Eleanor Steber was born in Wheeling, West Virginia on July 17, 1914. She was the daughter of William Charles Steber, Sr. (1888–1966) and Ida Amelia (née Nolte) Steber (1885–1985). She had two younger siblings – William Charles Steber, Jr. (1917–2002) and Lucile Steber Leslie (1918–1999). 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 Serge 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.
In 1973 she recorded a live album of arias and songs for RCA Red Seal at the Continental Baths in New York City where a young 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.
While known as an artist of the highest standards, some critics observed that her reportedly tempestuous personal life eventually took a toll on her voice. In a well-known story, following a brilliant success in 1946 as the Countess in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro at the Edinburgh Festival, HMV Records engaged her to record some Mozart and other popular arias. By the account of Walter Susskind, the conductor of both the Edinburgh performances and the proposed recordings, she arrived at the Abbey Road Studios not feeling well, having been up most of the night. She could not sing her standard arias, saying "I don't feel like singing that." Susskind, trying to save the recording session, asked, "What do you feel like singing?". Steber thought for a moment and said, "Let's try 'Depuis le jour'" (from Louise). Orchestra parts were found and the disc was cut in one take. It became a famous recording of the aria, revealing a superb lyrical vocal line and an eloquent interpretation.
Upon retiring from singing, she taught on the faculty of the Cleveland Institute of Music and the Juilliard School and maintained a private voice studio. She established the Eleanor Steber Vocal Foundation with an annual contest to assist young singers in launching their careers. Her many recordings are still available, as are audio and visual tapes of her radio and television broadcasts for The Voice of Firestone.
Steber struggled at times with asthma and alcoholism. She was married twice. Her first husband was Edwin Lee Bilby. Her second husband was Colonel Gordon Andrews, whom she married in 1958, at the time she created the role of Vanessa at the Metropolitan Opera. Andrews managed her career and started the STAND record company, a joint venture that produced numerous recordings of Steber's performances. They were married for nine years, and she had three step children: Marsha Andrews, an opera singer who studied with her at the Cleveland Institute of Music and in New York; Gordon Andrews Jr., retiree from GM; and Michelle Andrews Oesterle, a choral conductor, singer and founder of the very successful Manhattan Girls Chorus.
She died on October 3, 1990, in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, following heart valve surgery and is interred at Greenwood Cemetery, Wheeling, West Virginia.Eleanor Steber sings Richard Strauss; VAI Audio; Karl Böhm (1st work), James Levine (2nd work, encore), conductors. Recorded: Munich, June 4, 1953, (1st work); Cleveland, May 5, 1970 (2nd work, encore)
Eleanor Steber sings Mozart – Selections Voice of Firestone; VAI Audio; Robert Lawrence (1st–6th works), Wilfred Pelletier (7th) or Howard Barlow (8th–10th), conductor. Recorded Apr., 1960 (1st–6th works); from Voice of Firestone radio broadcasts, 1946–1952 (remainder).
Eleanor Steber, her first recordings (1940); VAI Audio; Wilfrid Pelletier, conductor; Recorded May 30–31, 1940 and June 25–26, 1940, Town Hall, New York City; and June 17, 1940, Academy of Music, Philadelphia.
The Eleanor Steber Collection. Vol. 1, The Early Career, 1938–1951; Armand Tokatyan (3rd and 5th works); George Cehanovsky (6th work); Leonard Warren (6th work); Recorded 1938–1951.
Puccini - Madama Butterfly; Sony Classical/ Columbia; Jean Madeira, Suzuki ; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus; "1949 Metropolitan Opera Association Production".
Samuel Barber - Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (Columbia Masterworks). Dumbarton Oaks Chamber Orchestra, William Strickland, conductor. Recorded November 7, 1950.
Wagner - Lohengrin; Teldec; Bayreuth Festival; Josef Keilberth, conductor. Live 1953.
Puccini - La Fanciulla del West 1954 June 15 live performance at the Florence Maggio Musiclale, Dimirti Mitropoulos conductor, with Mario Del Monaco and Gian Giacomo Guelfi (2008 CD release on Regis Records RRC2080)
Samuel Barber - Vanessa; RCA Victor; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus ; Dmitri Mitropoulos, conductor; Recorded February and April 1958 in Manhattan Center.