It's all Risė Stevens's fault.
When I was a child, she made a movie with Nelson Eddy called The
Chocolate Soldier. I went into that movie mad. Who is this
woman who's taking Jeanette MacDonald's place? And what kind of
name is "Rise" Stevens anyway? (Diaresis didn't mean a whole lot
to me at that age.) Anyhow, this interloper had a lot to prove.
And prove it she did. I absolutely fell in love with her. I loved her looks, her style, her
voice -- most of all, I loved her voice. It was the first time I'd
known that a woman's voice could be low and also beautiful. All I
knew about music was what I learned from the movies, and the movies
were going in big for birdchirpy sopranos in those days.
There was one scene in
The Chocolate Soldier in which Risė
Stevens's character was in a moony, romantic sort of mood. So she
leaned against a window frame, looked up at the night sky, and sang an English-language
version of "Evening Star" from Tannhäuser. It was a
couple of years before I learned that that was a baritone aria,
but what the heck. It was wonderful.
Shortly after that, Risė Stevens appeared in Going My Way with
Bing Crosby. In that one, she put on a black wig, sashayed out onto
the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, and sang the "Habanera" from
Carmen. It was the most exciting thing I had heard in my life.
I went around telling everyone about this brand new singer I had
discovered all by myself. Some kind-hearted adult suggested I might
try listening for her on The Firestone Hour and The Telephone
Hour. At that time those were back-to-back Monday-night
radio programs that featured different musical guests each week.
Then one night when my new singing discovery had indeed appeared on
one of them, an announcer closed the program by saying: "Thank you, Risė
Stevens, for being our guest this evening. We'll be listening for you in
the broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday afternoons."
Opera broadcasts? Saturday afternoons? Well, okay...I'd give 'em a try.
So I started tuning in to the Met broadcasts -- not to hear the operas,
but to listen for Risė Stevens. But you can't sit with your ear glued
to a radio for four straight hours Saturday after Saturday without
hearing something. Eventually it dawned on me that by golly,
there were tunes in there! It wasn't all screechin' and hollerin'
after all! In fact, it was kind of nice.
With that realization, I was hooked...and I've stayed hooked all my life.
I've been an opera fanatic ever since I was eleven years old, and I deeply regret
it took me that long to catch on.
Many years later I received a form letter soliciting funds for the Metropolitan
Opera Guild. It was signed by...Risė Stevens. Now, how did they know
that was a name that would make me reach for my checkbook?
It's the least I can do, considering how great a gift she gave me.