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Leontyne Price in 1953
Mary Violet Leontyne Price (born February 10, 1927, in Laurel, Mississippimarker in the United Statesmarker) is an Americanmarker operatic soprano. She was best known for the title role of Verdi's Aida. Born in the segregated Deep South, she rose to international fame during a period of racial change in the 1950s and 60s, and was the first African-American to become a leading prima donna at the Metropolitan Opera.

Price's voice was noted for its brilliant upper register, "smoky" middle and lower registers, flowing phrasing, and wide dynamic range. A lirico spinto (Italian for "pushed lyric", or middleweight), she was well suited to the roles of Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini, as well as several in operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Her voice ranged from A flat below Middle C to the E above High C. (She said she reached high Fs "in the shower.")

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 (1964), 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 October 2008, she was one of the recipients of the first Opera Honors given by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Life and career

Leontyne Price was born in a black neighborhood of Laurel, Mississippimarker. Her father worked in a lumber mill and her mother was a midwife who sang in the church choir. They had waited 13 years for a child, and Leontyne became the focus of intense pride and love. Given a toy piano at age 3, 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 14, she was taken on a school trip to hear Marian Anderson sing in Jacksonmarker, 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 laundress. Mrs. Chisholm encouraged the girl's early piano playing, and later noticed her extraordinary singing voice.
The young Leontyne Price


Aiming for a teaching career, Price enrolled in the music education program at the all-black Wilberforce Collegemarker in Wilberforce, Ohiomarker. (This institution split in her junior year and she graduated from the publicly funded half, Central State College.) Her success in the glee club led to solo assignments, and she was encouraged to complete her studies in voice. She notably sang with mezzo-soprano Betty Allen in the choir and the two became good friends. 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 Schoolmarker in New York City, where she studied with Florence Page Kimball.

Her first important stage 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. After appearing in Vienna, Berlin, London, and Paris, the company returned to New York when Broadway's Ziegfield Theater became available for a "surprise" run.

On the eve of the European tour, Price had married the man singing Porgy, the noted bass-baritone William Warfield, at the Abyssinian Baptist Churchmarker in Harlemmarker, 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 planned on a recital career, modeling herself after contralto Marian Anderson, tenor Roland Hayes, Warfield, and other great black concert singers. Occasionally granted leaves from "Porgy," she began championing new works by American composers, including Lou Harrison, John La Montaine, and Samuel Barber.

However, as Bess she had proved she had the instincts and the voice for the operatic stage, and the Met itself affirmed this when it invited her to sing "Summertime" at a "Met Jamboree" fund-raiser on April 6, 1953, at the Ritz Theater on Broadway. Price was therefore the first African American to sing with 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.

Emergence

In November 1954, Price made her 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.) Then, opera opened its door to her through TV. In February 1955, she sang the title role of Puccini's "Tosca" for NBC-TV Opera, under music director Peter Herman Adler, and became the first black to appear in televised opera. Several NBC affiliates canceled the broadcast in protest. A videotape at the Paley Center for Media in New York City shows a young soprano with a natural acting style, and easy, shining top notes.

That same spring, at Carnegie Hall, she auditioned for the Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan. Declaring her "an artist of the future", he invited her to sing Salome at La Scala. (She declined.) In 1956 and 1957, Price made recital tours across the U.S. and in 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, Price stepped in and sang her first staged Aida. The following May, at Karajan's invitation, she made her European debut as Aida at the Vienna Staatsoper 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 (Mozart's Don Giovanni, Verdi's Il trovatore and Puccini's Tosca), in the concert hall (Bach's B-minor Mass, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, Bruckner's Te Deum, and the Requiems of Verdi and Mozart), 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 1958, Price appeared as Aida in debuts at London's Royal Opera Housemarker, Covent Gardenmarker, and the Arena di Veronamarker. On May 21, 1960, she appeared at La Scala, again as Aida. This marked a first for an African American singer in a leading role with the Italian company. (Mattiwilda Dobbs had sung there earlier, in 1953, but in the seconda donna role of Elvira in Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri".)

Arrival

Price was in no great hurry to arrive at the Met. She had turned down invitations from Rudolf Bing, including one in 1958 for a single performance of "Aida." Peter Herman Adler, director of NBC Opera, advised her to wait. "Leontyne is to be a great artist," Adler said, according to Warfield in his autobiography. "When she makes her debut at the Met, she must do it as a lady, not a slave."

After hearing her perform in "Il Trovatore" at Verona in the summer of 1959, Bing offered her another chance. On January 27, 1961, Price arrived at the Met, in a double-debut with the Italian tenor Franco Corelli in Verdi's Il Trovatore.

The performance was a triumph and ended in a 42-minute ovation, certainly one of the longest in Met history. 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." After reading the reviews, Corelli told Bing he would never sing with Price again. (He did.)

In the next few weeks, Price sang four other roles with equal success: Aida, Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, and Liu in Turandot. For this extraordinary run, she was given a cover story in Time magazine and that fall music critics and editors named her "Musician of the Year."

Leontyne Price was the fifth African American to sing leading roles at the Met. However, she was the first to sing multiple leading roles to acclaim, and the first to earn the top fee. By 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. (The only singer who earned more was Birgit Nilsson, who had Wagner more or less to herself, at $3,000 a performance.)

Met career

In September 1961, she opened the Met season as Minnie in La fanciulla del West, a sign of her arrival as a Met prima donna and a much noted racial milestone. When a musicians' strike threatened to abort the season, President Kennedy asked Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg to mediate a settlement, and the Met opened on time.

Midway in the second performance, Price suffered a rare vocal crisis: she lost her singing voice and insisted on speaking her lines to the end of the scene. Soprano Dorothy Kirsten was called to sing the third Act. The newspapers reported that Price had a virus, but Price later said it was as much the result of the psychological pressure of having too much success, too fast. After a "Butterfly" in December, she canceled other appearances and took a three-month respite in Rome. The following spring, she returned to the Met successfully in another new role, "Tosca."

In the 1960s, Price added seven other roles at the Met (in chronological 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 was most successful in Verdi's "middle period" roles, with their high, glowing lines and postures of noble grief and prayerful supplication. They became her core operatic repertoire. She also was the leading exponent of the soprano part in the Verdi Requiem.

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 Centermarker. Since the success of "Hermit Songs" in 1954, Price and Barber had remained friends and frequent collaborators. Barber carefully tailored Cleopatra's music to Price's voice, with its remarkable upper register.

The opera was not a success. Many blamed director Franco Zeffirelli for burying the music under heavy costumes and huge scenery. Others said Bing had underestimated the challenge posted by a new high-tech house. The expensive new turntable broke down at the dress rehearsal and Price was trapped briefly inside a pyramid. Still others were not happy with Barber's score. Complaints included that it lacked satisfying set pieces and that it was insufficiently modern. The eight-performance run was cut short and the Met never revived the opera. A few years later, with the help of Gian Carlo Menotti, Barber reworked the score for successful productions at the Juilliard School and the Spoleto Festival in Charlestonmarker. In 1968, Barber prepared a concert suite, combining Cleopatra's two arias, for Price to sing with orchestra.

Late opera career

In the late 1960s, Price cut back on opera sharply in favor of recitals and concerts. She was tired, hinted at frustration with the number (and quality) of new productions at the Met, and perhaps felt she had to adjust to the natural aging of her voice. In his memoirs 5000 Nights at the Opera, Sir Rudolf Bing complained that Price had bought into a theory about overexposure.

After 1970, she added three roles to her repertoire, all 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 returned to the Met in Butterfly, singing the role for the first time in a decade, and earning a half-hour ovation. In 1976, she sang Aida in a new production, with James McCracken as Radames and Marilyn Horne as Amneris, directed by John Dexter. The next year, von Karajan conducted her in the Brahms Requiem with the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hallmarker, and in Il trovatore in Salzburg and Vienna.

In 1977, Price sang her last new role, Strauss' Ariadne, in San Francisco to enthusiastic reviews. When she brought the role to the Met in 1979, she was suffering from a virus infection and canceled all but two of eight scheduled performances. Reviewing her first performance, the New York Times critic was not complimentary.

She had a late triumph in 1981 in San Francisco, when she stepped in 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 some of her best roles in San Francisco (Forza, Carmélites, Il Trovatore, and more Aidas) and at the Met (Forza and Il trovatore), Price gave her operatic farewell on January 3, 1985, in Aida, in a live broadcast from the Met. After taking "an act or two to warm up", wrote Times' critic Donal Henahan, she produced "pearls beyond price." After her Act III aria, "O patria mia", she received a three-minute ovation. In 2007, PBS viewers voted this the #1 "Great Moment" in 30 years of Met telecasts.

Over 24 years, Price sang 201 Met performances, in 16 roles, at the house and on tour, including galas. (She was absent for three seasons—1970-71, 1977-78, and 1980-81—and sang only in galas in 1972-73, 1979-80, and 1982-83.)

Post-operatic career

For the next dozen years, she performed concerts and recitals. Her recital programs combined French mélodies, German Lieder, Spirituals, an aria or two, and a group of American art songs by Barber, Ned Rorem, and Lee Hoiby. She made biennial visits to the major American cities and university concert series, and gave recitals in Hamburg, Vienna, Paris, Lucerne, and at the Salzburgmarker Festival (1975, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1981, and 1984).

Price's voice became darker and heavier, but her upper register held up well, and the conviction and joy in her singing always spilled over the footlights. On November 19, 1997, when she was 70, she sang at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hillmarker, in a recital that turned out to be her last.

Price avoided the term African American, preferring to call herself an American, even a "chauvinistic American." She 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 gave several 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.

In October 2001, at age 74, Price was asked to come out of retirement and 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. She lives in Greenwich Villagemarker in New York City.

Recordings

Leontyne Price's commercial recordings include three complete sets of Il trovatore, two of La forza del destino, two of Aida, two of Verdi's Requiem, two of Tosca, and an Ernani, Un ballo in maschera, 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 André 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 Leontyne Price, and referred to as the "blue album" for its blue cover. It has been re-released several times on CD, and more recently on SACD.

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. Archival recordings have also been released. 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 the 1954 Library of Congress recital with Barber, including the "Hermit Songs", Henri Sauguet's song-cycle "La Voyante", and songs by Poulenc.

Critical appreciation

In The Grand Tradition, a 1974 history of operatic recording, the British critic J.B. Steane writes that "one might conclude from recordings that [Price] is the best interpreter of Verdi of the century." For the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, a 1963 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. ... I love the way she sings Tosca. I wore out her recording of that, wore out two sets."

She has also had her critics. In his book The American Opera Singer, Peter G. Davis wrote that Price had "a fabulous vocal gift that went largely unfulfilled," criticizing her reluctance to try new roles, her Tosca for its lack of a "working chest register", and her late Aidas for a "swooping" vocal line. Others have criticized her lack of grace and flexibility in florid music, and her mannerisms, including occasional scooping or swooping up to high notes, gospel-style. Von Karajan took her to task for these in 1977 during rehearsals for Il trovatore, as Price herself related in an interview in Diva, by Helena Matheopoulos. As later recordings and appearances show, she sang with a cleaner line.

Her acting, too, varied over a long career. Her Bess was praised for her fire and sensuality, and tapes of the early NBC Opera appearances show her as an appealing presence on camera. In her early Met years, she was often noted for her dramatic as well as vocal skill. Later, she became a stiff, at times 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, 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 Ángeles.

References

Notes

Books

  • 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).


Articles

  • "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, North Carolina), October 5, 1986
  • "Leontyne Price Ill, To Rest for Month", New York Times, December 23, 1961
  • "Where Atlanta's 'Big Mules' Relax", Time, January 10 1977 (on 1964 "Don Giovanni" controversy)


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