Rise Stevens, longtime opera star, dies at 99

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Mezzo-soprano opera star Rise Stevens, who sang with the Metropolitan Opera for more than 20 years spanning the 1940s and '50s, has died. She was 99.

Stevens died Wednesday night at her Manhattan home, said her son, Nicolas Surovy.

Stevens started singing with the Met in 1938, on tour in Philadelphia. Among her greatest roles was the title character in the opera "Carmen," which she sang for 124 performances.

The Met called her "a consummate artist, treasured colleague, and devoted supporter of the company for 75 years."

Stevens knew that the soaring notes and huge themes of opera "was her medium," Surovy said. "She knew it, felt it, lived it."

Always one to chart her own way, Stevens turned down an early chance to sing at New York's Metropolitan Opera when she felt she needed more study in Europe. She turned her back on Hollywood in the 1940s after roles in two successful films because she loved opera so. And in 1961, she retired from performing opera, saying she wanted to bow out when she still had a great voice.

"It always bothered me, these great singers when I heard them again and again, remembering how magnificent they sounded once and no more," she said.

While she largely left performing behind, she remained active behind the scenes as an administrator of a touring opera company and as an educator, helping to foster the growth of opera across the country and the rise of singers trained in the United States.

"While I was a young singer, people always talked to us about a golden age of opera," she said in 1990. "Now they tell me that I was part of a golden age. It's all a little ridiculous. We are actually living in a golden age right now, an age of great American voices."

That was the year she was chosen for the Kennedy Center Honors, hailed as a singer "who raised the art of opera in this country to its highest level."

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Her earthy portrayal of Carmen brought her particular acclaim in the early '50s, spotlighting her acting as well as her singing.

She recalled that director Tyrone Guthrie "told me, think of your body and nothing else, from the top of your head to your feet."

In those pre-PBS days, she made history of a sort in 1952 when her "Carmen" was seen coast to coast -- telecast from the Met to more than 30 "television theaters." It was believed to be the largest audience ever to see a single opera performance.

Her brief Hollywood career included "The Chocolate Soldier" and a role in the 1944 Bing Crosby smash "Going My Way," which won several Academy Awards, including best picture.

"I probably would never have reached that vast public had I not done films," she said. "At least, I won a lot of people over to opera."

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