Ah yes. Dear Risë Stevens. While she had retired from the Metropolitan Opera long before I moved to New York, she was nevertheless part of my music education. Have no idea where the recording might be now, but when I was the sweetest boy soprano in town, Mrs. Nell Perry – my voice teacher who kept me on track for Sunday morning solos at church – sat me down with her recording of “Carmen.”
I had no idea what I was being exposed to, but I can tell you this: hearing those arias coming from the throat of Risë Stevens – the album was only excerpts, but the best singing I had ever heard, up to then – was a musical education in itself. And, yes, in addition to teaching me about the singing and saying a few words about vocal technique and placement and such, Mrs. Perry carefully explained the “Carmen” plot to me, thankfully not mincing words when she came to some of the more (shall we say?) delicate parts of the story for sharing with an 11-year old boy.
Although Risë Stevens retired from the Met in 1961, she was around a lot after she left the Met, and if you were even remotely interested in opera, you heard from or about her pretty often. I loved her interviews and commentary on “Opera News on the Air” and, every time I got to hear her, I remembered hearing those songs from “Carmen” when I went for my voice lesson.
And I was indeed lucky, for I had hardly been in New York more than a few years than I got called for jury duty. In those days, the system was pretty tough, and unless you were a doctor or lawyer or knew someone in the city system, you had to sit and wait (and wait – and wait) to learn if you would be called for a case. The system is much fairer now, and the waits are not so long; unless you’re on a case you’re usually in and out in just a few days. In those day, though, you were smart on the first day to look around and see if there’s anyone in the room who might be a good person to be acquainted with for the next couple of weeks.
And there she was. While I wasn’t exactly sure it was Risë Stevens, the beautiful older lady with the well-coiffed hair smiled when she saw me looking in her direction, and then she spoke. The voice was so distinctive there was no mistake. I didn’t even have a chance to smile back. She waved me over to the empty seat next to her and said, “I think we need to sit together. We’re going to need someone interesting to talk to!”
How right she was! I can’t remember how many days we sat and talked (neither of us ever got put on a case), but we had a very nice time getting to know one another. She seemed to enjoy the fact that I loved music, but she didn’t talk about herself or her career unless I specially had something to ask her, or if I indicated that there was something about the opera world that I wanted to know more about (I don’t know for sure, but I can’t help but wonder if her talk of her performances as Octavian might not have influenced me in my later love for “Der Rosenkavalier” – I do recall that when I asked her about Carmen and to tell me about other favorite roles, she liked speaking about Octavian).
It was great fun, this time with Risë Stevens, and while I couldn’t tell you now what else we talked about over those several days, what came away for me was having experienced a group of visits with just about one of the nicest ladies I had ever met. Truly remarkable, and totally unpretentious and “operatic” but nonetheless just full of love and joy in her profession and her talent. How lucky we are when we meet people like Risë Stevens!