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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Time Machine: When an opera star came to Iowa
Rise Stevens brought her voice and elegance to the state in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s
Iowans had several chances to hear international opera star Rise — pronounced “ree-suh” — Stevens in the 1940s through 1960s.
Stevens, who was born in New York City in 1913, began performing on a children’s radio program when she was 10. Noted voice teacher Anna Schoen-Rene spotted her talent, and Stevens was off to the Juilliard School of Music.
Stevens was offered a contract with the Metropolitan Opera but declined it, saying she did not have enough operatic experience. Instead, she went to Europe to study and perform.
She debuted at the Met in 1938, starring in the opera “Mignon.” She became known for her version of “Carmen,” which was recorded and became a bestseller.
Stevens’ career included roles in several movies, including “The Chocolate Soldier” with Nelson Eddy and “Going My Way” with Bing Crosby.
In 1939, she married Austrian actor Walter Surovy, who insured his wife’s voice for $ 1million through Lloyd’s of London. They had one son, who became an actor and producer.
When Stevens sang to a sold-out Paramount Theatre audience in Cedar Rapids on Oct. 28, 1946, the concert was reviewed by Marvin Cone’s daughter, Doris.
“When Rise Stevens walked on the stage of the Paramount theater Monday night, she brought with her not only a beautiful voice but also a charming personality,” Cone wrote. “Miss Stevens’ keen sense of humor had its chance in several lighter numbers.”
In December 1948, Robert Swaney, an 18-year-old Franklin High School student from Cedar Rapids, and two other teens were invited to a “Weekend with Music” in a New York Philharmonic TV special for CBS. They had tea with Stevens.
The Wartburg College Artist Series hosted Stevens in Waverly in November 1950 in the college gymnasium, and she was guest soloist with the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra in the Sioux City Auditorium in March 1955.
After touring in the Soviet Union in 1959, Stevens returned to the U.S. to tour in 1960.
An appearance in Omaha was followed by one in Ottumwa in south-central Iowa, when she filled in for ailing soprano Eileen Farrell on Oct. 14. The audience was not disappointed.
“Seldom does one hear an artist who possesses the ability to sing in three repertoires — soprano, mezzo-soprano and contralto — and equally well in each, and to pass from one to the other with such ease and flexibility of voice,” the Ottumwa Courier reviewer wrote.
Stevens was booked for concerts in Fairfield in March 1962 and Mason City in 1963.
New job, C.R. stop
Stevens shifted gears in October 1964, becoming co-general manager of the new Metropolitan National Opera Co.
“I’ll do some concerts, but I just don’t have time to sing opera, too,” she said. “After all, I’ve had 25 years of that. I had a beautiful career, and I say that in the past tense. I don’t feel that I’ve been cheated of any of the graces.”
Beginning in 1965, the opera company was scheduled for a 36-week season of 320 performances in 70 American cities, according to the Associated Press.
Before that season began, though, Stevens agreed to sing April 26 with the Cedar Rapids Symphony at Coe College.
Stevens arrived two days before the concert to visit with symphony Conductor Henry Denecke and his wife, who were friends of hers.
She said her “big goal” was to make the Metropolitan National Opera’s upcoming season a success, adding that Mary Beth Peil, from near Des Moines, was in the company and had “a very beautiful voice.”
Gazette reviewer Les Zacheis said Stevens was “the picture of assured elegance, a vision of poised and polished equanimity. Truly, there is no substitute for class. She would have won her audience without singing a note. Her songs were well chosen, simple but beautiful.”
The concert’s most popular selection was Stevens singing “Getting To Know You” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I.”
The post-concert reception at the Roosevelt Hotel featured musical-note ice sculptures.
When Stevens launched the new national opera company at a State Department function in May, she said she hoped the company would “arrest the flow of American talent to Europe. … There’s enormous natural talent in the country.”
The Metropolitan Opera National Co. concluded its 246th performance in Kansas City in 1967 with the announcement by Stevens and her co-director that the company was folding because of financial problems.
“With this performance, another noble experiment in establishing lyric theater in the United States on a national scale passes into history,” music critic John Haskins stated.
Stevens moved on to rescue the Mannes College of Music in New York and become executive director of the Metropolitan Opera National Council. She was honored at the Kennedy Center in 1990.
When Stevens died in Manhattan in 2013, at age 99, the Met said she was “a consummate artist, treasured colleague and devoted supporter of the company for 75 years.”