Eleanor Steber was an American operatic soprano. Steber is noted as one of the first major opera stars to have achieved the highest success with training and a career based in the United States.
Eleanor Steber was born in Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1914. She made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1940 and was one of its leading artists through 1961. She was known for her large, flexible silvery voice, particularly in the high-lying soprano roles of Richard Strauss. She was equally well-known for her lyrical portrayals of Mozart’s heroines, many in collaboration with conductor Bruno Walter. Beyond Mozart and Strauss her repertoire was quite varied. She was noted for success in the music of Wagner, Alban Berg, Giacomo Puccini and also in French opera. Steber sang the lead in the world premiere of the American opera Vanessa by Samuel Barber. She was also featured in a number of Metropolitan Opera premieres, including Strauss’s Arabella, Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and Berg’s Wozzeck.
Outside the Metropolitan her career included a 1953 engagement at the Bayreuth Wagner Festival, where her performance as Elsa in Lohengrin was highly acclaimed and recorded by Decca Records. She sang with Arturo Toscanini in his 1944 NBC Symphony broadcast of Beethoven’s Fidelio. In 1954 at the Florence May Festival she sang a celebrated performance of Minnie in Puccini’s La fanciulla del West with conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos. With Sergei Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra she sang the world premiere in 1948 of Samuel Barber’s Knoxville, Summer of 1915, a work which she commissioned.
Beyond the opera, Steber was popular with radio and television audiences in frequent appearances on The Voice of Firestone, The Bell Telephone Hour and other programs. Her extensive recording output included many popular ballads and operetta tunes in addition to arias, art songs and complete operas. Steber’s sense of fun and adventure endeared her to audiences across the spectrum. In the 1970s she even recorded an album for RCA of songs and arias at the Continental Baths in New York City where Bette Midler was then a regular performer. At the same time she was still heard in recital at Carnegie Hall and sang a noted late-career performance of Strauss’s Four Last Songs with James Levine and the Cleveland Orchestra.