Stevens (original name Steenberg) was the daughter of an advertising salesman of Norwegian Lutheran descent. Her mother, who was of Polish and Russian Jewish origin, greatly encouraged her daughter who as a young girl earned a dollar a week singing on a local radio show ‘The Children’s Hour’ and by her late teens had joined the Little Theater Opera Group based in Brooklyn, occasionally taking leading roles. Here she was heard by Anna Schoen-René, who taught voice at the Juilliard School.
Schoen-René began to teach Stevens privately and arranged for her to receive a scholarship from Juilliard. Before beginning studies here in the autumn of 1933, Stevens modelled fur coats during the summer in Manhattan’s garment district and sang on the ‘Palmolive Beauty Box Theater’ radio programme. Under Schoen-René she was able to lighten her voice, moving from contralto to mezzo-soprano; and during 1935, financed by Schoen-René, she studied singing with Marie Gutheil-Schoder and stagecraft with Herbert Graf at the Salzburg Mozarteum. After returning to the USA Stevens entered the first Metropolitan Opera ‘Auditions of the Air’ in the winter of 1935–1936 and although not a winner, was later offered the part of Orfeo /Orfeo ed Euridice (Gluck) by the Met. Realising however that she was not yet ready, Stevens did not accept.
Instead, she returned to Europe, accepting a two-year contract from George Szell to sing at the German Theatre in Prague where she made her formal operatic stage debut in the title role of Thomas’s Mignon in the autumn of 1936. While at Prague she sang Octavian / Der Rosenkavalier with the Vienna State Opera and also (in 1938) at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires. Returning to the USA, Stevens made her debut with the Met on tour in Philadelphia during November 1938 as Octavian opposite Lotte Lehmann, and a few weeks later sang Mignon with the company in New York. Local critics commented positively upon her natural ease on stage and the evenness of her well-produced voice.
In Europe once more, Stevens sang Dorabella / Così fan tutte and Cherubino / Le nozze di Figaro at the 1939 Glyndebourne Festival. She was to have sung the title role in the proposed production of Carmen at the 1940 Festival, but the outbreak of World War II prevented this.
Henceforth the focus of Stevens’s operatic career was the Met. She established herself as the company’s leading mezzo-soprano, able to command both top billing and top fees. (In 1939 she had married Walter Surovy, an Austrian actor whom she had met in Europe and who was to manage her career to good effect, for instance gaining international attention by insuring her voice for one million dollars). At the Met, in addition to Mignon and Octavian Stevens enjoyed especial success as Carmen and Gluck’s Orfeo, both of which she recorded commercially, and was a distinguished Cherubino, Dalila / Samson et Dalila, Laura / La Gioconda, Hänsel / Hänsel und Gretel, Marina / Boris Godunov, Marfa / Khovanshchina, Fricka / Der Ring des Nibelungen, Giulietta / Les Contes d’Hoffmann and Orlovsky / Die Fledermaus. She gave her farewell performance at the Met as Carmen in 1961.
In 1940 Stevens first appeared at the Chicago and San Francisco Operas; and after World War II sang Octavian at the Paris Opera in 1949 and made her debut at La Scala, Milan in 1954 as Herodias in Virgilio Mortari’s La figlia del diavolo. The following year she returned to Glyndebourne to sing Cherubino once again.
Alongside her operatic career Stevens toured extensively, crossing America annually as an extremely accomplished song recitalist. She broadcast frequently on radio and television, singing a wide range of music with great naturalness; and brought star quality, as well as glamour, to Broadway shows such as Lady in the Dark and The King and I. She also enjoyed some success in Hollywood, appearing in The Chocolate Soldier (1941) opposite Nelson Eddy and Going My Way (1944) with Bing Crosby, as well as in several later television films.
Stevens was also active in music management: between 1964 and 1966 she was director (alongside Michael Manuel) of the Metropolitan Opera National Company, designed to take Met productions to smaller venues across the USA; from 1975 to 1978 she was president of the Mannes College of Music; and from 1980 to 1988, director of the Met’s National Council Auditions.
Always a highly polished performer, Stevens could be extremely alluring on-stage. Her vocal quality was unusual in that her mezzo voice was light, warm and lyrical and extremely even across the whole range.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).