As a child, my image of an opera singer was forged by television viewings in Hawaii of two films, “Going My Way” and “The Chocolate Soldier,” both featuring glamorous, claret-voiced mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens. Stevens was a 1990 Kennedy Center honoree for bringing opera to the American public her entire career, and saving the Met 1961-62 season. The company had cancelled performances due to stalled labor negotiations, but a telegram from Stevens to President John F. Kennedy resulted in his ordering the secretary of labor to arbitrate, and the season was reinstated on schedule.
The Bronx-born singer, now 92, was honored by the Metropolitan Opera Guild on January 9 at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. Anna Moffo, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Rudy Giuliani, and Patrice Munsel spoke warmly. Mezzo Jennifer Larmore and pianist Van Cliburn hosted the gala affair, distinguished by live television footage of Stevens’ performances. Many of these appearances were for “The Voice of Firestone,” and Van Cliburn campily sang the overripe theme song, “If I Could Tell You,” penned by Idabelle, wife of magnate Harvey Firestone, which all guest stars were required to warble at the start of every show.
Two things were manifestly apparent from the performance clips— Stevens’ flawlessly clear diction, in whatever language she sang, and the fact that she had the best figure in opera. And, for all the hoo-ha about Callas first bringing real acting to the operatic stage, one has only to view the footage of Stevens’ legendary Tyrone Guthrie-directed 1952 “Carmen” to see what kind of Method she brought to the Met. Stevens was the definitive gypsy wanton, the best, they said, since Conchita Supervia, and her performance has it all— fire, ice, and that impossible balance between elegance and sluttiness. Her technique is superb—licking her fingers before extinguishing the candles in what will be her death chamber, then flicking off the wax; flinging her unwanted lover’s ring at him, spitting out a contemptuous “Tiens!” with a tigerish Richard Tucker amping up the passion, the final scene has a raw power to it that I’ve never seen in any other “Carmen,” and Stevens’ death has a pathetic ugliness, underlined by Guthrie’s touch of drama as she drags down a crimson curtain about her.
Jennifer Larmore enthused, “Risë paved the way for mezzo sopranos to have glamorous careers in opera. Before her, we were always some mother or aunt character, but after Risë, we were able to come into the forefront. Plus, she is seriously one of the nicest people I have ever met, which is rare in our profession, and you can quote me on that.”
Larmore’s upcoming schedule is filled with recitals and master classes, which she loves doing, “as well as a ’Sesto,’ in Tenerife. They love me in Spain, for some reason. My dream role is Octavian [in ‘Der Rosenkavalier’], which I sing pretty well and would love to do, and I loved doing ‘Carmen’ with Placido Domingo in D.C. As far as doing it at the Met, I would love to, but they like to put me in a box, limiting me to Rossini and bel canto roles. Hopefully, with the new management, things may change.”
Lucine Amara, who, at 80, sounds better than sopranos half her age, often shared the Met stage with Stevens, and said, “She was great to work with, but her voice teacher would come to the dressing room and Risë would sing through each act with her. I said, ‘Why don’t you save some of that for the stage? Don’t leave it all in the dressing room!’ But that’s a very mezzo thing. They all do that. Once I had to step in for Martina Arroyo in ‘Il Trovatore,’ with Grace Bumbry as Azucena. We shared a dressing room and, while I was trying to remember [the aria] ‘Tacea la notte,’ there was Bumbry, going over and over her aria, ‘Stride la vampa.’ I was afraid I’d end up singing that, instead, so I said to her, ‘Miss Bumbry, there’s another dressing room down the hall. Would you mind using that one?’ She said, ‘This is my dressing room. Why don’t you go there?’ Being considerate of a colleague was not her forte.”
Definitely in the Stevens’ tradition of artistry and personality-plus, soprano Deborah Voigt’s appearance was a highlight of The New York Times Arts & Leisure Weekend. This ultimate Manhattan event only gets better, and, along with the plethora of artists, at its CUNY location it featured a swank Level Lounge, where you could grab a free Cosmo between cultural immersions.
Voigt’s Times Talk on January 6 revealed the singer in all her charismatic good humor and newly svelte form, thrilled to get Paul Newman’s autograph at his concurrent DVD signing. She underwent a gastric bypass more, she said, for health reasons, than vanity, although there was no getting around the infamous incident of her being fired by Covent Garden because casting director Peter Katona deemed her too fat for “Ariadne auf Naxos.” “It pissed me off no end,” she said, but added that her time off from that opera was when she had the operation and the full fee she was reimbursed actually financed it.
Sweet revenge was hers when, subsequently singing an “Ariadne” in Europe, she was given her costume and, baffled by its lengthy dimensions, asked which surprisingly tall singer it had originally belonged to— “They told me, Anne Schwanewilms, who was the singer who replaced me at Covent Garden. And they had to take the costume in!”
Voigt decried the prejudice singers often face, noting how, in vocal competitions she has judged, gorgeous voices get passed over because of body weight or a shabby dress. “They say that nobody believes a tenor being in love with someone like her. Why the hell not? Why would you assume that? I’ve always had a boyfriend, and had a husband. Now, being 125 pounds lighter, it is actually proving to be more difficult getting a date than it should.”
Voigt will sing her first Met “Tosca” in May, and recalled being directed by Renata Scotto in the role for Florida Grand Opera in 2001— “I looked at the set— 25 stairs and this little ledge I was to jump off of in the last scene and said, ‘There’s no way.’ Scotto said, ‘You wanted to sing Tosca. You have to jump!’ She told me to calm down, took off her shoes, said, ‘It’s nothing––look,’ and did the jump like a 20-year-old. She basically shamed me into it. At the dress rehearsal, I landed face down in this foam rubber bed. I was completely made up, so the imprint of my face was in the foam like ‘The Shroud of Tosca,’ and the stagehands cut it out and framed it.”
Voigt’s “60 Minutes” profile was bumped on Thanksgiving due to a “bigger story,” but she still hopes it will air. So do we, if only for the footage of her singing at Village gay bar, The Monster. “I go there, even without a camera crew,” she said. “You sit around the piano, drinking martinis and singing show tunes with a lot of guys. What’s not to like?”
Up next for Voigt—singing her beloved Broadway songs and standards for the American Songbook series January 25 at Time Warner’s Allen Hall, and her first Salome for Chicago Opera. You read it here first!
Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com.