Rise Stevens, a mezzo-soprano who defined the role of Carmen for a generation and brought opera to millions of Americans through her performances on the radio and in films such as "Going My Way," died Wednesday at her home in New York City. She was 99. Ms. Stevens pursued one purpose in life: bringing opera to anybody, anytime, anywhere.
As The Washington Post once noted, more people heard Ms. Stevens sing Carmen's "Habanera" in "Going My Way," which co-starred Bing Crosby and swept the Academy Awards for 1944, than in all her theater performances combined. Such was the power of playing an opera diva on-screen compared to actually being one onstage.
In her frequent radio and TV appearances, Ms. Stevens exemplified the class of opera singers -- including Lily Pons, Dorothy Kirsten, Gladys Swarthout and Lawrence Tibbett -- who took their music out of the opera house and into American homes.
She started singing with New York City's Metropolitan Opera in 1938, on tour in Philadelphia. Among her greatest roles was the title character in Georges Bizet's "Carmen," which she sang for 124 performances.
Among her other celebrated roles were Delilah in Camille Saint-Saens' "Samson and Delilah" and Octavian in Richard Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier."
Her 1951 RCA recording of "Carmen" remains a standard-setter. So was the Tyrone Guthrie production in which she starred in the 1950s, transforming herself -- the daughter of a Norwegian -- into the quintessential Spanish gypsy.
She retired from performing opera in 1961, saying she wanted to bow out when she still had a great voice. Ms. Stevens won mass appeal by bringing her classical training to recognizable, beloved songs. Her rendition of Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria" is one of the most memorable moments in "Going My Way." She was Anna in the production of "The King and I" that inaugurated the Music Theater of Lincoln Center in New York City in 1964.
Rise Gus Steenberg was born June 11, 1913, in New York to a Norwegian father and an American mother. She kept her first name, which in Norwegian almost rhymes with "Lisa," but later changed her surname to Stevens.
In 1939 she married Walter Surovy, an actor she had met in Prague and her future manager. Her husband died in 2001.
After her retirement, Ms. Stevens became co-general manager of the short-lived Metropolitan Opera National Company.