Leontyne Price (b. 1927)
by Randye Jones
On January 3, 1985, soprano Leontyne Price stepped on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera to sing her signature role for the final time, ending what had been nearly 24 years as prima donna assoluta. While the review of much of the evening’s production of Aida was far from kind, its commentary of Price’s performance in the title role reflected the high regard she received from the audience not only for her final essay of the role, but for decades of indelible contribution to the world of Classical music:
It was a sentiment-soaked evening from the start, studded with long, affectionate ovations and curtain calls that Miss Price bathed in luxuriously while “Live from the Met” television cameras recorded the occasion from virtually every corner of the house. Her handling of the prolonged outbreak of approval at the conclusion of “O patria mia” was nothing less than a master class in the art of the diva. She rang all the classic changes, from the hands held up in prayerful gratitude, to the uplifted then downcast eyes, to the ultimate stroke of sinking to a knee. The audience made clear that it loved every masterful gesture, too. It had come primed to cheer the artist on the occasion of her 193d Metropolitan performance (44 as Aida) and let her know they appreciated her career. The celebration at the end of the evening went on for 25 minutes, which adds up to a lot of cheering, bouquet throwing and confetti strewing.1
Price had demonstrated that the African American singer could be a forceful presence on the opera and concert stages, as well as in the recording studio, when their talent was given the opportunity to flourish. And her timing was exquisite. Price’s professional achievements came at the moment when the world of classical western music was finally ready to acknowledge and encourage her vocal ability. She took the successes of earlier singers, such as tenor Roland Hayes, bass-baritone Paul Robeson, and contralto Marian Anderson–who had broken the barrier of singing a role on the Met stage just six years before Price’s debut with the same company–to unprecedented levels and further cleared the path for others to follow.
Mary Violet Leontyne Price was born February 10, 1927, and raised in the colored section of Laurel, Mississippi. Her mother, Kate, was a midwife, and her father, James, worked in a sawmill. Both parents were musicians, her mother sang with the local Methodist church choir and her father played tuba in the church’s band. Young Leontyne’s mother arranged for a local music teacher to begin piano lessons with the child at age 3. Leontyne was nurtured under the watchful eye of the community, which extended even to her aunt’s employers, The Chisholms, a family who lived in a white, affluent section of town. Her musical talents were encouraged, and her voice frequently was heard at area social events.
At age nine, young Leontyne’s mother took her to Jackson, Mississippi, to hear Marian Anderson in concert. Years later, Price recalled her impressions of seeing Anderson perform, “She came out in a white satin gown, so majestic. And opened her mouth, and I thought, ‘This is it, mama. This is what I’m going to be.'”
Price received a scholarship to attend Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio. She began as a music education major, but she completed her studies there in voice. After hearing Price perform at an earlier engagement, famed bass-baritone Paul Robeson agreed to appear in concert in Dayton, Ohio, to raise money to support Price’s continued vocal studies.
In a June 1, 1948, Dayton Daily News music critic Betty Dietz gave a prophetic review of Price’s performance in the May 31 concert:
Seldom are Daytonians given the opportunity to be present at a debut as important as I think Miss Price’s may prove to be. The young woman is first of all a sound musician; not even debut excitement could shake her. Her pitch was unerring and her phrasing always within the bounds of good taste. The voice itself is especially appealing, richly colored, capable of transmitting the full range of emotion and mood. It was a discerning choice that followed Schumann’s Dedication with the impassioned Adieu, Foreta, from Jeanne d’Arc, and later the group of spirituals which the young artist sang simply and directly. A sampling, as it were, of her generously endowed gifts…. Miss Price, a sweet-faced unassuming young woman, is further blessed with a natural stage presence. It is difficult to see anything but a brilliant future ahead for her.2
This was all the more prescient considering the dearth of successful African Americans in the world of classical music in the 1940s. Only a handful of singers could be counted as having found international success in vocal classical music concertizing, and none of them had made the final step unto the professional operatic stage at that time.
With Robeson’s assistance–proceeds from the concert totaled $1,000 (over $10,808 in 2021 dollars3), as well as support from the school’s administration and the Chisholm family, Price was able to begin her vocal studies at Juilliard.
In a 1985 interview, Price described her experience at Juilliard:
It was simply the Midas touch from the instant I walked into Juilliard. First to receive, by auditioning, Miss Kimball as a teacher. Then to have the most extraordinary luck to be a student there at that time. Also the extended interest in the opera theater, which was under the marvelous guidance of Frederick Cohen and his fantastic wife. I learned things about stage presence, presentation of your gifts, how to make up, how to do research, German diction, et cetera. I am singing a group on my present program that I learned and presented in the recital hall at Juilliard in 1951!4
While attending Juilliard, Price had begun her vocal studies with the goal of developing a concert career, which seemed the only viable option for African Americans at that time. However, she found herself drawn towards opera. She began performing in school operatic productions, including Mistress Ford in Verdi’s Falstaff. Composer Virgil Thomson heard Price and invited her to appear in a revival of his opera, Four Saints in Three Acts. She was then selected for the female title role in a revival of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. The Porgy and Bess cast toured the United States and Europe with baritone William Warfield singing Porgy. The two singers married in 1952; however, the pressures of their separately successful vocal careers eventually forced the couple to part with an amicable divorce in 1972.
When asked about her two-year experience with Porgy and whether she was concerned about taking the role of Bess, Price replied,
Not really. To the end of time, Robert, it will be the vehicle for major exposure for young black artists–sopranos, baritones, the whole thing. And that’s what it served for me. When I thought it was time to leave, I left…. I met my ex-husband, which I don’t linger on, because I don’t like to linger on things that didn’t go well. But he was the Porgy, and a brilliant one. That’s where I learned action onstage and how to pace to produce and pace. We had six or seven performances a week, and I had to learn really how to use my voice, to keep it intact with that type of regularity of use. I… Bess has some of the most beautiful… she’s sort of a strange mixture of Salome and… I mean, she is more histrionic than vocal, in many senses, but the one or two spots she does have that are total singing are some of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. The two duets, for example, are like any Puccini duet. I enjoyed singing them. I always sang it like opera. I used it for opera experience. I never thought Broadway about Porgy and Bess. It was on Broadway.5
The soprano gave her Town Hall premiere in November 1954. Word of Price’s success to that point led to a nearly full house estimated at 1500 enthusiastic attendees. Her program included works by Gluck, Rossini, Mahler, Manuel Rosenthal and a performance of Hermit Songs accompanied by the cycle’s composer, Samuel Barber. The critic noted:
Her voice is fresh, clear and agile, and she sings lighter music charmingly. But her range of expression is not yet wide enough, nor does it embrace a sufficient variety of styles for her work to make a deep impression. But she has sympathy, poise, good looks, accurate musicianship and a beautiful voice.6
Price was engaged to sing the lead for the National Broadcasting Company’s production of Puccini’s Tosca in 1955. There were strenuous objections to an African American in a leading romantic role, and some local affiliates cancelled broadcast of the opera; nonetheless, Price’s dramatic portrayal and vocal performance in this historic broadcast were a critical success. Other televised operatic roles soon followed.
Her successes with opera companies in San Francisco and Chicago led to engagements in London’s Covent Garden.
Then, in 1957, Price sang Verdi’s Aida for the first time. She identified strongly with the character, and her success led her to Vienna to sing for conductor Herbert von Karajan and, in 1960, to the stage of La Scala.
During her engagement at La Scala, Price was approached by Rudolf Bing, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera. Bing had been an advocate of integrating the Met after years of whites-only casting. Only six years earlier, Bing had contracted contralto Marian Anderson to be the first African American to sing a role on the Met stage, followed quickly by roles performed by baritone Robert McFerrin, tenor George Shirley and soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs.
In January, 1961, Price debuted at the Metropolitan Opera as Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore. A New York Times article chronicled her preparations for the performance:
Leontyne Price lives in a charming little house on the southern edge of Greenwich Village. It is only a few minutes from Times Square, but on Wednesday she is going to check into a hotel in mid-Manhattan for a three-day stay. “It’s going to be just like San Francisco or Milan or Vienna or any place,” she said the other day of her upcoming Metropolitan Opera debut next Friday. “Hardly anybody will know where I am, the telephone won’t be ringing and I won’t be distracted by outside irrelevancies. My parents are coming up from Mississippi and the house will be full of people, but I’m just going to turn it over to them to do as they like. And before the performance I’m not going to smell a single rose or read even one telegram.”7
Her performance was a success not only to the audience who witnessed it, but to the New York critics as well.
Grand opera, temporarily absent from the Metropolitan Opera, returned there last night with the season’s first performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore and the simultaneous debuts or Leontyne Price and Franco Corelli. Grand opera means large-scale, uninhibited, lusty opera, and that is what the customers heard…. Miss Price has sung here before, but more recently she has been having a triumph in opera houses throughout Europe. She has matured into a beautiful singer. Her voice, warm and luscious, has enough volume to fill the house with ease, and she has a good technique to back up the voice itself. She even took the trills as written, and nothing in the part as Verdi wrote it gave her the least bit of trouble…. She moves well and is a competent actress. But no soprano makes a career of acting. Voice is what counts, and voice is what Miss Price has. And it is not all florid singing on her part. In the convent scene she took some fine-spun phrases in a ravishing pianissimo. And her top is exceptionally secure. She does not lunge for notes, attacking them from underneath and sliding into them.8
Price premiered the title role in Verdi’s Aida at the Met the following month. The New York Times’ February 21, 1961, review of her performance was highly complimentary of her acting but saved its highest praise for her singing:
It will certainly not be the last time there. Indeed, it would not surprise this listener if the American soprano does not go down in operatic annals as one of the great Aidas of history…. Audience enthusiasm ran high from the start, but at the end of the “O Patria Mia” it was augmented by cheers and Nino Verchi, the conductor, had trouble getting the performance started again…. Her voice was dusky and rich in its lower tones, perfectly even in its transitions from one register to another, and flawlessly pure and velvety at the top. And there was such technical control that one hardly knew which to admire the more: the crescendos in which she poured out floods of edgeless and apparently inexhaustible tone, or the diminuendoes in the tone tapered to lovely pianissimos.9
Price explained her reasoning related to her decision to perform at the Met:
Don’t forget that my first year at the Metropolitan I think I proved I was of some value, because I sang an entire repertoire of what had been tried and true. I was a professional, in other words, I was ready. I hadn’t accepted other invitations to the Metropolitan–I’d had them from Rudolf Bing before, but I said no, because I was not ready. The exposure I received when I was asked again… I was ready to be an important part of that institution, of that vibration, and that is why I survived. Because what I presented was tried and true, not as an apprentice but as a young professional. Everything went, turned to gold.10
She was signed for additional roles there and at other houses around the world. Price became the first African American to perform in the role of Cio-Cio-San in the May 1961 La Scala production of Madama Butterfly. The review of her premiere in the role stated that though the audience was initially thrown by an African American singing the role, Price “received many curtain calls after each act and an ovation at the end of the performance.”11
By the mid 1960’s, her reputation had grown to the extent that she was offered the lead in the Samuel Barber opera commissioned especially for the opening of the Met’s new facilities at Lincoln Center. The opening performance of Antony and Cleopatra in 1966, though marred by the extremes taken in costuming and staging, solidified Price’s place as one of the world’s great divas. A 2017 article in Gramophone described the successes and failures of the production:
Price’s greatest failure may eventually be remembered as her finest hour: Antony and Cleopatra. Before the opera’s high-profile, 1966 flop, composer Barber thought it his greatest work–and wasn’t wrong. The often-named culprit was Franco Zeffirelli, whose extravagant production put Price in costumes that made her resemble a walking sarcophagus. But how often has the radio relay of the premiere been duly re-examined? Easily found on YouTube, Antony and Cleopatra is a tough work, with Price playing her character not as a variation of Elizabeth Taylor (whose film version came out the previous year), but as a cool, political strategist. The lack of a love duet in this first version of the opera (which was later revised) was no oversight. Barber was creating people, not ornate historic objects. And if his original vision is ever rehabilitated, the intelligence of Leontyne Price’s recorded characterisation will likely lead the way.12
In the years that followed, Price’s notoriety allowed her the freedom to select roles she wanted, often taking rests between runs. She increased the number of recitals in the 1970’s and made several operatic and concert recordings. Price retired from the opera stage at the Met in 1985 with her signature role, Aida. This live telecast was viewed by millions, and her performance of the aria, “O Patria Mia,” was the top ranked “Great Moments at the Met: Viewer’s Choice” selection.
Concert and Recording Activity
Leontyne Price contracted with recording company RCA in 1957 and released her first solo recording, A Program of Song. The 1959 album not only earned for Price her first Grammy Award in the category Best Classical Performance–Vocal Soloist, but it was selected to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2012.
During her career, she was nominated for 25 Grammy Awards as a vocal soloist, winning 13 plus six others for best opera or choral recording (covers pictured below) between 1962 and 1983. Price received Grammy’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989. When asked if she preferred any recordings over the rest, Price replied:
No, I think I like all of them. It’s terrible but you know I just love the sound of my own voice. Sometimes I simply move myself to tears. I suppose I must be my own best fan. I don’t care if that sounds immodest–I feel that all singers must enjoy the sound they make if they’re to have other enjoy it too.13
Grammy Award Winning Recordings
While Price recorded a number of operatic roles she had also performed on stage, she also recorded several that she chose not to perform. One specific example was her recording of the title role in Georges Bizet’s Carmen:
After her stunning achievement on records, many of her fans predicted that she would sing the role on stage. ‘Nothing could be farther from the truth,’ she said emphatically when told of these reports. ‘There are many things that one can do and enjoy painting the character in recordings which are not necessarily you type on stage. To bridge a gap from recordings to the theatre sometimes is like two different worlds because you have to be seen and heard in the theatre. On records you can paint the whole picture for a listening audience with the sound alone, but you have many more facets in order to portray a role on stage.’14
Price’s recordings continue to be reissued on compact discs and in innumerable compilations.
Throughout Price’s career, the soprano performed regularly on the concert stage. She had her first contact with composer Samuel Barber as a student at Juilliard when he selected her to premiere his song cycle, Hermit Songs, in 1953 at the Library of Congress with the composer at the piano.
Barber was one of several composers who wrote works for Price. Two whose compositions have entered the standard repertoire are Cantata, a spirituals-based song cycle by John Daniels Carter, and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand,” one of several spirituals composed by Margaret Bonds.
Price described her standard concert program: “I usually offer a mixed programme–some classical airs, romantic songs–usually Schumann and Strauss–a few operatic arias and finally an American group and some spirituals. Occasionally I include a Rachmaninov group sung in the original Russian.”15
Price sang at the 1965 inauguration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and she was invited to sing at the state funeral held for Johnson on January 25, 1973.
One of Price’s noteworthy recitals occurred in April 1982. She presented at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC, with a program she dedicated to Marian Anderson. Forty-three years earlier, Anderson had been rejected by the hall’s management, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), only to give a concert at the Lincoln Memorial that drew over 75,000 attendees and untold numbers of radio listeners. Although the DAR noted that Anderson and other African American vocalists had performed in the hall in the years that followed, Price chose to dedicate her performance to Anderson, “a shining inspiration, a national monument and a truly great American.”
The soprano regularly used her concert performances to support the next generation of African American singers: “I often give benefit concerts for colleges in Mississippi, and I would like to get myself more involved in youth groups. I know from my own experience the situation of poor students and anything I can do to help them I shall do. They must be given their first chance.”16
Price also lent her vocal talents to performance of sacred music. A fan favorite is her 1967 performance in Verdi’s Messa da Requiem. She was soprano soloist, joining soloists Fiorenza Cossotto, Luciano Pavarotti, and Nicolai Ghiaurov, Milan Teatro alla Scala Chorus and Orchestra, under conductor Herbert von Karajan. The concert was La Scala’s commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the death of maestro Arturo Toscanini. Ten years later, Price would again sing the Requiem, this time on the Grammy Award-winning recording with Pavarotti, mezzo Dame Janet Baker, bass José van Dam, and the Chicago Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, under the baton of Sir Georg Solti.
Author and baritone Raoul Abdul commented about the much-deserved status of prima donna assoluta Price gained during her career:
This kind of stormy ovation is the rule when Miss Price appears, whether it be in opera or on the concert stage. As I pointed out in a recent review, it must be very difficult indeed for her to regain concentration and subject her voice and temperment to the needs of the music. But Miss Price is an artist of great integrity. She meticulously prepares herself for each assignment, leaving no stone left unturned. And it is a tribute to her artistry that, after the hysteria has subsided, she allows the message of the composer to shine through.17
For more than a decade after ending her operatic career, Price continued to concertize with pianist David Garvey. Music critic Allan Kozinn described a memorable recital the duo presented at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1991, during which she added nine encores to the program:
Equally interesting was the way Miss Price uses timbre as a form of embellishment. This was particularly the case in three spirituals–“Ride On, King Jesus,” on the program, and “This Little Light of Mine,” and “Witness,” among the encores–in which she moved deftly between a polished art song sound and a more robust gospel style…. But it was not in the spirituals alone that she used timbral flexibility to full effect. It was there, if more subtly, in the quiet, haunting serenity of Richard Strauss’s “Befreit,” in her dramatic, full-pressure account of “Pace, pace mio Dio” from Verdi’s Forza del Destino, and in her marvelously free reading of “Summertime.” And it brought to life Lee Hoiby’s attractive settings of Thornton Wilder’s autumnal “Goodbye, Goodbye World” and E. E. Cummings’s sunny “Always It’s Spring.”18
By the mid-1990’s, Price had retired from the concert stage. However, she returned to public performance in 2001 for a memorial concert held for victims of the September 11, 2001, airplane crashes in the United States.
Leontyne Price received many honorary degrees as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1965), the NAACP’s 50th Spingarn Medal (1965), and the National Medal of Arts (1985). For her performance on Live From Lincoln Center, Leontyne Price, Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic, Price received the 1982 Emmy award for Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program. She was selected as a Kennedy Center honoree in 1980.
Price has been described as a “lirico-spinto” soprano with a 3-1/2 octave range. Her rock-solid vocal technique and purity and her dramatic flair have been combined to create a mix suitable both for the opera and concert stages. This description well defines Price’s voice and career:
As they say in theatre, it takes a good girl to play an exceedingly bad one. Price’s bad girls trumped them all–the first indication that there’s nothing simple about her artistic profile. In her prime, the soprano seemed to be capable of anything. The lirico-spinto weight of her voice–perfect for the Verdi Leonoras–also managed coloratura-orientated Gilda and Violetta arias, the faster passagework moulded at the service of the character behind the notes. No wonder John Stearne named her the greatest Verdi soprano of her time in his bible of 20th-century singers, The Grand Tradition. But rather than cycling out of Verdi in early middle age, Price sang Aida to the end of her opera career in 1985 at the age of 57. Of course her voice was far from her classic 1961 Aida recording with Jon Vickers, Rita Gorr and Sir Georg Solti. But it was her Aida that changed the world, not just musically, but by making the opera stage a possibility for anyone with the talent.19
Decades after ending her operatic career at the Metropolitan Opera, Price was called upon to star in the documentary, The Opera House, which detailed the construction of the Met’s new home at Lincoln Center and Price’s role in the inaugural production of Antony and Cleopatra. In an interview about the 2017 documentary, Price stated that she continues to sing every day. “It’s practically the only thing in me that still works.”20
1 Donal Henahan, “Opera: Leontyne Price’s Final Stage Performance,” The New York Times, January 4, 1985.
2 Dietz, Betty A., “Robeson’s Singing Wins Acclaim at Concert Here,” Dayton Daily News, June 1, 1948.
3 Based on calculation provided by https://www.in2013dollars.com/us/inflation/1948?amount=1000. Accessed: January 24, 2021.
4 Robert Johnson, “Collard Greens and Caviar,” Opera News, July 1985. Reprinted in Elizabeth Nash, Autobiographical Reminiscences of African-American Classical Singers: 1853-Present (Lewiston: The Edwin Millen Press, 2007): 219.
5 Johnson, 231-2.
6 “Song Recital Given by Leontyne Price,” The New York Times, November 15, 1954.
7 “Another Major Step for Leontyne Price,” The New York Times, January 22, 1961.
8 “Opera: Two Debuts in ‘Il Trovatore:’ Franco Corelli and Miss Price Heard,” The New York Times, January 28, 1961: 12.
9 Ross Parmenter, “Music: Leontyne Price: Soprano Sings First ‘Aida’ at ‘Met,'” The New York Times, February 21, 1961: 41.
10 Johnson, 215.
11 “Leontyne Price Scores,” The New York Times, May 24, 1961.
12 David Patrick Stearns. “Icon: Leontyne Price,” Gramophone, February 6, 2017. https://www.gramophone.co.uk/features/article/icon-leontyne-price.
13 “Leontyne Price Interview: ‘It’s Terrible but You Know I Just Love the Sound of My Own Voice,’ A Classic Meeting with Leontyne Price, from Gramophone in August 1971, by Alan Blyth,” Gramophone, February 6, 2017. https://www.gramophone.co.uk/other/article/leontyne-price-interview-it-s-terrible-but-you-know-i-just-love-the-sound-of-my-own-voice.
14 Hugh Lee Lyon, Leontyne Price: Highlights of a Prima Donna, New York: Authors Choice Press, 2006, 155.
16 “Leontyne Price Interview…”
17 Raoul Abdul, Blacks in Classical Music: A Personal History, New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1977: 106-7.
18 Allan Kozinn, “Leontyne Price Travels from Arias to Gospel,” The New York Times, January 28, 1991, C22.
20 “Leontyne Price, Legendary Diva, Is a Movie Star at 90,” The New York Times, December 24, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/22/arts/music/leontyne-price-met-opera.html.
The Singer Speaks
Leontyne Price was interviewed by tenor George Shirley on May 14, 1974, for Shirley’s radio broadcast, Classical Music and the Afro-American. Listen to the historic broadcast, hosted by WNYC, which includes performance excerpts.
Other Sites of Interest
Leontyne Price, Prima Donna Assoluta – Photos, covers, and posters from the life and career of soprano Leontyne Price
The Spirituals Database is a searchable listing of compact discs, long-playing discs, 78 rpm, and audio cassette recordings by various vocalists, including this artist, of Negro Spirituals set for concert performance. Information is available about song selections spanning a century from Burleigh’s “Deep River” to the present day. To see the recordings by this artist currently represented in the database, please click on the image to the right.
To cite this page:
Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music. Created by Randye Jones. Created/Last modified: February 12, 2021. Accessed: . http://www.afrovoices.com/wp/leontyne-price-biography.