Mary Violet Leontyne Price (born February 10, 1927) is an American opera singer (soprano). She was best known for her Verdi roles, above all the title role of Aida. An African American born in the segregated South, she rose to international fame in the 1950s and 60s, and became the first black "superstar" at the once-segregated Metropolitan Opera. For almost 40 years, she was one of America's most beloved and widely recorded sopranos.
Price was a leading interpreter of the lirico spinto (Italian for "pushed lyric", or middleweight) roles of Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini, as well as of roles in several operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Her voice ranged from A flat below Middle C to the E above High C. (She said she sang high Fs "in the shower.") The voice is noted for its brilliant upper register, the smoky huskiness in the middle and lower registers, its smooth "legato" phrasing, and wide dynamic range. She herself called her singing "soul in opera."
She is a quotable woman whose many bon mots have entered opera lore. Once, when discussing whether she would sing in Atlanta as Minnie, the cowgirl lead in Puccini's La Fanciulla del West, the Met's general manager Rudolf Bing warned her she wouldn't be able to stay in the same segregated hotel with the company. She said, "Don't worry, Mr. Bing, I'm sure you can find a place for me and the horse."
After her retirement from the opera stage in 1985, she gave recitals for another dozen years. Among her many honors are the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1965), the Kennedy Center Honors (1980), the National Medal of Arts (1985), numerous honorary degrees, and nineteen Grammy Awards, including a special Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989, more than any other classical singer. In 2005, American talk show host Oprah Winfrey honored Price and 24 other influential African-American women at a Legends Ball.
Life and career
Leontyne Price was born in a black neighborhood of Laurel, Mississippi. Her father worked in a lumber mill and her mother was a midwife with a rich singing voice. They had waited 13 years for a child, and Leontyne became the focus of intense pride and love. Her parents gave her a toy piano at age 3 and she began piano lessons right away with a local teacher. When she was in kindergarten, her parents traded in the family phonograph as the down payment on an upright piano. At 10, she was taken on a school trip to hear Marian Anderson sing in Jackson, and she remembered the experience as inspirational. In her teen years, Leontyne accompanied the "second choir" at St. Paul's Methodist Church while singing and playing for the chorus at the black high school. Meanwhile, she often visited the home of Alexander and Elizabeth Chisholm, an affluent white family for whom Leontyne's aunt worked as a maid. Mrs. Chisholm encouraged the girl's early piano playing, and later noticed her extraordinary singing voice.
Aiming for a teaching career, Price enrolled in the music education program at the all-black Wilberforce College (later Central State University) in Wilberforce, Ohio. Her success in the glee club led to solo assignments, and she completed her studies in voice. With the help of the Chisholms and the famous bass Paul Robeson, she enrolled as a scholarship student at the Juilliard School in New York City, where she studied with Florence Page Kimball.
Her first important stage performances were as Mistress Ford in a 1952 student production in 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. After stops in Vienna, Berlin, London, and Paris, the company returned to New York when Broadway's Ziegfield Theater became available for a "surprise" run.
Meanwhile, on the eve of the European tour, Price had married the man who had sung Porgy, the noted bass-baritone William Warfield, at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, with many in the cast in attendance. In his memoir, My Music and My Life, Warfield describes how their careers forced them apart. They were legally separated in 1967, and divorced in 1973. They had no children.
At first, Price had aimed for a recital career, in the footsteps of contralto Marian Anderson, tenor Roland Hayes, Warfield, and other great black singers to whom American opera houses were closed. Granted leaves from "Porgy" to sing concerts, she championed new works by American composers, including Lou Harrison, John La Montaine, and Samuel Barber.
Opera proved a stronger calling. She had been drawn to opera since hearing Ljuba Welitsch sing Salome at the Met while she was at Juilliard, and as Bess she had proved she had the instincts and the voice for the big stage. The Met itself acknowledged this when it invited her to sing "Summertime" at a "Met Jamboree" fund-raiser on April 6, 1953 at the Ritz Theater on Broadway. Thus Price was the first African American to sing with the Met and for the Met, if not at the Met. That distinction went to Marian Anderson, who, on January 7, 1955 sang Ulrica in Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera. The occasion was important, but the role was small, racially typecast (Ulrica is specified in the libretto as a Negress), and came late in Anderson's career. The question was, when would a young black soprano make a career in leading roles?
In November 1955, Price made a recital debut at New York's Town Hall with a program that featured the New York premiere of Samuel Barber's "Hermit Songs," with the composer at the piano. (She had sung the world premiere the previous fall at the Library of Congress, and she remained a frequent promoter of new works by American composers.) In February, she sang the title role of Puccini's "Tosca" for NBC-TV Opera, under music director Peter Herman Adler, becoming the first black to appear in televised opera. Offended by the idea of a black in a romantic role, four Southern NBC affiliates canceled the broadcast. A videotape at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York City shows an attractive young soprano with a natural acting style, immaculate English enunciation, and easy, shining top notes.
Later that year, she auditioned for the Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan, in New York on his first tour with the Berlin Philharmonic. Declaring her "an artist of the future," he invited her to sing Salome at La Scala. (On advice, she wisely declined.) In 1956 and 1957, Price made recital tours across the country, and traveled abroad to India and Australia, sponsored by the U.S. State Department.
Her opera house debut was in San Francisco on September 20, 1957, as Madame Lidoine in the U.S. premiere of Francis Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites. A few weeks later, when the Italian soprano Antonietta Stella fell ill with appendicitis, she stepped in and sang her first staged Aida. Meanwhile, von Karajan, who had become intendant of the Vienna Staatsoper, invited her to make her European debut with him as Aida on May 24, 1958. The next year, she returned to Vienna as Aida and Pamina in Die Zauberflöte.
Over the next decade, Karajan led Price in some of her greatest performances, in the opera house (in Mozart's Don Giovanni, Verdi's Il Trovatore and Puccini's Tosca), in the concert hall (Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, Bruckner's Te Deum, and Verdi's Requiem), and in the recording studio, where they produced complete recordings of Tosca and Carmen, and a bestselling holiday music album A Christmas Offering. All are available on CD.
In the late 1950s, Price continued a string of European debuts, appearing as Aida at London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and the Arena di Verona, both in 1958. On May 21, 1960, she sang at La Scala, again as Aida. (Mattiwilda Dobbs had been the first African American to sing there, in 1953, as Elvira in Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri.)
On January 27, 1961, Price arrived at the Met, in a double-debut with the Italian tenor Franco Corelli in Verdi's "Il Trovatore," that ended in a 42-minute ovation, one of the longest ever recorded in the Met's history. Price's third Act aria, "D'amor sul'ali roseee," won 15 minutes of applause. The next day, New York Times critic Harold Schonberg wrote that Price's "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." Corelli, infuriated by Price's acclaim, said afterwards he would never sing with her again. (He did.)
She was the fifth African American to sing leading roles at the Met. After Marian Anderson's debut, Robert McFerrin, a baritone and father of popular singer Bobby McFerrin, sang Amonasro in Aida in 1955 and Rigoletto the next season; the soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs sang Gilda in "Rigoletto" (with Leonard Warren) in 1956; in 1958, soprano Gloria Davy sang Aida, Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, and, the next year, Nedda in Pagliacci; and in 1959, the soprano Martina Arroyo sang the offstage Celestial Voice in Don Carlo.
Nevertheless, Price was the first African American to sing multiple leading roles to acclaim in the leading opera houses, at home and abroad. She was also the first to earn the Met's top fee. A 1964 memo revealed that she was paid $2,750 per performance, on a par with Joan Sutherland, Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi. (Birgit Nilsson, who had Wagner roles more or less to herself, earned a little more, $3,000.) The following season, in October 1961, she became the first African American to open a Met season, a sign of having arrived as a prima donna.
Over 24 years, Price sang in 201 Met performances, in 16 roles, at the house and on tour, including galas. (She was absent for 1970-71, 1977-78, 1980-81, and sang only in galas in three others: 1972-73, 1979-80, and 1982-83.)
Her timing had been careful. After receiving an invitation to sing a single Aida at the Met, after her Covent Garden success in 1958, Peter Herman Adler, director of NBC Opera, had advised her to turn it down, warning about being stereotyped as the Ethiopian princess. Adler said, according to Warfield, "Leontyne is to be a great artist. When she makes her debut at the Met, she must do it as a lady, not a slave."
When Price arrived at the Met three years later, she had a strong European reputation and her first recordings out on RCA, and could bargain for several roles. She sang five in her first three months: Leonora, Aida, Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, and Liu in Turandot. Her impact landed her on the cover of Time magazine and she was named "Musician of the Year" by Musical America. In subsequent years, encouraged by her success, other African-American singers went on to make world careers, including Martina Arroyo, Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Jessye Norman, and Kathleen Battle.
The next season, she added Minnie in La Fanciulla del West, the role of her Opening Night, and Tosca. When a musicians' strike threatened to delay or even scuttle the 1961-2 season, Price appealed to President Kennedy, asking him to send Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg to mediate. With Goldberg's help, the strike was settled, and the Met opened on time with Fanciulla.
Midway in the second performance, however, she had another crisis: She gradually lost her singing voice and shouted her way to the end of the Act. Soprano Dorothy Kirsten was called and stepped in to sing the third Act. The cause of the lapse seems to have been a virus and overwork. Others said that Minnie's music was not suited to Price's essentially lyric voice.
From 1962-67, Price added seven more roles at the Met (in order): Elvira in Verdi's Ernani, Pamina in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, Fiordiligi in Mozart's Così fan tutte, Tatyana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, Cleopatra in Barber's Antony and Cleopatra Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera and Leonora in La Forza del Destino. She proved herself best suited to "middle period" Verdi roles, with their high, legato lines and postures of noble grief and prayerful supplication. They (and the Requiem) became her core repertoire.
Antony and Cleopatra
A major career milestone came on September 16, 1966, when Price sang Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra by American composer Samuel Barber, commissioned to open the Met's new house at Lincoln Center. Since the success of "Hermit Songs" in 1954, Price and Barber had remained friends and frequent collaborators. In his new opera, Barber tailored Cleopatra's music to Price's voice, often carrying pages of fresh music to her home.
The opera was not a success. Many blamed director Franco Zeffirelli for burying the music under heavy costumes, a multitude of extras and animals, floating steel clouds, and a rotating Sphinx. Others said Bing had undererstimated the challenge posted by a new high-tech house. The expensive new stage turntable broke down in rehearsals, and on opening night Price was briefly trapped inside a pyramid that didn't move. Others felt the problem with the opera was Barber's score, which was considered by some as lacking dramatic focus and satisfying set pieces. "Antony and Cleopatra" ran for eight performances, but the run was cut short and was never revived at the Met. Barber reworked it for productions at Juilliard and the Spoleto festival (Charleston, S.C.). These were more successful, and Price often sang Cleopatra's arias, in a suite prepared for her by the composer.
Late opera career
In the 1970s, Price cut back her appearances in opera in favor of recitals and concerts. She hinted at frustration with the number (and quality) of new productions at the Met, and told Bing she also wanted to avoid overexposure. It's possible she felt a need to adjust to the natural aging of her vocal instrument. In late 1969, after Bing postponed a new "Aida," she told him she would take the next season off and limited her Met appearances to a handful each season after that.
After 1970, she added three roles to her repertoire, all of them with limited success: Giorgetta in Puccini's Il Tabarro (in San Francisco), Puccini's Manon Lescaut, and Ariadne in Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos (both in San Francisco and New York). In January 1973 she sang Onward, Christian Soldiers at the state funeral of President Lyndon Johnson. In October, she sang Butterfly, for the first time in a decade, and earned a half-hour ovation at the Met. She returned that spring as Donna Anna. In 1976, she sang Aida, in a new production, with Marilyn Horne as Amneris, (directed by John Dexter). The next year, she renewed her partnership with von Karajan, singing the Brahms Requiem with the Berlin Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall, and then Il Trovatore in Salzburg and Vienna.
In 1977, Price sang Strauss' Ariadne--her last new role--in San Francisco, to enthusiastic reviews. When she sang the role at the Met in 1979, she had a virus infection. She canceled the first and last of three scheduled performances, and the Times reviewer didn't have much good to say about the second.
She had a late triumph in 1981 in San Francisco, when she stepped in at the last minute (for soprano Margaret Price), as Aida, a role she had not performed since 1976. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herbert Caen reported that she had insisted on being paid $1 more than the tenor, Luciano Pavarotti. This would have made her, for the moment, the highest paid opera singer in the world. The opera house denied this.
After revisiting her key roles in San Francisco (Forza, Carmélites, Il Trovatore, and more Aidas), and the Met ("Forza" and "Il Trovatore"), Price gave her last operatic performance on January 3, 1985, in a broadcast Aida from the Met (her 41st there). After taking "an act or two to warm up," wrote the "Times" chief critic Donal Henahan, she produced "pearls beyond price," notably the Act III aria, "O patria mia," which received a three-minute ovation. (In 2007, PBS viewers voted this performance of the aria the No. 1 "Great Moment" in 30 years of Met telecasts. Excerpts have been visible on YouTube.com.)
Another Times critic, John Rockwell, had written harshly of the first performance in the run on Dec. 20: "The 'O patria mia' in the third act and the final duet had many of the opulent vocal characteristics that distinguished Miss Price in her prime. Unfortunately, they also had many of the self-indulgent vocal mannerisms, the stolid acting and the hoarse lower register with its rough linkage to the top that also marked her operatic prime."
For the next dozen years, she concentrated on concerts and recitals. Her recital programs, chosen with her longtime accompanist David Garvey, combined French mélodies, German Lieder, Spirituals, an aria or two, and a group of American art songs, many of them written for her, by composers including Barber, Ned Rorem and Lee Hoiby. In addition to giving concerts and recitals in the major American cities and universities, Price gave recitals in Hamburg, Vienna, Paris, Lucerne, and, regularly, at the Salzburg Festival (1975, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1981, and 1984).
In her later years, Price's voice became darker and heavier, but the upper register held up remarkably well, and the conviction and joy in her singing spilled over the footlights to sold-out houses. On November 19, 1997, when she was a few months shy of 71, she gave a recital in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, that turned out to be her last.
Price avoided 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."
Price continued to teach master classes at Juilliard and other schools. In 1997, she wrote a children's book version of Aida, which became the basis for a hit Broadway musical by Elton John and Tim Rice in 2000. She lives in Greenwich Village in New York City.
In October 2001, at age 74, Price was asked out of retirement to sing in a memorial concert in Carnegie Hall for 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, well placed high B-flat.
Leontyne Price's commercial recordings include three complete sets of Il Trovatore, two of Forza, two of Aïda, two of Verdi's Requiem, two of Tosca, and an Ernani, Ballo, Carmen, Madama Butterfly, Cosí Fan Tutte, Don Giovanni (as Donna Elvira), Il Tabarro and (her final complete opera recording) Ariadne auf Naxos. She recorded highlights from "Porgy and Bess" (including music for the other female leads Clara and Serena) with Warfield, under Skitch Henderson. She also recorded five "Prima Donna" albums of selected arias that she never performed in staged productions, two collections of Strauss arias, recitals of French and German art songs, two albums of Spirituals, and a single crossover disc, Right as the Rain, with Andre Previn. Her Barber recordings, including the "Hermit Songs," scenes from Antony and Cleopatra, and "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," appeared on CD under "Leontyne Price Sings Barber." Perhaps her best operatic collection was her first, titled simply "Leontyne Price," and often referred to as the "blue album." It has been re-released often on CD.
In 1996, to honor her 70th birthday, RCA-BMG brought out a deluxe 11-CD box of selections from her recordings, with an accompanying book, titled "The Essential Leontyne Price." Copies are hard to find; one was recently sold on EBay for $650. Historical recordings have also appeared. In 2002, RCA found a tape of her 1965 Carnegie Hall recital debut and released it in its "Rediscovered" series. In 2005, Bridge Records released her 1954 Library of Congress recital, including the "Hermit Songs," and Henri Sauguet's song-cycle "La Voyante," and songs by Poulenc.
In "The Grand Tradition," a 1974 history of operatic recording, the British critic J.B. Steane writes of Leontyne Price that "one might conclude from recordings that she is the best interpreter of Verdi of the century." For the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, a Price performance of Tosca at the Vienna State Opera "left me with the strongest impression I have ever gotten from opera." In his 1983 autobiography, Plácido Domingo writes, "The power and sensuousness of Leontyne's voice were phenomenal--the most beautiful Verdi soprano I have ever heard."
Miles Davis, in his self-titled autobiography, writes of Price, "I have always been one of her fans because in my opinion she is the greatest female singer ever, the greatest opera singer ever. She could hit anything with her voice. Leontyne's so good it's scary. Plus, she can play piano and sing and speak in all those languages... I love the way she sings Tosca. I wore out her recording of that, wore out two sets... I used to wonder how she would have sounded if she had sung jazz. She should be an inspiration for every musician, black or white. I know she is to me."
She has also had her critics. Peter G. Davis writes in his book, "The American Opera Singer," that Price had "a fabulous vocal gift that went largely unfulfilled," noting her reluctance to try new roles, criticizing her Tosca for its lack of a "working chest register," and her late Aidas for a "swooping" vocal line. Others have criticized her stiff technique in florid music, and her occasional mannerisms, particularly late in her career, including scooping or swooping up to high notes. Von Karajan took her to task for these in rehearsals in 1977 for "Il Trovatore," as Price herself related in an interview in Diva, by Helena Matheopoulos. As later recordings and appearances show, she took his advice to heart and sang with a cleaner line.
Her acting, too, varied over a long career. She was praised for bringing fire and sensuality to Bess, and her early NBC appearances show her moving naturally on camera. Later, she became a stiff, at times even an awkward, singer-actress. She herself once said, "I don't expect to win any Academy Awards." In a 1982 "Live from the Met" TV broadcast of "Forza," available on DVD--the only available film of Price in a complete opera --she carries herself with compelling dignity.
In March 2007, on BBC Music magazine's list of the "20 All-time Best Sopranos" based on a poll of 21 British music critics and BBC presenters, Leontyne Price placed fourth, after, in order, Maria Callas, Dame Joan Sutherland, and Victoria de los Angeles.
- Sir Rudolf Bing, 5,000 Nights at the Opera: The Memoirs of Sir Rudolf Bing (Doubleday, 1972).
- Peter G. Davis, The American Opera Singer: The Lives and Adventures of America's Great Singers in Opera and Concert from 1825 to the Present (Anchor, 1999).
- Plácido Domingo, My First Forty Years (Alfred A. Knopf, 1983).
- Peter G. Davis, The American Opera Singer (Doubleday, 1997).
- Barbara B. Heyman, Samuel Barber, The Composer and His Music (Oxford University Press, 1992).
- Helena Matheopolous, Diva: Sopranos and Mezzo-sopranos Discuss Their Art (Northeastern University Press, 1992).
- Luciano Pavarotti with William Wright, Pavarotti: My Own Story (Doubleday, 1981).
- Stephen Rubin, The New Met (MacMillan, 1974).
- Winthrop Sargeant, Divas (Coward, McCann, Geohegan, 1973).
- J.B. Steane, The Grand Tradition: Seventy Years of Singing on Record (Timber Press, 1993).
- Robert Vaughan, Herbert von Karajan (W.W. Norton & Company, 1986).
- Galina Vishneyskaya, Galina, A Russian Story (Harvest/HBJ Book, 1985).
- William Warfield, with Alton Miller, William Warfield: My Music and My Life (Sagamore Publishing, 1991).
- "From Collard Greens to Caviar: Leontyne Price Reminisces," Opera News, July and August 1985.
- "Reunion: Justino Diaz," by Eric Myers, Opera News, March 2006, Vol. 70, No. 9
- "Time After Time," Stephen Blier reviews "The Essential Leontyne Price" CD collection, Opera News, October 1996
- "The Garbo of Opera," by David Perkins, News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), October 5, 1986
- "Leontyne Price Ill, To Rest for Month," New York Times, December 23, 1961
- "Where Atlanta's 'Big Mules' Relax," Time, Jan. 10 1977 (on 1964 "Don Giovanni" controversy)