Rise Stevens, Met Opera star, dies at 99

Posted By GABRIELLE LEVY, UPI.com   |   March 22, 2013 at 12:02 PM  |  Updated March 22, 2013 at 1:00 PM   |   Comments

March 22 (UPI) -- Even if you know nothing about opera, you're almost certainly familiar with "Habanera," the famous aria from Bizet's "Carmen".

L'amour est un oiseau rebelle
Que nul ne peut apprivoiser,
Et c'est bien en vain qu'on l'appelle,
S'il lui convient de refuser.

For years, the lilting, gypsaic seduction song and the character who sang it wholly belonged to Risë Stevens, the superstar mezzo-soprano whose populist career opened the world of opera to wider audiences.

Stevens died Wednesday at home in Manhattan at the age of 99, her son, Nicolas Surovy, confirmed to the New York Times.

Stevens starred at the Metropolitan Opera in New York from 1938 to 1961, rising to the rarefied stage from a humble Brooklyn background. So special was her gift that, in 1945, Lloyd's of London insured her voice for $1 million.

She starred as Carmen in 124 performances at the Met, so much that "so far as America was concerned, for the 15 years following 1945, Risë Stevens and "Carmen" were virtually synonymous."

Though she could claim the title of diva, Stevens played less highbrow roles, too. She did a production of the Rogers and Hammerstein musical "The King and I," and starred opposite Bing Crosby in the Academy Award-winning "Going My Way."

Stevens was born June 11, 1913 in the Bronx, performing as a young child on a local radio program "The Children's Hour." She spent two years studying at Julliard and made her formal opera debut in Prague in 1936 as the title character in "Mignon."

She married Walter Surovy, a Hungarian actor and her manager, and they remained together until he died in 2001.

She served as an administrator for the Met after her retirement from stage, and was briefly the president of Mannes College of Music, now part of the New School, in Manhattan.

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