Leontyne Price

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Leontyne Price in 1994 Leontyne Price (color) by Jack Mitchell.jpg
Leontyne Price in 1994

Mary Violet Leontyne Price (born February 10, 1927) is an American soprano. Born and raised in Laurel, Mississippi, [1] she rose to international acclaim in the 1950s and 1960s, and was the first African American to become a leading performer at the Metropolitan Opera, and one of the most popular American classical singers of her generation. [2] [3] [4]


Reviewing her televised farewell opera performance at the Met in 1985, as Aida, one critic described Price's voice as "vibrant," "soaring" and "a Price beyond pearls." [5] Time magazine called her voice "Rich, supple and shining, it was in its prime capable of effortless soaring from a smoky mezzo to the pure soprano gold of a perfectly spun high C." [4]

A lirico spinto (Italian for "pushed lyric") soprano, she was considered especially well suited to roles in operas by Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

After her retirement from opera, she continued to appear in recitals and orchestral concerts until 1997.

Among her many honors and awards are the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1964), the Spingarn Medal (1965), [6] the Kennedy Center Honors (1980), the National Medal of Arts (1985), numerous honorary degrees, and 19 Grammy Awards for operatic and song recitals and full operas, and a Lifetime Achievement Award, more than any other classical singer. In October 2008, she was among the first recipients of the Opera Honors by the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2019, Leontyne Price was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from Boston Conservatory at Berklee. [7]

Life and career

Leontyne Price was born in Laurel, Mississippi. [8] Her father James worked in a lumber mill and her mother Katie 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 the age of three, she began piano lessons with a local teacher, Mrs. H.V. McInnis. 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 Jackson, an experience she later said was inspirational. In her 2011 autobiography, My Life, as I See It, Dionne Warwick notes that Price is her maternal cousin. [9]

Price in 1951 Leontyne Price LCCN2004663466.jpg
Price in 1951

In her teen years, Leontyne accompanied the "second choir" at St. Paul's Methodist Church, sang and played piano for the chorus at Laurel's all-black Oak Park Vocational High School, a prize-winning ensemble led by her piano teacher, Mrs. McInnis. She earned extra money by singing for funerals and civic functions.

Meanwhile, at age eight, she had begun visiting the home of Alexander and Elizabeth Chisholm, a wealthy white family for whom Leontyne's aunt worked as a laundress. Leontyne became a favorite playmate of their older daughters, and Mrs. Chisholm encouraged Leontyne's piano-playing and singing, and sometimes hired her to entertain guests. After the outbreak of World War II, Leontyne worked part-time in the Chisholms' household as a maid and baby-sitter for their youngest daughter. When not working, she was allowed to play the piano and to listen to music on the radio and record player. Her first public solo concert was a short program at the Columbus, Miss., Air Field in 1943, age 16, in which she sang and played the piano.

Aiming for a teaching career, Price enrolled in the music education program at the all-black Wilberforce College in Wilberforce, Ohio. [8] In her freshman year, Price joined Delta Sigma Theta, a sorority that later helped arrange and support several of her first recitals in big cities. Her success in the glee club led to solos in the chapel, participation in master classes, and third place in a six-state vocal competition. In her junior year, the School of Music and Education split from Wilberforce and was reorganized as Central State University, from which she would graduate in 1948. Central State's President Charles Wesley brought Leontyne to sing at alumni and political functions, and encouraged her to consider advanced studies in voice. In 1948, the famous bass Paul Robeson gave a benefit concert for her conservatory training in Dayton, Ohio. (She also sang on the program.)

The Chisholms now stepped in as her professional champions. In the summers of 1948 and 1949, she and Leontyne gave several recitals in Laurel, Greenville and Meridian. Mrs. Chisholm also agreed to defray some of Leontyne's expenses when, in fall 1948, Price enrolled at the Juilliard School in New York City. She auditioned and won a scholarship and was admitted to the studio of Florence Page Kimball, who remained her principal voice teacher. [10] [8]

In fall 1950, Leontyne entered Juilliard's Opera Workshop and sang small roles in workshop performances of The Magic Flute and Gianni Schicchi. That summer, she enrolled in the opera program at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood and sang her first leading role, Ariadne in Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos (second cast). In early 1952, she sang Mistress Ford in the Juilliard production of Verdi's Falstaff . [8] Her success led to her first professional engagements. Virgil Thomson, who heard a performance of the Falstaff,cast her in a revival of his all-black opera, Four Saints in Three Acts . After two weeks on Broadway, the production went to Paris. Meanwhile, Leontyne had auditioned for and been chosen as one of several Besses in a new production of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess , directed by Robert Breen.

At the end of the Paris run of Saints, Leontyne flew to Dallas and, after a night's rest, sang the first performance of the new Porgyat the State Fair of Texas on June 9, 1952, receiving rave reviews. The production toured to Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C., before going to Europe (Vienna, Berlin, London and Paris) under the auspices of the U.S. State Department.

Price from Porgy and Bess 1953 Leontyne Price by Van Vechten.jpg
Price from Porgy and Bess 1953

On the eve of the European tour, Price and the noted concert singer, bass-baritone William Warfield, who was the Porgy, were married at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, with many in the cast in attendance. Although many black newspapers criticized the idea of exporting the opera as representing a false and demeaning picture of black life, the production was an important success in the "cultural cold war" between East and West. It showed the high level of training of a new generation of black singers, the joyous energy of Gershwin's genius, and a critical ability to revive a masterpiece whike recognizing its outdated stereotypes. Crowds crossed from East to West Berlin to see the show. It was the third major production of "Porgy" and by general consent the first that was fully successful.

When Porgy and Bess returned to the States in 1953, Warfield, who had a busy recital and concert schedule, was dropped from the cast, while Leontyne continued to sing Bess on Broadway and the second US tour. Warfield said his separation from the company put a strain on their marriage. The couple were legally separated in 1967, and divorced in 1973. They had no children. [11]

Leontyne and Warfield both hoped to make careers in opera, but that meant counting on the continued erosion of racial barriers. The New York City Center Opera had admitted black singers to its roster in tge mid-1940s, starting with Camilla Williams and Todd Duncan. A new, postwar generation of black singers hoped to go further, and in 1949 the new general manager of the Met, Rudolf Bing, said publicly he would cast Negroes "for the right part."

Porgy was for Leontyne Price, as it had been for others, a training ground and stepping stone. Her voice and personality had expanded from the dimensions needed for French melodies to fill the operatic stage. The Met itself seemed to recognize this by inviting her to sing "Summertime" at a "Met Jamboree" fund-raiser on April 6, 1953 at the Ritz Theater on Broadway. Price thus became the first African American to sing with and for the Met, if not at the Met. That distinction went to Marian Anderson, whom Bing had chosen to sing Ulrica in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera on January 7, 1955. Price and Warfield were in the audience.

Still, opportunities were limited, and competition was intense. Leontyne gained her first soli exposure outside 'Porgy by appearing in joint concert and recital programs with Warfield, and then began building a recital career, aiming to follow in the footsteps of Anderson, tenor Roland Hayes, soprano Dorothy Maynor, Warfield, and other black concert singers. In 1953, she sang a recital at the Library of Congress, with composer Samuel Barber at the piano. The program included the world premiere of Barber's Hermit Songs, Henri Sauguet's La Voyante, and songs by Poulenc. In November 1954, now out of Porgy, Price made her recital debut at New York's Town Hall, and began singing on the Columbia Artists roster.


The door to opera opened to her through television, specifically the NBC Opera Theater, under music director Peter Herman Adler. In January 1955, [8] she sang the title role in Puccini's Tosca, becoming the first African American in a leading role in televised opera. Price sang leading roles in three later NBC broadcasts-- Pamina in The Magic Flute (1956), Madame Lidoine in Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites (1957), and Donna Anna in Don Giovanni (1960). The Tosca had been broadcast without controversy (Price's groundbreaking appearance had not been widely advertised), but her later broadcasts were boycotted by a number of NBC affiliates because of her race.

In March 1955, she auditioned at Carnegie Hall for the rising Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan, who was touring with the Berlin Philharmonic. Impressed with her singing of "Pace, pace, mio Dio" from Verdi's La forza del destino , Karajan reportedly leapt to the stage to accompany her himself. Calling her "an artist of the future," he asked to be allowed to direct her future European career.

Over the next three seasons, Price continued to give recitals in the U.S. and Canada with David Garvey as her accompanist. In 1956, she toured India and then, the next year, spent a month giving concerts snd recitals in Australia, both tours under the auspices of the U.S. State Department. On May 3, 1957, she sang a concert performance of Aida at the May Festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was her first public performance of what became her signature role.

External audio
Nuvola apps arts.svg You may hear Leontyne Price performing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Requiem Mass in D minor K. 626 with Herbert von Karajan conduicting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Fritz Wunderlich, Eberhhard Wachter, Hilde Rossel-Majdan, Walter Berry in 1960 Here on archive.org

Her grand opera stage debut occurred in San Francisco on September 20, 1957, as Madame Lidoine in the U.S. premiere of the Dialogues of the Carmelites. A few weeks later, Price sang her first staged Aida, stepping in for Italian soprano Antonietta Stella, who suffered an appendicitis. Her first European opera performance came the following spring, as Aida, at the Vienna Staatsoper under Karajan, who had become director of the Stastsoper. This was followed in short order by debuts at London's Royal Opera House (replacing Anita Cerquetti), and at the Arena di Verona, both as Aida.

The next season, she sang again in San Francisco, giving her first performances of Verdi's Il trovatore (with the great Swedish tenor Jussi Bjoerling), then returned to Vienna to sing Aida and her first onstage Pamina. Returning to Europe that spring, she sang Aida again in Vienna and at Covent Garden. In London, she also gave a televised recital of American songs with Gerald Moore and a concert of operatic scenes by Richard Strauss for BBC Radio. In Vienna, she made her first full opera recording for RCA, singing Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni under Erich Leinsdorf.

In the summer, she made her debut at the Salzburg Festival in Beethoven's Missa Solemnis , conducted by Karajan. After recording Il Trovatore for RCA in Rome, she returned to Verona to sing Il Trovatore with tenor Franco Corelli. Rudolf Bing was present at one of the performances. Afterwards, he went backstage and invited Price and Corelli to make their Met debuts in 1960-61.

That fall, Price made her Chicago Lyric Opera debut as Liu in Turandot followed by performances of Massenet's Thais. (The Liu was well received, the Thais was considered stiff and mannered.) On May 21, 1960, Price sang at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, again as Aida, becoming the first African American to sing a prima role in Italy's greatest opera house. (The African American soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs had sung there two years earlier, but as Elvira in Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri , a seconda soprano role.) This was followed by Price's return to Vienna for a Verdi Requiem under Carlo Maria Giulini, and a performance of Aida. Then she went to Rome to record her first opera solo album for RCA, a selection of Verdi and Puccini arias that became known as "the blue album." In Salzburg, she sang her first Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, under Karajan. A few weeks later, she returned to Vienna for her first Cio Cio San in Madama Butterfly without stage rehearsal. Both new roles were triumphs. However, the physical and nervous strain of the previous months contributed to an attack of appendicitis, which hospitalized her briefly in Vienna.

Metropolitan Opera

The Met had been slow to offer Price a major contract, i.e. with multiple roles and a prospect of a long-term association. In 1958, Bing had invited her to sing a pair of Aidas, but she turned him down on the advice of Peter Herman Adler and others who argued that she should wait until she had more repertoire under her belt. Adler said furthermore that she should also not arrive in the racially stereotypical role of the enslaved Ethiopian. In his autobiography, William Warfield quotes Adler as saying, "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." As the debut approached, Bing revised her Met contract to include five leading roles. He also offered her the opening night of the 1961-62 season, a rare honor for any singer, even rarer for one who had not yet sung with the company.

On January 27, 1961, Price and Corelli made a triumphant joint debut in Il Trovatore. Their success (particularly hers) was recognized by a historic final ovation that lasted at least 35 minutes, one of the longest in Met history. [8] (Price said friends had timed it at 42 minutes, and that was the figure she used in her publicity.) In his review, New York Times critic Harold C. 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."

Reviewers were less enthusiastic about Corelli, who was so disappointed he told Bing the next day he would never sing with Price again. The outburst was forgotten, and Price and Corelli sang together often over the next dozen years, at the Met, in Vienna, and in Salzburg.

That first Met season, Price also sang Aïda, Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly , Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, and Liu in Turandot . In recognition of this extraordinary season, Time magazine put her on its cover in March. That fall, she was named "Musician of the Year" by American music critics and appeared on the cover of "Musical America."

In September 1961, Price opened the Met season as Minnie in La fanciulla del West . It almost didn't occur. A musicians' strike threatened to abort the season, but President Kennedy sent Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg to mediate a settlement. (The importance of allowing a great young American singer to fulfill her destiny was noted in Goldberg's ruling.) Leontyne received highly favorable reviews for the opening performance, but during the second night she had her first serious vocal crisis. In the middle of the second act, her voice grew hoarse and then slowly vanished. She shouted her lines to the end of the scene while tenor Richard Tucker murmured encouragement and tried to pass her a cough drop. The standby soprano Dorothy Kirsten was called and sang the third act. The newspapers reported that Price was suffering a virus infection.

After several weeks off, she returned to repeat Fanciulla and then, after a Butterfly in December, she decided to take a month-long respite in Rome that ended up lasting several months. The official word was that she had never fully recovered from the earlier virus. Price herself later said she was suffering from nervous exhaustion.

In April, she returned to the Met to give her first staged performances of Tosca, and then joined the spring tour in Tosca, Butterfly, and two performances of Fanciulla. The first of the latter was a landmark, the first performance by an African American in a leading role with the Met in the South (Dallas). Two years later, she sang Donna Anna in Atlanta, marking the first appearance by an African American as a leading lady on the Met tour in the Deep South.

Four other African Americans had preceded Price in leading roles at the Met: Marian Anderson (1955), baritone Robert McFerrin (1955), soprano Gloria Davy (1956), and soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs (1958). However, Leontyne Price was the first to build a star career on both sides of the Atlantic, the first to open a Met season, the first to tour in the South, and the first to earn the Met's top fee. In 1964, she earned $2,750 per performance, on a par with Joan Sutherland, Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi, according to the Met archives. Only Birgit Nilsson, who was unique in singing both Italian and Wagnerian roles, earned more, at $3,000 a performance.

Price also continued to be hugely popular in Salzburg and Vienna. She sang a famous production of Il trovatore in Salzburg in 1962 and 1963, and gave equally triumphant performances of Tosca in Vienna in 1963 and 1964, all under Karajan. She remained the maestro's favorite soprano until they parted ways over a planned new production of Carmen in Salzburg. She had recorded the role with him for RCA in 1963, but she found the role uncomfortable histrionically--acting was not her strong point--and worried about how the low-lying vocal line might distort her vocal technique. she and Karajan didn't work together in opera again until 1977. Still, Karajan found her an irreplaceable soprano soloist in the Verdi Requiem, a favorite work that he conducted often in the mid-1960s, in Milan, Moscow, Montreal and New York.

After her Met debut season, Price added seven roles to her Met repertoire over the following five seasons. They were (in chronological order):,Elvira in Verdi's Ernani , Pamina in Mozart's The Magic Flute, 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 . Critics found her voice and temperament well suited to the heroines of Verdi's "middle period" operas, noble ladies who sang high, glowing lines that reflected a dignified suffering and prayerful supplication.

Antony and Cleopatra

After her Met debut, the most important milestone in her career came on September 16, 1966, when she sang Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra by American composer Samuel Barber, a new opera commissioned for the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center. The composer had written the role especially for Price, often visiting her house in Greenwich Village to try out new pages of the score as he developed it.

While Price's singing on the opening night was highly praised, especially the soaring notes in the climactic death scene, which she sang from a high throne placed above Antony's tomb, the opera as a whole was considered a failure by many critics. Thy blamed director Franco Zeffirelli for burying the fine score under heavy costumes, giant scenery, innumerable supernumeraries, and two camels. Bing acknowledged he had made a mistake in scheduling nine new productions in the house's first season, three in the first week. Furthermore, the new high-tech stage equipment and lighting had not been fully mastered. An expensive stage turntable (on which Zeffirelli intended to move armies) broke down, and, at the dress rehearsal, Price found herself trapped inside a pyramid while making a costume change. The chaotic final preparations, with excerpts of Price's beautiful singing, was chronicled by film director Robert Drew in a Bell Telephone Hour TV documentary that aired that fall, titled "The New Met: Countdown to Curtain." Price later said the experience was traumatic and soured her feelings toward the Met. She began to appear there less often.

Antony and Cleopatra has never been revived at the Met. However, with the help of Gian Carlo Menotti, Barber reworked the score for successful productions at the Juilliard School and the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, where it received praise. Barber also prepared a concert suite of Cleopatra's arias, which Price premiered it in Washington, DC, in 1968 and recorded it for RCA.

Late opera career

In the late 1960s, Leontyne Price cut back her operatic performances in favor of recitals and concerts. She said she was tired, stressed by the racial and political tensions in the country, frustrated with the number (and quality) of new productions. She was now in her 40s. Perhaps she also felt the need to rework her vocal technique as she reached middle age. Her concerts (generally programs of arias with orchestra) and recitals were highly successful, and, for the next two decades, she was a mainstay in the major orchestral and concert series in the big American cities and universities.

She returned the Met and the San Francisco Opera, her favorite house, for short runs of three to five performances, sometimes a year or more apart, and undertook only three new roles after 1970: Giorgetta in Puccini's Il tabarro (San Francisco only); Puccini's Manon Lescaut (San Francisco and New York); and Ariadne in Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos (San Francisco and New York).

In October 1973, she returned to the Met to sing Madama Butterfly for the first time in a decade. The first of these performances ended with a half-hour ovation and was hailed as a "triumph" by the New York Times. In 1976, she appeared in a long-promised new Met production of Aida, with James McCracken as Radames and Marilyn Horne as Amneris, directed by John Dexter. The following season, she renewed her partnership with Karajan in a performance of Brahms' Requiem, with the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.

She appeared more rarely in Europe. In the early 1970s, she sang in Hamburg and returned to London's Covent Garden. She also sang her first European recitals, in Hamburg, Vienna, Paris, and the Salzburg Festival. At the latter she became a favorite, appearing in recitals in 1975, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1981, and 1984.

In the U.S., she had become an iconic figure and was frequently asked to sing on state occasions. In January 1973, she sang "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" and "Onward, Christian Soldiers" at the state funeral of President Lyndon B. Johnson. (She had sung at his inauguration in 1965.) President Jimmy Carter invited her to sing at the White House for the visit of Pope John Paul II and at the state dinner after the signing of the Camp David Peace Accords. In 1978, Carter invited her to sing a nationally televised recital from the East Room of the White House. In 1982, she sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" to a Joint Session of Congress on the 100th anniversary of the birth of President Franklin Roosevelt. She also sang for Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush.

In 1977 she made nostslgic returns to Vienna and Salzburg for performances of Il trovatore, in the famous production from 1962, once again under Karajan. The Vienna performances were the first for both artists at the Staatsoper since Karajan had resigned as its director in 1964.

That same year, Leontyne Price sang her last new role, and her first Strauss heroine: Ariadne in Ariadne auf Naxos, in San Francisco. It was considered a great success. When she sang the role at the Met in 1979, she was suffering from a viral infection and canceled all but the first and last of eight scheduled performances. Reviewing the first performance, the New York Times critic John Rockwell was not complimentary. [12]

Price, 1981 Leontyne Price (b&w) by Jack Mitchell.jpg
Price, 1981

In fall 1981, she had a late triumph in San Francisco when she stepped in for an ailing Margaret Price as Aida, a role she had not sung since 1976. The tenor role of Radames was sung by Luciano Pavarotti, in his first assumption, and excitement ran high. Columnist Herbert Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Leontyne had insisted on being paid $1 more than the other "LP." That would have made her, for the moment, the highest-paid opera singer in the world. The opera house denied the arrangement.

In 1982, Price returned to the Met in her original debut role of Leonora in Il Trovatore, a role she hadn't sung in the house since 1969. She also sang a televised concert of duets and arias with Marilyn Horne and conductor James Levine, later released on record by RCA. In 1983, she hosted two televised performances of "In Performance from the White House," with President and Mrs. Reagan, and that fall sang the Ballo duet with Pavarotti in the 100th snniversary concert of the Metropolitan Opera.

Although she had considered her 1982 Met appearances her (unannounced) final opera performances, James Levine persuaded her to return for several Forzas in 1984 and a series of "Aidas" in 1984-1985. Performances of both operas were broadcast in the "Live from the Met" series on PBS. Shortly before the final "Aida", on January 3, 1985, the New York Times reported it was to be her farewell performance in opera. (She had planned to announce the decision in a biographical film and presentation at intermission, but canceled the film after the news got out.) Time Magazine described the performance" as "vocally stunning... [and] proved she can still capture her peak form." [4] Donal Henahan of the New York Times wrote that the "57-year-old soprano took an act or two to warm to her work, but what she delivered in the Nile Scene turned out to be well worth the wait." The performance ended with 25 minutes of applause. In 2007, PBS viewers voted her singing of the Act III aria, "O patria mia", as the No. 1 "Great Moment" in 30 years of "Live from the Met" telecasts. [13] [5]

In the 24 years since her Met debut, Price had sung 201 performances, in 16 roles, in the house and on tour. (She was absent for three seasons1970-71, 1977-78, and 1980-81; and sang only in galas in 1972-73, 1979-80, and 1982-83.)

Post-operatic career

Price in 1995 Leotyne Price 1995.jpg
Price in 1995

For the next dozen years, she continued to perform concerts and recitals in the U.S. Her recital programs, arranged by her longtime accompanist David Garvey, usually combined Handel arias or arie antiche, Lieder by Schumann and Leo Marx, an operatic aria or two, followed by French melodies, a group of American art songs by Barber, Ned Rorem, and Lee Hoiby, and spirituals. She liked to end her encores with "This Little Light of Mine", which she said was her mother's favorite spiritual.

Over time, Price's voice became darker and heavier, but the upper register held up extraordinarily well and her conviction and sheer delight in singing always spilled over the footlights. On November 19, 1997, she sang a recital at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that was her unannounced last.

In her later years, Price gave master classes at Juilliard and other schools. In 1997, at the suggestion of RCA Victor, she wrote a children's book version of Aida , which became the basis for the hit Broadway musical by Elton John and Tim Rice in 2000.

Price avoided the term African American, preferring to call herself an American, even a "chauvinistic American".[ citation needed ] 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." [14]

On September 30, 2001, [8] at the age of 74, Price was asked to come out of retirement to sing in a memorial concert at Carnegie Hall for the 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", ending it with a bright, easy B-flat below high C. [15]

In 2017, age 90, she appeared in Susan Froemke's "The Opera House," a documentary about the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center in 1966. [16] .


Most of Leontyne Price's many commercial recordings were made by RCA Victor Red Seal and include three complete recordings of Il trovatore, two of La forza del destino, two of Aida, two of Verdi's Requiem, two of Tosca, and one each of 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 also recorded a disc of highlights from Porgy and Bess, with William Warfield as Porgy, conducted by Skitch Henderson. Price sings the music for all three female leads.

Price's five "Prima Donna" albums, recorded from 1965 and 1978, are an exceptional survey of arias for soprano, many of them from roles she never performed on stage. (These are available on CD boxed set from RCA-BMG.) She also recorded two albums of Richard Strauss arias, an album of French and German art songs, a Schumann song album, two albums of Spirituals, and a single crossover disc, "Right as the Rain," with André Previn, and an album of patriotic songs, "God Bless America." Her recordings of Barber's Hermit Songs , scenes from Antony and Cleopatra, and "Knoxville: Summer of 1915", were brought together on "Leontyne Price Sings Barber". Her most popular and enduring aria collection has been the self-titled Leontyne Price, often referred to as the "Blue Album" for its light blue cover. It has been reissued on CD and SACD.

Equally popular is the album of Christmas music recorded in 1961 with von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic, on of the most popular Christmas records and continuouously in print. (It is also von Karajan's only collaborative album will a vocal soloist.) In 1996, RCA-BMG brought out a limited-edition 11-CD boxed collection of Price's recordings, with an accompanying book, titled The Essential Leontyne Price. For EMI-Angel, she recorded an album of Schubert and Strauss lieder and, for London, a collection of Versi arias with the Israel Philhatmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta.

In addition, archival recordings of important live performances have been released on CD. Deutsche Grammophon has issued her Salzburg performances of "Missa Solemnis" (1959) and Il trovatore (1962), both conducted by Karajan. In 2002, RCA released a long-shelved tape of her 1965 Carnegie Hall recital debut in its "Rediscoveries" series. In 2005, Bridge Records brought out the complete 1953 Library of Congress recital with Samuel Barber. It contains performances of Hermit Songs (world premiere), Henri Sauguet's La Voyante,and songs by Poulenc. In 2008, a broadcast tape of a 1952 Berlin performance of Porgy and Bess was discovered in the German radio archives and released on CD, a unique souvenir of the Breen-Davis production with Warfield and Price.

In 2011, Sony Classics brought out discs of Met broadcasts of Il trovatore (1961) and Tosca (1962), both with Corelli. The following year it followed with an Ernani (1962) with Carlo Bergonzi. In 2017, a 1967 Aida (with Bergonzi and Bumbry) was included in a Sony boxed set of performances from the Met's first season in the new opera house.

Two major roles in Leontyne Price's repertoire went unrecorded in the studio: Liu in Puccini'sTurandot and Donna Anna in MozartDon Giovanni. RCA had plans to record a complete Don Giovanni in 1974 with Price as Donna Anna, Montserrat Caballe as Donna Elvira, and Sherrill Milnes as the Don. Thr project fell through. However, her earlySalzburg performances of the opera, and a 1963 Vienna performance (with Fritz Wunderlich), all under Karajan, are available on CD and can be found on YouTube.

In the 1970s, RCA cut back on recording full operas and recital repertoire, with the result that much of Price's recital repertoire went unrecorded, most notably songs by Rachmaninoff, Barber, Hoiby, Rorem, Poulenc, and Strauss. However, some of that hole has been filled by the radio broadcast tapes of her Salzburg recitals, now posted on YouTube. A radio broadcast from 1956 of John La Montaine's cycle of songs for soprano soloist snd orchestra, Songs of the Rose of Sharon, with the National Symphony, has been found and posted on YouTube. A 1952 Juilliard performance of Falstaff and a student recital from 1951 have been posted on Juilliard's archival webpage, and reposted on YouTube. (The latter includes a performance of Ravel's Scheherezade, with piano accompaniment by David Stimer; it is Price's only recording of the work.) Performances in the NBC Opera Theatre series from the 1950s and early 60s have never been released (unlike similar archival performances from the BBC and the CBC). Nevertheless, audio excerpts from Price's Tosca, 'Magic Flute," and Don Giovanni, can be found on YouTube.



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." The Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya remembered 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."

From left to right, NEA Chairman Dana Gioia honors the first class of National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honorees in 2008: Price, Carlisle Floyd, Richard Gaddes. NEA Opera Honorees.jpg
From left to right, NEA Chairman Dana Gioia honors the first class of National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honorees in 2008: Price, Carlisle Floyd, Richard Gaddes.

The sopranos Renée Fleming, Kiri Te Kanawa, Jessye Norman, Leona Mitchell, Barbara Bonney, Sondra Radvanovsky, the mezzo-sopranos Janet Baker and Denyce Graves, bass-baritone José van Dam, and the countertenor David Daniels, spoke of Price as an inspiration.

Jazz musicians were impressed too. Miles Davis, in Miles: The Autobiography, writes: "Man, I love her as an artist. I love the way she sings Tosca. I wore out her recording of that, wore out two sets. Now, I might not do Tosca, but I loved the way Leontyne did it. 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." [17]

She has also had her critics. In his book The American Opera Singer, Peter G. Davis writes 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 criticized her lack of flexibility in coloratura, and her occasional mannerisms, including scooping or swooping up to high notes, gospel-style. Karajan took her to task for these during rehearsals for the 1977 Il trovatore, as Price herself related in an interview in Diva, by Helena Matheopoulos. In later recordings and appearances, she sang with a cleaner line.

Her acting, too, drew different responses over a long career. As Bess, she was praised for her dramatic fire and sensuality, and tapes of the early NBC Opera appearances show her an appealing presence on camera. In her early years at the Met, she was often praised for her stage presence as well as her vocal skill.

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 was ranked fourth, after, in order, Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, and Victoria de los Ángeles. [18]

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  2. "Price, Mary Violet Leontyne". Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. Encyclopedia.com. Retrieved February 21, 2011.
  3. Garland, Phyl (June 1985). "Leontyne Price: Getting Out At the Top. A prima donna assoluta says goodbye to the opera, will continue as concert singer". Ebony Magazine . Retrieved February 21, 2011.
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  7. Boston Conservatory at Berklee to Honor Sutton Foster, Leontyne Price
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  10. Delta Sigma Theta celebrates centennial
  11. "Time Magazine, Milestones, May 21, 1973". Time. May 21, 1973. Retrieved December 5, 2013.
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  14. Story, "And So I Sing," p. 114.
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  16. [https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/22/arts/music/leontyne-price-met-opera.html
  17. Miles Davis, Quincy Troupe, Miles: The Autobiography, Simon & Schuster, 1990. Pages displayed by permission of Simon & Schuster. 2005. Retrieved March 15, 2011.
  18. BBC Music Magazine press release, March 13, 2007.