Leontyne Price

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Leontyne Price photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1951

The soprano Leontyne Price (born February 10, 1927) is an African American opera singer. She was best known for her Verdi roles, above all Aida, a role to which she became more closely associated than any other singer of the postwar period. Her rise to international fame was one of several highly visible breakthroughs by African Americans in the 1960s, and indeed represented a high point for American classical singing on the world's stages.

Price was born Mary Violet Leontyne Price 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. Leontyne's talent was noticed early and her parents traded the family phonograph for a small piano for her. An affluent white family in Laurel, the Chisholms, encouraged her studies as well, and often asked her to sing at family events. At first aiming for a teaching career, she enrolled in the music education program at Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio, on a scholarship. But she was drawn to singing, and completed her studies in voice. With the assistance of the great bass Paul Robeson and the Chisholms, she obtained a scholarship to study at the Juilliard School in New York City, where she was a prized pupil of Florence Page Kimball.

Price's first opera performance was a Juilliard production of Verdi's "Falstaff," in which she sang Mistress Quickly. Composer Virgil Thomson heard that performance and hired her immediately to sing in a revival of his opera, "Four Saints in Three Acts." After that, Price sang Bess in a successful 1954 Broadway and international revival of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. During the European tour, she met her future husband, William Warfield, who sang Porgy. (They were divorced in 1972).

In 1955, NBC TV Opera engaged Price to sing Giacomo Puccini's Tosca. The idea of a black Tosca prompted controversy -- and some NBC affiliates canceled the broadcast -- but her performance was a critical success.

Price's professional operatic stage debut came at the San Francisco Opera in 1957 as Madame Lidoine in the U.S. premiere of Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites. In 1958, she was invited by Herbert von Karajan to make her European operatic debut as Aida at the Vienna State Opera. They continued to work together for many years, in the opera house (most famously in fiery 1962 Salzburg performances of Verdi's Il Trovatore), concert hall (Price sang many Verdi Requiems with him, one of which is preserved on DVD), and on landmark recordings of Tosca, Carmen, and one of the most popular holiday albums, A Christmas Offering.

On July 2, 1958, Price made her debut at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Her La Scala debut came two years later, on May 21, 1960, again in Aida. Price was the first black singer to sing a leading role in Milan.

On January 27, 1961, the string of debuts came to a triumphant head at the Metropolitan Opera as Leonora in Verdi's Il Trovatore. (She had been offered the role of "Aida" earlier, but she was determined to arrive at the Met in a non-stereotypical black role.) She received a 42-minute ovation, one of the longest in the Met's history. She subsequently appeared for many years in New York. The New York Times critic Harold Schonberg wrote: "Her 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." Other black artists had sung at the Met after the contralto Marian Anderson broke the race barrier there on January 7, 1955, but Price broke the barrier of superstardom -- indeed she arrived at the Met already an international figure. In the 1960s and 1970s, Price sang a dozen roles at the Met, notably that of Cleopatra in the premiere of Samuel Barber's Anthony and Cleopatra, which inaugurated the Met's new house at Lincoln Center in 1966.

Her opera repertoire included Mozart, Puccini and Richard Strauss, and, most successfully, Verdi, whose soprano roles have soaring lines and passionate utterances to which Price's voice and personality were suited. Her farewell operatic appearance came in 1985 at the Met, as Aida. For another fifteen years, she continued to give popular and well received recitals, offering programs that combined American art songs (including many written for her by Samuel Barber, Ned Rorem and Lee Hoiby), French melodies, German lieder, Spirituals, and operatic excerpts.

In September 2001, Leontyne Price came out of retirement to sing in a Carnegie Hall memorial concert for victims of the World Trade Center attacks. She lives in Greenwich Village in New York City.

External links

es:Leontyne Price

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