I hope everyone is enjoying their weekend. Closing on this week’s open thread with the powerful Leontyne Price.
Mary Violet Leontyne Price (born February 10, 1927) is an American soprano. Born and raised in the Deep South, she rose to international acclaim in the 1950s and 1960s, and was one of the first African Americans to become a leading artist at the Metropolitan Opera.
One critic characterized Price’s voice as “vibrant”, “soaring” and “a Price beyond pearls”, as well as “genuinely buttery, carefully produced but firmly under control”, with phrases that “took on a seductive sinuousness.” Time magazine called her voice “Rich, supple and shining, it was in its prime capable of effortlessly soaring from a smoky mezzo to the pure soprano gold of a perfectly spun high C.”
Among her many honors are the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1964), the Kennedy Center Honors (1980), the National Medal of Arts(1985), numerous honorary degrees, and nineteen Grammy Awards, 13 for operatic or song recitals, five for full operas, and a special Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989, more than any other classical singer. In October 2008, she was one of the recipients of the first Opera Honors given by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Leontyne Price was born in Laurel, Mississippi. Her father James worked in a lumber mill and her mother Katie was a midwife who sang in the church choir. At 14, she was taken on a school trip to hear Marian Anderson sing in Jackson, an experience she later said was inspirational.
Aiming for a teaching career, Price enrolled in the music education program at the all-black Wilberforce College in Wilberforce, Ohio. With the help of the Chisholms and the famous bass Paul Robeson, who put on a benefit concert for her, she enrolled on a scholarship at the Juilliard School in New York City, where she studied with Florence Page Kimball, who would remain her principal teacher and advisor throughout the 1960s.
Her first opera performance was as Mistress Ford in a 1952 student production of Verdi’s Falstaff. Shortly thereafter, Virgil Thomson hired her for the revival of his all-black opera, Four Saints in Three Acts. After a two-week Broadway run, Saints went to Paris. Meanwhile, she had been cast as Bess in the Blevins Davis/Robert Breen revival of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and returned for the opening of the national tour at the Dallas State Fair, on June 9, 1952. The tour visited Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C, and then went on a tour of Europe, sponsored by the U.S. State Department.
In February 1955, she sang Puccini’s “Tosca” for NBC-TV Opera, under music director Peter Herman Adler, and became the first black to appear in a leading role in televised opera. Several NBC affiliates (not all Southern) canceled the broadcast in protest.
She took her first steps onto the grand operatic stage in San Francisco on September 20, 1957, singing Madame Lidoine in the U.S. premiere of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. A few weeks later, Price sang her first Aida, stepping in for Italian soprano Antonietta Stella. The following May, she made her European debut at the Vienna Staatsoper on May 24, 1958, as Aida, under Karajan. There followed debuts at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (replacing Anita Cerquetti), and at the Arena di Verona, both in Aida. She returned to Vienna the following year to sing Aida and her first onstage Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, and in the summer of 1959, made her debut at the Salzburg Festival in the “Missa Solemnis,” under Karajan.
The Metropolitan Opera invited Price to sing a pair of performances as Aida in 1958, but she turned down the offer on the advice of friends, including Peter Herman Adler, director of NBC Opera. “Leontyne is to be a great artist,” Adler said, according to William Warfield’s autobiography. “When she makes her debut at the Met, she must do it as a lady, not a slave.”
A year later, impressed by hearing her in Il Trovatore at Verona, in a performance with tenor Franco Corelli, Met General Manager Rudolf Bing offered her a debut season with multiple leading roles, and on January 27, 1961 she made a historic double-debut with Corelli in Trovatore. The final ovation lasted at least 35 minutes, one of the longest in Met history. (Price said her friends had timed it at 42 minutes, and she used that number in her later publicity.)
In the next few weeks, Price gave her Met performances as Aïda, Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, and Liu in Turandot. In the middle of this extraordinary run of debuts, equaled by only a few sopranos in the Met’s history, Time magazine put her on its cover. The next fall, American music critics named her “Musician of the Year” and she was put on the cover of “Musical America.”
Other African American singers had preceded her in leading roles at the Met. However, Price was the first African American to build a star career on both sides of the Atlantic, the first to return to the Met in multiple leading roles, and the first to earn the Met’s top fee. In 1964, according to the Met archives, Leontyne Price was paid $2,750 per performance, on a par with Joan Sutherland, Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi. At the time, Birgit Nilsson, who was unique in singing Italian and Wagnerian roles, earned the Met’s highest fee, $3,000 a performance.
In the late 1960s, Price cut back her operatic performances in favor of recitals and concerts.
Before retiring, Price gave several master classes at Juilliard and other schools. In 1997, at the suggestion of RCA-BMG, she wrote a children’s book version of Aida, which became the basis for the hit Broadway musical by Elton John and Tim Rice in 2000.
In October 2001, at age 74, Price was asked to come out of retirement to sing in a memorial concert at Carnegie Hall for the victims of the September 11 attacks. With James Levine at the piano, she sang a favorite spiritual, “This Little Light of Mine”, followed by an unaccompanied “God Bless America”, capping it with a bright, easy high B-flat. She lives in Greenwich Village in New York City.
***Information courtesy of Wikipedia.org***