession.
Q: I understand you are a native New Yorker. How about Risë’s residence and schooling?
JP: We were both native New Yorkers. She, Risë Steenberg — later Stevens for professional reasons — Bronx-born [July 11, 1923] but Queens-reared [at 31-26 88th St. in Jackson Heights] and I Manhattan [the Irish East 60s], and we were on the same “jokes” wavelength.
Risë attended PS 127 in East Elmhurst and at only 14 years of age was appearing on the radio show “Children’s Hour.” When she graduated she was enrolled in Newtown High School because of its superior music department and graduated in 1930. The Juilliard School of Music in which she enrolled in 1933 provided her with the foundation on which to develop into the consummate artist she became.
Q: At some point you got to know her and met her husband as well.
JP: I had the privilege of getting to know this multi-talented woman when she had already put away the many professional hats she wore. The reason was my decision to write a biography which she agreed to.
Her husband, Walter Surovy, was still living at the time and offered many valuable contributions to the retelling of their over 50 years of life together. When they first met in Prague, where he was an established actor and she a fledgling singer, it did not take long for the Prague audiences to take to her, and from that point it was on to the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, The Metropolitan Opera in New York, Glyndebourne, England, The Paris Opera, La Scala, Milan, among others.
She established herself as a widely traveled recitalist and concert artist, a popular vocalist on radio shows — “The Family Hour,” “The Railroad Hour,” only two of the ones that featured her — television recordings, but it was Hollywood that gave her lasting fame.
In 1944, she appeared in “Going My Way” with Bing Crosby, which is still shown today on television.
Q: When did Risë’s performing career come to an end? What did she do afterward?
JP: When her performing career came to an end in 1965, she did not retire but changed the outlets for her extraordinary ability to reinvent herself. From stage performer she became co-director of the Metropolitan Opera’s National Co. from 1965-67, a member of the Metropolitan Opera Board from 1975 until her death at 99 years of age in 2013, president of the Mannes School of Music from 1975-78 and subsequently from 1980-88 she was adviser on young artist development and executive director of regional auditions for the Metropolitan Opera.
She was associated with the Metropolitan Opera from her debut in 1938-2013 as an honorary director.
Q: Anything you want to add?
JP: Yes. As I wrote in “Risë Stevens: A Life in Music,” “The nature of the times forced her to forge a career in America since the war prevented continuing European and South American appearances. After the war she had too big a career in radio and touring at home to consider picking up the foreign operatic thread to any great extent.”
It was only fitting that in 1990, she was awarded a Kennedy Medal of Honor.