Leontyne Price (born 1927) was a prima donna soprano acclaimed in most circles as one of the finest opera singers of the 20th century.
Mary Leontyne Price was born in Laurel, Mississippi, on February 10, 1927. Educated in public schools in Laurel, she then attended Central State College in Wilberforce, Ohio, where she received her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1948. Her particular interest was singing in the glee club at Central State, where she displayed an abundance of musical talent, and she decided to make a career of singing. Subsequently she entered New York's Juilliard School of Music where she studied until 1952. At the same time she took private lessons under the tutelage of Florence Page Kimball. Price was the first black singer to gain international stardom in opera, an art form previously confined to the upper-class white society. Her success signified not only a monumental stride for her own generation, but for those that came before and after her.
While still at Juilliard, Price exhibited her soprano ability at various concerts and in her appearance as Mistress Ford in Verdi's Falstaff. Virgil Thomson took notice of her performance and provided her with her Broadway stage debut in the Broadway revival of his Four Saints in Three Acts. Her ability then earned her the role of Bess in George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess in a touring company that met with great successes in London, Paris, Berlin, and Moscow. She also played Bess when the company appeared in the Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess. During the tour she married baritone William Warfield, who sang the role of Porgy. Other composers took note of Price's ability, and in 1953 she sang premieres of works of Henri Sauget, Lou Harrison, John La Montaine, and Igor Stravinsky, among others.
Price received overwhelming critical acclaim in her 1954 Town Hall concert in New York City and followed that with her first performance in grand opera, in 1955, as Floria in Puccini's Tosca on network television with the NBC Opera. She made her first opera stage appearance in 1957 as Madame Lidoine in Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites with the San Francisco Opera Company. Price also toured Italy successfully that year and sang Aida at La Scala in Milan. She continued to sing with the San Francisco Opera, as well as with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and other major opera houses in North America.
In 1960 Price portrayed Donna Anna in Don Giovanni at the Salzburg Festival in Austria. On January 27, 1961, she made her debut in New York's famous Metropolitan Opera as Leonora in Il Trovatore, which earned a thunderous ovation and moved opera critics to regard her as one of the greats of the 20th century. She also sang the title role at the Met in Madame Butterfly and the role of Minnie in La Franciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West). Price appeared in 118 Metropolitan productions between 1961 and 1969. In 1965 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson, who said, "Her singing has brought light to her land."
One of Price's greatest triumphs was her creation of the role of Cleopatra in Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra. Its premiere opened the 1966 Metropolitan Opera season as well as the beautiful new Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center. Her best and favorite performances were as Verdi heroines Elvira in Ernani, Leonora in Il Trovatore, Amelia in The Masked Ball, and especially as Aida.
Price made other worldwide tours that included Australia and Argentina's Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires in 1969. In the 1970s Price drastically cut the number of opera appearances, preferring to focus instead on her first love, recitals, in which she enjoyed the challenge of creating several characters on stage in succession. In 1985, Price gave her final performance at New York's Lincoln Center in the title role of Verdi's Aida. She was 57 years old.
Price made numerous recordings of music outside of opera because of her phenomenal voice and had honorary degrees conferred upon her from Dartmouth College, Howard University, and Fordham University, among others. Separated, and finally divorced, from Warfield, she lived in her homes in Rome and New York. Music critics universally lavished praise on her voice and her portrayals.
Further Reading on Leontyne Price
A brief biography of Leontyne Price is Leontyne Price: Opera Superstar (1984) by Silvia Williams. A more detailed study is Hugh Lee Lyon, Leontyne Price: Highlights of a Prima Donna (1973). Useful information can also be found in Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians (1984) by Theodore Baker, The New Grove Dictionary of American Music (1986), and The Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians (1982) by Eileen Souther.