Leontyne Price: A Legendary Met Career
Metropolitan Opera audiences began an extraordinary love affair with American soprano Leontyne Price immediately upon her debut on January 27, 1961. She was by then an internationally heralded singer and an experienced, refined musician and artist. But more than anything, it was the sheer beauty of her voice that excited her listeners. What they heard was a vibrant, glowing, yet never metallic tone that called forth adjectives like velvety, soft-grained, and elegant. Her vocal production seemed effortless, free, and soaring, with plentiful volume and an amazing dynamic control. And the timbre of her voice was unique, personal, and immediately identifiable—she sounded like no one else. At the age of 90, in a charming interview for the documentary film The Opera House, she commented on her own voice, remembering when she heard the reverberations for the first time in the new Met auditorium, saying, it was “so beautiful you just wanted to kiss yourself!” This was not a prima donna’s vanity, but a mere statement of fact. And the audiences wanted to kiss her too, for hearing Leontyne Price live was an experience not to be forgotten.
Opera, Blood, and Tears
The Life You Give: Leontyne Price *1927
The Virtuous Black X
in celebration of her life in music
during Black History Month
February 10 at 1pm EST
Price was a known entity by the time of her Met debut. She had been brought to the attention of General Manager Rudolf Bing as early as 1952 when the young Juilliard graduate starred in a touring company of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess that also played on Broadway. Her vocal qualities had drawn critical admiration, and in 1953 she was invited to sing “Summertime” for a radio broadcast Met fundraising event, held at the Ritz Theater. Her growing career in Europe included debuts at the Vienna State Opera, London’s Royal Opera, the Salzburg Festival, and the Verona Arena. It was at the last of these that Bing heard her as Leonora in Il Trovatore and offered her a contract backstage afterwards, together with her co-star, tenor Franco Corelli.
Price’s Met debut, again as Leonora, met with critical approval as well as sensational public success. From Harold Schoenberg’s New York Times review: “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 … Voice is what counts, and voice is what Miss Price has.”
Her triumphs continued as she took on new roles in the same season as her debut: the title roles in Aida, and Madama Butterfly, and Donna Anna in Don Giovanni. Her performances were the phenomenon of the season as indicated in a Time magazine review of her Donna Anna: “If anybody was unhappy about her success, it was the Manhattan ticket brokers: obtaining Price tickets these days, they report, is about like wangling a reserved seat beside the first astronaut.”
For her second Met season, Price was given the honor of a season opening new production of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West. Reaction to her first performance was positive, but at the second, she had to cancel after Act II. It was the only setback in her career, but the role of Minnie was perhaps a step too heavy for the still-young soprano. She carefully returned to more congenial repertory, wisely took a few months rest, and dropped the role of Minnie. Soon, she was back with new successes: Elvira in Ernani (1962), Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte (1965), and Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera (1966).
Then followed the greatest honor of all: Price was chosen to open the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966 as Cleopatra in the world premiere of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, composed specifically for the occasion. While the opera did not garner much favor, Price had a personal triumph, and her status was confirmed as the company’s leading American soprano.
But Leontyne Price was first and foremost a Verdi singer. More than half her 204 Met performances were as Verdi’s leading ladies. She added Leonora in La Forza del Destino—another of her finest roles—in 1967, and often repeated the Trovatore character of the same name. But it was as Aida that she was most famous and for which she set the standard still in force today. Her ability to shape Verdi’s melodies with a smooth legato and to approach the role’s high climatic notes without strain made her the unrivalled interpreter of the Ethiopian princess. She sang Aida for the opening night in 1969, again for a 1976 new production premiere, and finally for her own farewell performance in 1985.
Price’s Met repertory of course included other composers as well. In addition to Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte, she sang Mozart’s Pamina in Die Zauberflöte. Puccini’s vocal style suited her less well than Verdi’s, but she was a notable Tosca, Butterfly, Liù in Turandot, and Manon Lescaut. She sang Tchaikovsky’s Tatiana in Eugene Onegin in English in 1964, and the title role in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos in 1979.
Whenever Leontyne Price sang, it was an event. Among her most ravishing concerts were three performances she gave at the Met of Verdi’s Requiem, twice in 1964 in memory of the recently assassinated John F. Kennedy, and once in 1982 in memory of long-time Met assistant manager Francis Robinson. She also sang a special televised concert partnered by mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne with the Met Orchestra conducted by James Levine in 1982.
It is impossible to speak of Price’s Met career without noting that she was the first African American superstar singer—one who was indispensable and around whom the company planned its season repertory. The legendary black contralto Marian Anderson had broken the Met’s color barrier in 1955, but she was at the end of her distinguished career and only sang one role in a handful of performances. As one of the company’s leading prima donnas, Price accompanied the Met on tour, including to several Southern cities where theaters were segregated. Her presence there was an important factor in changing the discriminatory policies. In fact, the rise of her Met career coincided with the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and she was proud to be a part of it. Along with her exceptional artistic achievements, it remains part of her remarkable legacy.
By Peter Clark / Source: Metropolitan Opera
Leontyne Price, born Mary Violet Leontyne Price, on February 10 1927, in Laurel, Mississippi, U.S.A., is the lyric soprano, the first African American singer to achieve an international reputation in opera.
Both of Price’s grandfathers had been Methodist ministers in Black churches in Mississippi, and she sang in her church choir as a girl. Only when she graduated from the College of Education and Industrial Arts (now Central State College) in Wilberforce, Ohio, in 1948 did she decide to seek a career as a singer. She studied for four years at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, where she worked under the former concert singer Florence Page Kimball, who remained her coach in later years. Her debut took place in April 1952 in a Broadway revival of Four Saints in Three Acts by Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein. Her performance in that production, which subsequently traveled to Paris, prompted Ira Gershwin to choose her to sing the role of Bess in his revival of Porgy and Bess, which played in New York City from 1952 to 1954 and then toured the United States and Europe. The year 1955 saw her triumphant performance of the title role in the National Broadcasting Company’s television production of Tosca, and she sang leading roles in other operas on television in the next few years.
Price’s operatic stage debut did not take place until September 1957, when she appeared in the American premiere of Francis Poulenc’s Les Dialogues des Carmélites at the San Francisco Opera. She continued in San Francisco until 1960, appearing in such works as Aïda, Thaïs, and The Wise Maidens. By that time she was one of the most popular lyric sopranos in the country and had also made successful appearances in Vienna in 1959 and at Milan’s La Scala in May 1960.
Despite this great success, her debut at the Metropolitan Opera (the Met) in New York City was deferred until January 1961, when she appeared there in the role of Leonora in Il Trovatore. After a brilliant performance she became one of the Met’s leading regular sopranos. Her later roles there included Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, and Liu in Turandot.
In the 1970s Price began to devote more time to recitals, but she scored another great success in her first performance of Ariadne auf Naxos in San Francisco in October 1977. She gave her farewell performance of Aïda at the Met in 1985 but continued to give recitals, which she described as her first love. In 1990 she published a children’s book, Aida, based on Giuseppe Verdi’s opera. That work later inspired a musical by Elton John and Tim Rice; it debuted in 1999.
One of the most frequently recorded opera singers, Price was the recipient of more than 20 Grammy Awards, including a lifetime achievement award (1989). She also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1964), a Kennedy Center Honor (1980), and the National Medal of the Arts (1985). In 2008 she was among the first to be named a National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honoree.