Soprano Leontyne Price is widely regarded as the first African American to gain international acclaim as a professional opera singer.
Who Is Leontyne Price?
Renowned for her early stage and television work, Leontyne Price made her opera stage debut at the San Francisco Opera in 1957, and her debut at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House in 1961. One of the first African American singers to earn international acclaim in the field, Price became known for her roles in Il Trovatore, Antony and Cleopatra and Aida, before retiring from the opera in 1985.
Early Life and Influences
Mary Violet Leontyne Price was born on February 10, 1927, in Laurel, Mississippi, to James Anthony Price, a carpenter, and Kate Baker Price, a midwife with a beautiful singing voice. Price showed an interest in music from a young age and was encouraged by her parents. After beginning formal music training at age 5, she spent much of her time singing in the choir at St. Paul Methodist Church in her hometown.
Price found additional inspiration at age 9, when she traveled with her mother to Jackson, Mississippi, to attend a recital by contralto Marian Anderson.
Education and Julliard
Following her time at Oak Park Vocational High School, where she was a standout pianist and member of the glee club, Price enrolled at the College of Education and Industrial Arts in Wilberforce, Ohio. She began her studies focusing on music education, but was later encouraged by faculty to switch her concentration to voice. After graduation, Price headed to New York City to attend The Juilliard School on a full scholarship.
At Juilliard, Price studied under the tutelage of her beloved vocal instructor, Florence Page Kimball. Price’s beautiful lyric soprano voice landed her feature roles in many of the school’s operas. After witnessing Price perform the role of Alice Ford in a student production of Giuseppe Verdi‘s Falstaff, composer Virgil Thomson leapt at the chance to bring her into one of his productions.
Intro to Broadway and ‘Porgy and Bess’
Not yet known for her operatic talents, Price made her Broadway debut in 1952 as St. Cecilia in the revival of Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts.
Immediately following the show’s three-week engagement, she was cast in a touring production of George Gershwin‘s Porgy and Bess. For the next two years, Price dazzled audiences with her stunning portrayal of Bess, gaining acclaim with her flawless vocal interpretations. During her tour with the show, she married co-star William Warfield, though their busy professional careers led to their divorce in the early 1970s.
NBC Opera Theatre and Opera Debut
In 1955, Price starred in the NBC Opera Theatre’s television production of Giacomo Puccini‘s Tosca. This performance led to a string of TV operas featuring the budding starlet.
In her opera stage debut at the San Francisco Opera House in 1957, Price took on the role of Madame Lidoine in Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des carmélites. The moving performance marked the commencement of her rise to fame in the serious opera community.
By 1958, Price was wowing European audiences at such famous venues as the Covent Garden in England and La Scala in Milan. She had reached stardom at home as well as on an international level.
Metropolitan Opera Debut
Price’s debut at the New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House in 1961 as Leonora in Il Trovatore was such a success, it marked the beginning of her residency as one of the opera’s principal sopranos.
She flourished as a prima donna at the Met, starring in such roles such as Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, Minnie in La Fanciulla del West and, perhaps most notably, as Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra.
Price became one of the first African American singers to gain an international reputation in opera, and as such she enjoyed the luxury of being selective with her roles throughout the 1970s. She chose to perform in opera productions less frequently during that period, focusing mainly on recitals.
Price delivered her operatic farewell in the titular role of Aida at the Met in 1985, which was telecast and hailed as one of the most successful opera performances in the Met’s history.
Price continued to perform recitals for the next dozen years before retiring from the stage. She briefly came out of retirement in October 2001, to sing at a concert honoring victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Awards and Legacy
In September 1964, the then 37-year-old Price was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Lyndon B. Johnson. Two decades later, in 1985, she became a National Medal of Arts recipient. Throughout her career, Price’s recordings earned her numerous honors, including more than a dozen Grammy Awards.
Price has established an impressive legacy, achieving stardom as a woman of color during a time of segregation in America and in a profession where limited opportunities existed for someone with her background.
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