Risë Stevens, the Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano best remembered by movie lovers as Nelson Eddy’s love/jealousy interest in Roy Del Ruth’s The Chocolate Soldier and as Bing Crosby’s former girlfriend in Leo McCarey’s Best Picture Academy Award winner Going My Way, died yesterday, March 20, at her home in Manhattan. Stevens was 99. (Photo: Risë Stevens as Carmen.)
The Bronx-born (as Risë — pronounced REE-suh — Gus Steenberg on June 11, 1913) Risë Stevens was a Metropolitan Opera star from 1938 to 1961; among her most notable roles were the lead in Bizet’s Carmen, Dalila in Camille Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, and Mignon in Ambroise Thomas’ opera of the same name. After retiring from the stage, Stevens became an arts administrator with the Met and president of New York City’s Mannes College of Music.
Risë Stevens movies: The Chocolate Soldier, Going My Way, Journey Back to Oz
Having missed out on the opera-star fad of the early and mid-’30s — when Grace Moore, Lawrence Tibbett, Gladys Swarthout, Lily Pons, Nino Martini, and others were starring in movies at various studios — Risë Stevens was featured in only two films: the aforementioned The Chocolate Soldier (1941) at MGM and Going My Way (1944) at Paramount.
A musicalized version of Ferenc Molnár’s play The Guardsman, filmed by MGM in 1931 with Broadway stars and eventual Oscar nominees Lynne Fontanne and Alfred Lunt, The Chocolate Soldier starred Stevens and Nelson Eddy as a Viennese singing duo whose relationship is put to the test when the jealous Eddy pretends to be a Russian guardsman while the flirtatious Stevens pretends — or perhaps not — to fall for him.
Curiously, some of the music in the 1941 The Chocolate Soldier came from the operetta of the same name, which in its turn was based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Arms and the Man. Since Shaw was adamant that MGM could not use the plot of his play as the basis for a musical, the studio thus borrowed The Guardsman’s storyline.
The Chocolate Soldier wasn’t exactly a blockbuster. The following year Nelson Eddy was back together with frequent partner Jeanette MacDonald in I Married an Angel, while Risë Stevens returned to the Metropolitan Opera. (Stevens would star in the "real" The Chocolate Soldier, opposite Eddie Albert, in a television production broadcast in 1955 — five years after Shaw’s death.)
Unlike The Chocolate Soldier, Going My Way was very much a blockbuster, becoming one of the top-grossing movies of the ’40s. In the sentimental dramatic-comedy with music, Stevens plays the former girlfriend of hip priest Bing Crosby, who seeks her assistance (and that of the Metropolitan Opera) to help save his cash-strapped parish.
Three decades after Going My Way, Risë Stevens voice-acted the role of the good witch Glinda (most recently played by Michelle Williams in Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful) in Hal Sutherland’s 1974 animated feature Journey Back to Oz. Among the other veteran supplying voices to the various characters were Mickey Rooney, Ethel Merman, Milton Berle, Danny Thomas, The Wizard of Oz’s Margaret Hamilton, in addition to Judy Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli. Despite its stellar cast, Journey Back to Oz was not a box office hit.
Unfortunately, Risë Stevens’ Carmen (apart from her singing a Carmen aria in Going My Way) was never immortalized on screen. Hollywood’s only major Carmen of the ’40s was Charles Vidor’s poorly received (non-musical) The Loves of Carmen (1948), starring Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford.