Leontyne Price (born February 10, 1927) is an opera singer (soprano). She was best known for her Verdi roles, above all Aida, a role that she is said to have "owned" for almost 30 years. Her rise to international fame was one of the representative victories over institutionalized prejudice by African Americans in the 1960s, and a high water mark for American classical singing. In an extraordinary generation of great singers that included Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Birgit Nilsson and Montserrat Caballe, Price reigned in the lirico-spinto (Italian for "pushed lyric") roles of Verdi, Puccini, and Mozart. Her soprano was notable for its rich, creamy, sometimes husky, emotionally vibrant sound. Her voice ranged from A below Middle C to the E-flat above High C.
She is also a witty woman whose many bon mots have entered opera lore. Once, when she was appearing in Atlanta as the cowgirl Minnie in Puccini's "La Fanciulla del West," Met general manager Rudolf Bing regretfully told her she might not be able to stay at a whites-only hotel with the rest of the Met company. She looked at him and said, "Don't worry, Mr. Bing, I'm sure you can find a place for me and the horse."
Price was born in a segregated black neighborhood of Laurel, Mississippi. Her father worked in a lumber mill and her mother was a midwife with a rich singing voice. When Leontyne's musical talent showed itself early, her parents traded in the family phonograph for a small toy piano for her to play. An affluent white family in Laurel, the Chisholms, also encouraged Leontyne and asked her to sing at family events. Aiming for a teaching career, Price enrolled in the music education program at Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio, but she completed her studies in voice. With the help of the famous bass Paul Robeson and the Chisholms, she obtained a scholarship to the Juilliard School in New York City, where she became the star pupil of Florence Page Kimball.
Her first stage performance was as Mistress Quickly in a student production of Verdi's Falstaff. The composer and critic Virgil Thomson heard one of those performances and, impressed, hired her for a Broadway revival of his opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, in April 1952. Her first loud public acclaim came as Bess in the 1954 Blevins Davis/Robert Breen revival of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Starting in Dallas, the production toured the U.S. and Europe, and finally returned for a run on Broadway. After the international leg of the tour, Price and baritone William Warfield, an admired concert and movie (Showboat) singer who had sung Porgy, were married at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. (They were divorced in 1972.)
In 1955, Price was engaged by NBC TV Opera to sing in an English-language performance of Giacomo Puccini's Tosca. The casting of a black singer, a first on TV, led several NBC affiliates to cancel the broadcast, but Price was a success. ("Tosca has a lot in common with Bess, they're both trollops," she told an interviewer.) A CD of the performance reveals a young soprano with a fluttery vibrato, precise English diction, and the shining top notes that would be one of her hallmarks.
In 1957, Leontyne Price made her professional operatic debut as Madame Lidoine in the American premiere of Dialogues of the Carmelites at the San Francisco Opera, a role she repeated for NBC-TV Opera. In 1958, after auditioning at Carnegie Hall for Herbert von Karajan, who confessed her singing "gave him goose pimples," Price was invited to make her first European operatic appearances at the Vienna State Opera, where von Karajan was the incoming intendant. She made her debut as Pamina in The Magic Flute. She also sang Aida. Price and von Karajan became famous and frequent collaborators, in the opera house (notably in Salzburg performances of Mozart's Don Giovanni and Verdi's Il Trovatore), the concert hall (in the Missa Solemnis and the Verdi Requiem), and the recording studio, where they produced complete sets of Tosca and Carmen, and one of the most popular albums of holiday music, A Christmas Offering. (All are available on CD. Deutsche Grammophon has also released on DVD a hair-raising 1967 Verdi Requiem from La Scala, with von Karajan conducting, filmed by French director Henri Clouzot.)
On July 2, 1958, Price made her debut at London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, as Aida. Two years later, on May 21, 1960, she appeared at La Scala, again as Aida, and becoming the first black singer to sing a leading role in that house.
Completing a royal progress of debuts on January 27, 1961, she arrived at the Metropolitan Opera (Met) as Leonora in Verdi's Il Trovatore. As she told an interviewer, before her first entrance she said a prayer: "Lord, you got me into this, now you get me out!" It was a legendary night at the opera house: the Italian tenor Franco Corelli was also making his Met debut, and the performance ended with a 42-minute ovation. The next day, New York Times critic Harold Schonberg wrote: " 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." According to Bing's memoirs, Corelli was so furious that Price had garnered more publicity, he locked himself in his hotel room and Bing's assistants had to beg him to come out.
Price's Met debut was, in fact, a moment of political symbolism in America, and many friends and supporters in the Civil Rights movement came to New York to cheer her on. In 1955, the contralto Marian Anderson had broken the race barrier at the Met, at Bing's invitation, in the small role of Ulrica in Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera. Since then, several other black artists had sung leading roles, including Robert McFerrin, the baritone and father of popular singer Bobby McFerrin, and soprano Mattiwillda Dobbs. However, Price was the first African-American singer to sing leading roles to acclaim both abroad and at home. After her, many African-American singers made world careers, including Martina Arroyo, Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Jessye Norman, and Kathleen Battle.
Actually, Bing had invited Price to the Met earlier, to give a single performance of Aida, but she took her friends' advice that she make her first appearance in something other than a stereotypically black role. In the event, she arrived at the Met a mature artist, with a strong European reputation and a large repertoire. In her first two Met seasons, she sang seven roles: the Trovatore Leonora, Aida, Liu in Turandot, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, Tosca, and Minnie in La Fanciulla del West (a heavy role she abandoned after a few performances, during one of which she lost her voice).
Although she made frequent visits to San Francisco (where she premiered most of her roles) and the world's other opera houses, the Met remained Price's main operatic stage. In 24 seasons at the Met and on tour with the company, Price sang 201 performances in 16 roles. In the following years, she sang Pamina in Mozart's Magic Flute, Fiordiligi in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte,Tatyana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, and Elvira in Verdi's "Ernani." Verdi's heroines suited her especially well, both vocally, with their soaring, passionate lines, and dramatically, in their stately, inward-looking poses. To Aida, the "Trovatore "Leonora," and Elvira, she added Leonora in La Forza del Destino and Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera. These five "middle-period" Verdi roles, plus the soprano part in the Verdi Requiem, became her signature repertoire which she carried into the coming decades.
Another milestone came on September 16, 1966, when Price opened the Met's new house at Lincoln Center in the world premiere of Antony and Cleopatra by American composer Samuel Barber. Price and Barber had met in Miss Kimball's studio and become friends and collaborators. She had premiered his "Hermit Songs" at the Library of Congress, with Barber at the piano. (Barber had also picked her to sing the soprano solo in the 1958 Boston premiere of his Prayers for Kierkegaard.) Writing the new opera, Barber said he tailored "every vowel" of Cleopatra's music to Price's voice. It was not a success. The staging by director Franco Zeffirelli (who was also the librettist) used a multitude of extras (including a camel and several asses) and heavy costumes. One reviewer said Price's costumes made her look like Sitting Bull. Then, the stage turntable broke down, and on opening night Price found herself trapped inside a pyramid. Some found Barber's score uninteresting; many thought it was overwhelmed. Barber revised the opera with Gian Carlo Menotti, and it was successfully revived in Chicago and Charleston, S.C. It was given in concert format at Carnegie Hall in 2004.
In the 1970s, Price cut back sharply on her operatic performances, citing a fear of overexposure and no doubt negotiating the inevitble vocal challenges of middle-age. She added only three new opera roles after 1970: Giorgietta in Puccini's Il Tabarro, Manon Lescaut in Puccini's opera, and Ariadne in Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos. In 1973, she sang Madama Butterfly at the Met, earning a half-hour ovation at the final curtain. In 1977, she returned to the Salzburg Festival and the Vienna Staatsoper to sing Il Trovatore under von Karajan, revisiting their earlier triumphs. In 1978, at the invitation of President Jimmy Carter, she sang a televised recital from the White House. In 1982, she stepped in for the Welsh soprano Margaret Price to sing Aida at the San Francisco Opera. This was one of her few appearances with Pavarotti, who sang Radames. (A newspaper reported that Price insisted on being paid $1 more, which would have made her, for the moment, the highest paid opera singer in the world. The Opera House denied this.)
After nostalgic runs of Aida, Carmelites and Trovatore at San Francisco, Price bade farewell to opera in January 1985, in a nationally telecast Aida from the Met. She took "an act or two to warm up," the New York Times critic Donal Henahan wrote, but in Act III, she produced many "pearls beyond price," notably the great aria, "O patria mia," which earned a five-minute ovation. Speaking about her retirement, she said, "I prefer to leave standing up, like a well-mannered guest at a party."
She concentrated on her concert and recital career. In the latter, she offered substantial programs that combined French melodies, German Lieder, Spirituals, an aria or two, and American art songs (often written for her) by Barber, Ned Rorem and Lee Hoiby. In 1982, she sang for the Daughters of the American Revolution at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., dedicating her performance to Marian Anderson, who had been famously excluded from the same venue in 1939.
In her later years, Price's voice became heavier and somewhat effortful, but the upper register held up well, and she always sang with a conviction and joy that spilled over the footlights and earned her long, affectionate ovations. On November 19, 1997, when she was 70, she gave a recital in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, that turned out to be her last.
Price eschewed the term African-American, preferring to call herself an American, even a "chauvinistic American." She once summed up her philosophy thus: "If you are going to think black, think positive about it. Don't think down on it, or think it is something in your way. And this way, when you really do want to stretch out, and express how beautiful black is, everybody will hear you."
For her many recordings, Price won 19 Grammys, including a special Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1989. The so-called "blue album," a 1960 recital of Verdi and Puccini arias titled simply "Leontyne Price," reissued on CD, captures her singing at its early, liquid, spontaneous best. She continues to teach master classes at Juilliard and other schools. In 1997, Price published a children's book version of Aida, which became the basis for a hit Broadway musical by Elton John and Tim Rice in 2000.
In September 2001, at age 74, Leontyne Price came out of retirement to sing "God Bless America" (with a brilliant high B) and a favorite spiritual, "This Little Light of Mine," in a Carnegie Hall memorial concert for victims of the World Trade Center attacks. She lives in Greenwich Village in New York City.