The García Lineage: Risë Stevens

New York Times, March 21, 2013 
Risë Stevens, Stalwart Opera Star at the Met, Dies at 99   
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 soprano sand 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.” 
Ms. Stevens spent two and a half years at Juilliard, where she continued her studies with Mlle. Schoen-René. Though Ms. Stevens had been considered a contralto, Mlle. Schoen-René discerned her true vocal register and helped lighten her voice for mezzo roles. In 1935, financed by Mlle.Schoen-René, Ms. Stevens spent the summer at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria, where her teachers included the distinguished soprano Marie Gutheil-Schoder. 
Returning to New York, Ms. Stevens entered the first Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air in the winter of 1935-36. Broadcast live on the radio, the auditions offered the winning singers one-year contracts with the Met. Ms. Stevens lost, though a few months later, when the Met asked her to sing Orfeo in Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice,” she declined. She realized, she said afterward, that she was not yet ready. 
Ms. Stevens returned to Europe, making her formal operatic debut in Prague, as Mignon, in 1936. Joining the Met in 1938, she made her first appearance with the company on Nov. 22, singing Octavian out of town in Philadelphia. On Dec. 17, she performed for the first time on the Metropolitan Opera stage in New York, singing Mignon. 
Reviewing that production in The New York Times, Olin Downes called Ms. Stevens “a new debutante of un questionable gifts, both vocal and dramatic.” He added, “It is a voice that should carry its possessor far.” 
In 1939 Ms. Stevens married Walter Surovy, a Hungarian actorwho was later her manager; they remained married until his death in 2001. Besides their son, Nicolas, a film and television actor, Ms. Stevens is survived by a granddaughter. 
In her nearly quarter-century with the Met, Ms. Stevens was most famous for Bizet’s “Carmen.” She sang the title role 124 times with the company, many of them opposite the distinguished tenor Richard Tucker as DonJosé. Over time, Ms. Stevens forsook the traditional interpretation of Carmen as a saucy temptress, playing her instead as “hard, calculating, tough and one step away from a prostitute,” as The International Dictionary of Opera said in 1993. 
Ms. Stevens retired while still in her prime. Her last performance with the Met was, fittingly, as Carmen, on April 12, 1961. In 1964 she was named, with Michael Manuel, a general manager of the new Metropolitan Opera National Company, a touring ensemble. (Lacking funds, the company folded in 1967.) Ms. Stevens was later the executive director of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Regional Auditions. 
In 1975 Ms. Stevens assumed the presidency of the Mannes College of Music, a small, prestigious conservatory in Manhattan that is today part of the New School. She helped the college overcome a potentially crippling budget deficit and recruited world-renowned musicians, including the pianist Vladimir Horowitz, to the faculty. She resigned in 1978, citing intractable differences with some members of the school’s board. 
Among Ms. Stevens’s awards are an honorary doctorate from Mannes in 1980. In 1990, she was an honoree of the Kennedy Center in Washington. 
On records, Ms. Stevens sang Hänsel in the Met’s first recording of a complete opera, Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hänsel und Gretel,” in 1947. Her many other recordings include the Kurt Weill-Ira Gershwin musical “Lady in the Dark” in 1963. She was the subject of two biographies, “Subway to the Met” (1959), by Kyle Crichton, and “Risë Stevens: A Life in Music” (2005), by John Pennino. 
In Ms. Stevens’s 351 regular appearances at the Met, her professionalism was perhaps never more apparent than it was in one of her many productions of “Samson et Dalila.” Playing the temptress Delilah, Ms. Stevens reclined on a chaise longue to sing the aria “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix,”among the most famous seductions in opera. One night, overcome with theatrical passion, Samson flung himself onto her mid-aria. 
Samson did not know his own strength. Under his considerable force, the chaise longue, on casters, began to move. Ms. Stevens sailed offstage and into the wings, still singing.

I wrote her a letter and she called me. It's as simple as that. It was March 30th, 2001. Stevens was at home, consumed with being her husband's caregiver, so didn't have the energy to meet face to face, but did want to talk about her teacher Anna E. Schoen-René. Like Judith Doniger, who I subsequently spoke with, Stevens reiterated how Schoen-René changed her life:  "I doubt that I would have gone into opera without her. I wanted to go into Broadway. Glamour! In those days, all those things were very exciting!"  

Schoen-René heard Stevens sing with the Opera Comique in New York when the latter was 17. Stevens was the understudy for a woman that was studying with Schoen-René, so her future teacher attended the performance expecting to hear someone else. Afterwards, Schoen-René sent word that she "wanted to see that girl." Stevens went to Schoen-René's apartment and told her future teacher that she could not afford lessons. Schoen-René told her not to worry about the money. She would take care of it, and did just that, obtaining a scholarship via Eleanor Steel, who was also a student, and the leading soprano with the Opera Comique. And so it began: Schoen-René told Stevens that they would work for a year and see what happened.

Stevens sang nothing but scales for that year. Very slow scales at first, "getting the chest tone into the middle had to be a smooth change." One morning she came in early, and sang difficult ones. Stevens, buckling under the pressure, said that she couldn't do them, whereupon, Schoen-René stopped the lesson and told her to leave. Stevens found herself in the hallway crying. After 10 minutes, Schoen-René let her back in with the proviso that she never, ever say the words 'I can't' again. "It was great training! She was a very strict lady."

The second year, Schoen-René allowed Stevens to sing a few select arias. Then she auditioned for the Juilliard School. "I sang the Favorita aria and Orfeo." Sembrich, Rogers and Florence Page Kimball heard her audition, the later telling Stevens she had a scholarship. This impropriety made Schoen-René think Kimball was trying to poach her student. 

Schoen-René zero'd in on problems. She also was demanding. "Things were expected of you that were incredible." She was also after quality. It had to be mellow. "She wanted you to listen, didn't like a tone that was strident, or had no vibration in it—a dead tone." There couldn't be any strain. Nor could the tongue shake or be in the way. It had to be quiet, as did the jaw. She watched Steven's face, playing scales which Steven repeated. That's how it went. Over and over and over again. 

According to Stevens, Schoen-René advocated a certain expression - a certain feeling in the face, which readers of this blog will know as the 'imposto' of Lucie Manén, an expression which Judith Doniger and Margaret Harshaw both demonstrated in this writer's presence without using Manén's term (I was present, however, when Harshaw held Manén's book in her hand and gave it her critique). However, Schoen-René would stop you the moment you made any facial contortions. She wanted everything to be 'natural'. 

'Breath' was Schoen-René's preoccupation. She had Stevens sing Bach in order to be able to sing long vocal lines, which were taxing. "You were never conscious where you were breathing. It had to be a natural phenomena with no sound whatsoever. No gasping or raising of the shoulders." She taught Stevens to breathe without raising the chest, meaning that the chest had to be open before you took a breath. Then Schoen-René would have her hold tones for as long as possible without tremolo, though she also had to have her natural vibrato. "I worked so hard on the breath, I thought I was going to burst!" 

Voice placement? She wanted a beautiful round sound and used lots of 'M's' and 'N's' to obtain it. "Oh Risé!" Schoen-René would say. "Remember what you did! That was beautiful! She knew what to do about it. She told me that Viardot had that resonance." Schoen-René was meticulous in her explanations about things; what you should do and not do. You sang toward the bridge of the nose. Everything had to be in the "mask," with Schoen-René prohibiting Stevens from using a "wide" sound as she went up the scale. "I want that covered." Schoen-René would say. "I want a more luscious sound."  

In talking with other students, Stevens learned that her teacher taught each student according to their need. Schoen-René didn't speak to her about raising the cheeks, soft palate, or an open throat. None of that.  Schoen-Rene told her that she had a natural talent. 

We only spoke once. Then I saw her a few years later at a gala given for her by the Metropolitan Opera Guild at the Time Warner Building. She appeared onstage, gracious and radiant, in a glittering gown after being introduced by her friend Van Cliburn. Both known for their beautiful tone, both are now gone. To my knowledge, Risë Stevens is the last remaining musical grandchild of Manuel García and Pauline Viardot-García. It is the end of an era.

Risë Stevens with Nelson Eddy

The National Endowments for the Arts Opera Honors interviewed Risë Stevens in 2011, which you can view below. Stevens' reflection on being President of Mannes College is especially interesting. She notes that the conservatory system, with its emphasis on scholastics, was not how she was trained. Of course, Stevens' training was of a very different nature than that of students today. She had two lessons a week with Schoen-René at Juilliard, who, as I've noted, kept her on a diet of scales for a year before assigning repertoire. This simply doesn't happen today. The conservatory system doesn't allow for it. Now, there is a graded system of repertoire that must be completed, often, at the expense of the singer's vocal technique, which is considered another cog in the wheel rather than the engine that keeps the car running. This writer, of course, wonders if the difference in training is responsible for the much-criticized homogeneous sound on today's stages.

Note April 10, 2017: The National Endowment of the Arts video link that was part of this posts' original format is no longer available.


I hoped you would write something today about your conversation with Stevens, and this is absolutely fascinating.
Thank you for your comment, William V. Madison. I knew when I read of Stevens' death that I had to tell my tale. I am so grateful for her generosity and graciousness. What a class act.
Dinko said…
May I ask one question which has been bothering me for a while. How come that out of all the people who studied with Garcia and his sister, but also with many other people of the 19th century who had connections to lineages of old bel canto, only Schoen-Rene worked as a voice teacher? Or was she simply the most productive one? There seems to have been a great number of good singers at that age, and obviously good teachers who taught them. But this skill somehow vanished...why?

Is it possible that those teachers at one point didn't teach their students to teach (Schoen-Renee included, otherwise all her students would have had students who sang equally well), who then later ended up teaching (without planning to do so) not knowing what to do or having a wrong idea of what was done to them/how they were taught? Secondly, how come this didn't happen earlier - was the skill to teach a component of singing schools in the past (pre 20th century)? One can find people on youtube who have direct bel canto lineages and claim they teach bel canto by what they were taught, and yet don't sing even closely to how their teachers sang or the singers of the older generations. Another search for gramaphone recordings can easily demonstrate this. Meaning that their teachers, despite being great singers and having great teachers and comming from bel canto lineages, couldn't teach?

What has changed at one point of vocal education what has ereased this skill which continues to become extinct and creates worse and worse opera singers every decade?
Dinko- Interesting question. Schoen-René wasn't the only Garcia pupil who taught singing and was successful. You just haven't heard of most of them. :)

One famous student is Mathilde Marchesi. Another is Julius Stockhausen. Still another is Yves Sainte Bax. I could go on. There have been quite a few American exponents of the Garcías (you are going to hear about them in due course).

Learning to teach singing, and learning to sing are two separate skills. The Garcías required that their exponents to be certified, which meant preparing 5 students to be ready for the operatic stage, as well as 5 students who had been harmed by other methods. This isn't a simple matter. You have to really know your stuff.

Bel Canto has clearly defined characteristics, which Herman Klein addressed at various times, which you can find on this blog. Decrescendo; crescendo; messa di voce; mezza voce; clear, agile & free tone; chiaroscuro etc. However, knowing what the characteristics are doesn't mean one can do them. That takes training- and it is a training.

I don't think bel canto is being lost. I believe there will always be great singers and singing. Each age, however, emphasizes somethings and deemphasizes others. In the 30's, when Schoen-René taught, florid singing was not valued. That took another 20 years to come back.
Dinko said…
Thanks for the answer. Yes, I actually heard of them, I just didn't have them in mind at the moment of asking the question, especially (the most obvious) Marchesi, sorry!

I am aware singing and teaching are separate skills, but it just seems to me that with each new generation recorded something in the "how you do it" (the singing) is lost, for the reason I'm interested in. (What doesn't change the fact the famous ones will always exist, rather the standard of fame is different) If it wasn't lost, I don't think you would have to write your blog and rediscover things in the first place nor would we enjoy the old recordings as much as we do, because they show us something we can't hear today. =) I think one can notice this very well by taking the same aria, how you took in one of your recent past posts and start with the famous singers of the early gramaphone recordings and then out of each following decade another one and end with a recent stage recording by a famous modern singer. (on average 10 singers) The diction becomes worse and worse, the trills less and less precise, the tone more and more breathy, dark or constricted, the coloratura more and more aspirated, the dynamic/color control less and less consistent/natural, the vibratos wider and wider, the focus of the tone more and more lost, the voices smaller and smaller, the breathing louder and louder and phrases shorter and shorter. And I don't hear it as a stylistic difference (such as an instrumentaly cantabile trained Marchesi student in comparison to a more talking/declamation like approach such as Peter Anders) but the underlying thing of how it is done. As an example...People sing trills today too. But it becomes incresingly hard to find modern people trill as skillfully you hear on these old recordings, especially males. For the other characteristics of bel canto, one can notice similar things, such as messa di voce.

Is it really just the lack of practise and/or todays university system? I don't know. Because something fundamental obviously wasn't given to each new generation what causes this. And it's not anatomical knowledge which they didn't even have. Rather the sound and how to 'cause' the sound to appear/develop over time. Seems to me at least. Because you can sing scales to death today as well and still not come even close to what you hear on gramaphone. The unfortunate fact being one can't describe the sound with words (despite all the old writters desperately wanting to do that and sometimes using the most unfortunate adjectives to do so) and them not having recordings, so the only way it could have been learned is by listening to the master back then and given to the new generation by demonstrating...Perhaps the right sound was 'polluted' to put it that way. The pollution of 'bel suono'. I still don't know why this happened. On the end...if one had 1 single minute with Viardot-Garcia, what question would one ask? Personally, I would ask her to sing me the first 30 seconds of her book 'An hour of study,' because the rest you can read, what you can't read being the most important. It's the only teaching tool she actually had.

But thanks again! (Sorry for the long comments, but the words of Ms. Stevens gave me a lot of thinking material, thanks for sharing what she said to you.)
Interestingly, all is not lost. As you say, we do have a wealth of recordings, though I have found that few listen to them.

Re trills: Mrs. Hart (see my post) talked about measured trills and that it took a lot of time, energy and effort to learn to do them. In the 18th, the trill was considered not merely an ornament. It's presence, and the ability of the executant to do it well, was considered a measure of freedom and flexibility of the throat.