Leontyne Price

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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[edit]

Leontyne Price was born in Laurel, Mississippi.[8] Her father James worked in a lumber mill and her mother Katherine (née Baker) 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, at age five. 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

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 the Chisholms' older daughters, Jean and Peggy, and Mrs. Chisholm encouraged Leontyne's piano-playing and singing. After the onset of World War II, when she was in high school, Leontyne began working part-time in the Chisholms' household as a maid and baby-sitter for their youngest daughter, Cynthia. When not working, she was given the freedom of the music room, where she played the piano and listened to the radio and record player. Her first public solo concert was 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 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 major cities. Her success in the glee club led to solos in the chapel (including her first performance of "Vissi d'arte," in English). She also participated in master classes. In 1947, she won third place in a six-state vocal competition. In her junior year, the publicly funded School of Music and Education was separated from Wilberforce University and became Central State University. Central State President Charles Wesley encouraged Leontyne to consider advanced studies in voice. After her graduation in 1948, the famous bass Paul Robeson gave a benefit concert for her future training in Dayton, Ohio. She also sang on the program. Robeson soon became a controversial figure and Price did not mention the concert in later interviews.

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

After hearing Ljuba Welitsch sing Salome at the Met, she became fascinated by opera. In fall 1950, Leontyne entered Juilliard's Opera Workshop and sang her first small roles in workshop performances of The Magic Flute and Gianni Schicchi. In the summer of 1951, she enrolled in the opera program at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood and sang Ariadne in Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos (second cast). In early 1952, her breakout performance came when she sang Mistress Ford in the Juilliard production of Verdi's Falstaff.[8] Virgil Thomson, who heard a performance, 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 been chosen as one of several Besses in a new production of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, directed by Robert Breen.

After the Paris run of Saints, Leontyne sang the first performance of Porgy at the State Fair of Texas on June 9, 1952, receiving rave reviews. The production had runs in Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C., before it toured Vienna, Berlin, London, and Paris, under the auspices of the U.S. State Department.

Price from Porgy and Bess 1953

On the eve of the European tour, Price married her Porgy, the noted concert singer, bass-baritone William Warfield, at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, with many in the cast in attendance.

Although many black newspapers criticized the export of Porgy and Bess as representing a false and demeaning picture of black life, the production was important 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 while recognizing its outdated stereotypes. Crowds crossed from East to West Berlin to see the show.

When Porgy and Bess returned to the States in 1953, Warfield, who had maintained 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 that year put a strain on their marriage. The couple was 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 featured black singers in leading roles in the mid-1940s, starting with Camilla Williams and Todd Duncan. Younger black singers hoped to go further, to the Met and other world opera houses. In 1949, the new general manager of the Met, Rudolf Bing, said publicly he would cast Negroes "for the right part."

Porgy was a training ground and stepping stone to the operatic stage. The Met itself seemed to recognize her potential 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, who sang Ulrica in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera on January 7, 1955.

Price appeared in joint concert and recital programs with Warfield, and then began building a recital career, aiming, in case opera didn't work out, to follow in the footsteps of such noted black concert singers as Anderson, Warfield, tenor Roland Hayes and soprano Dorothy Maynor. In 1953, she sang a recital program at the Library of Congress, with composer Samuel Barber at the piano, that 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 touring on Columbia Artists' roster.


The door to opera opened to her through 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 not been controversial--Price's groundbreaking appearance had not been widely advertised--but her later broadcasts were boycotted by several NBC affiliates because of her race.

In March 1955, she was taken by her agent to audition at Carnegie Hall for the young 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 Price 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 pianist. In 1956, she toured India and then, the next year, spent a month giving concerts snd recitals in Australia. Both tours were 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
You may hear Leontyne Price performing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Requiem Mass in D minor K. 626 with Herbert von Karajan conducting 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 followed in May 1958, 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 her first performances of Verdi's Il Trovatore in San Francisco, with the great Swedish tenor Jussi Bjoerling. Then she returned to Vienna to sing Aida and her first onstage Pamina, and repeated her triumphant Aida 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, conducted by Peter Herman Adler. 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 and went backstage afterward to invite Price and Corelli to make their Met debuts in 1960–61.

That fall, Price made her Chicago Lyric Opera debut as Liu in Turandot with Birgit Nilsson in the title role, and then sang Massenet's Thais. (Her Liu was well received. Her Thais was considered stiff and mannered.) On May 21, 1960, Price sang for the first time at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, again as Aida. She was 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.) 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[edit]

Rudolf Bing had been in no hurry to offer Price a major contract at the Met. In 1958, he had invited her to sing a pair of Aidas, but she turned him down on the advice of Peter Herman Adler and others. Her friends argued that she should wait until she had more repertoire under her belt and received a real offer of multiple roles. Adler said furthermore that she should also not arrive in the racially stereotypical role of Aida, an Ethiopian slave. 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." The Met agreed she would make her debut as Leonora in Il Trovatore,a traditionally white role. Shortly before her debut, Bing revised her Met contract to include five leading roles that season. He also offered the opening night of the 1961–62 season, a rare honor and even rarer for someone who had not yet sung with the company.

On January 27, 1961, Price and Corelli made a triumphant joint debut in Il Trovatore. The performance ended with 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 somewhat 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 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 run, 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. When a musicians' strike threatened to abort the season, President Kennedy sent Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg to mediate a settlement. Price received highly favorable reviews for the opening performance. During the second performance, she lost her voice in the second act. The standby soprano Dorothy Kirsten was called and sang the third act. The newspapers reported that Price was suffering a viral infection. It was the first vocal crisis of her career and a psychological blow to her confidence.

After several weeks off, she returned to repeat Fanciulla and then, after a Butterfly in December, she decided to take a long respite in Rome. 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 Met's spring tour in Tosca, Butterfly, and Fanciulla.

Recognizing Price's talent made it inevitable that she would be included on the tour, Bing had told Met affiliates in 1962 the Met would no longer perform in segregated houses. That year, Price's performance of Fanciulla in Dallas was the first performance by an African American in a leading role with the Met in the South. Two years later, she sang Donna Anna in Atlanta, becoming the first 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, and the first to earn the Met's top fee. In 1964, she earned $2,750 per performance, on 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's popularity continued in Salzburg and Vienna. She sang a famous production of Il Trovatore in Salzburg in 1962 and 1963, and gave performances of Tosca in Vienna in 1963 and 1964, all under Karajan. She was the maestro's favorite soprano until they parted ways over Carmen, a role he wanted her to perform in Salzburg in 1966. She had recorded the role with him in 1963, but found it uncomfortable dramatically--and she worried about the effect of the low-lying part on her vocal technique. Although she and Karajan didn't collaborate in opera again until 1977, Karajan chose her as his soprano soloist in many performances of the Verdi Requiem in the 1960s.

After her Met debut season, Price added seven roles to her Met repertoire in the next five seasons: (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 especially well suited to the heroines of Verdi's "middle period" operas, noble ladies who sang high, long-breathed phrases that expressed a dignified suffering and prayerful supplication.

Antony and Cleopatra[edit]

After her Met debut, the biggest milestone in her career was the opening night of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center on September 16, 1966, when she sang Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra by American composer Samuel Barber, a new opera commissioned for the occasion. The composer had written the role especially for Price's voice, often visiting her home in Greenwich Village to try out new pages of the score.

Price's singing was highly praised, especially in the climactic death scene, which she sang from a high throne placed above Antony's tomb. However, the opera as a whole was considered a failure by many critics. They blamed director Franco Zeffirelli for burying the fine score under heavy costumes, giant scenery, innumerable supernumeraries, and two camels. Bing had overreached by scheduling nine new productions in the house's first season, three in the first week. This was a burden on stage, lighting, and costume crews. New high-tech stage equipment and lighting had not been fully mastered. An expensive turntable (on which Zeffirelli intended to move armies) broke down, and, at the dress rehearsal, Price found herself trapped inside a pyramid. The chaotic final preparations, with excerpts of Price's beautiful singing, were 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. In 1975, with the help of Gian Carlo Menotti, Barber reworked the score for productions at the Juilliard School and the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, where it was well received. 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[edit]

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. Her concerts (generally programs of arias with orchestra) and recitals were still 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 Madame 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 Meeting 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 nostalgic 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

In the fall of 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 anniversary 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 seasons—1970-71, 1977–78, and 1980-81; and sang only in galas in 1972–73, 1979–80, and 1982–83.)

Post-operatic career[edit]

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 Verdi's Il trovatore (the last on EMI-Angel), two of La forza del destino, two of Aida, two of Verdi's Requiem, two of Puccini's Tosca, and one each of Verdi's Ernani and Un ballo in maschera, Bizet's Carmen, Puccini's Madama Butterfly and Il tabarro, Mozart's Cosí fan tutte and Don Giovanni (as Donna Elvira), and R. Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos, her final complete opera recording. She also recorded a disc of highlights from Porgy and Bess, with William Warfield as Porgy, conducted by Skitch Henderson, with Price singing the music all three female leads.

Her most popular aria collection is her first, titled Leontyne Price, a selection of Verdi and Puccini arias released in 1961 and often referred to as the "Blue Album" for its light blue cover. It has been continuously in print, and is available on CD and SACD. Equally enduring is an album of Christmas music she recorded in 1961 with Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic.

Her five "Prima Donna" albums, recorded from 1965 and 1978, are an exceptional survey of operatic arias for soprano, mostly from roles Price never performed on stage. They are available in a 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, a single crossover disc, "Right as the Rain," with André Previn, and an album of patriotic songs, "God Bless America." Her recordings of Samuel Barber's Hermit Songs, scenes from Antony and Cleopatra, and Knoxville: Summer of 1915, were brought together on a CD, "Leontyne Price Sings Barber".

Late in her career, she recorded an album of Schubert and Strauss lieder for EMI, and, for London-Decca, an slbum of Verdi arias with the Israel Philharmonic, conducted by Zubin Mehta.

In 1996, RCA-BMG released a limited-edition 11-CD boxed collection of Price's recordings, with an accompanying book, titled The Essential Leontyne Price.

Meanwhile, achival recordings of several important live performances have been released on CD. Deutsche Grammophon has issued 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. It includes a rare performance of Brahms' Zigeunerlieder. In 2005, the complete Library of Congress recital with Samuel Barber was released, on Bridge, and includes her only recorded performance of Henri Sauguet's La Voyante, as well as songs by Poulenc and the world premiere of Barber'sHermit Songs A 1952 broadcast of a Berlin performance of Porgy and Bess with Price and Warfield was discovered in the German radio archives and released on CD.

In 2011, Sony launched its series of historic live broadcasts from the Met with Il trovatore (1961) and Tosca (1962), both with Price and Corelli, and, the next year, add d an Ernani (1962) with Price and Carlo Bergonzi. In 2017, a broadcast Aida (1967), with Bergonzi and Bumbry, was released separately and in a boxed set of live performances from the company's first season at Lincoln Center. The set includes the opening night performance of Antony and Cleopatra.

The major roles in Price's repertoire that were never recorded in complete sets are Liu in Puccini'sTurandot and Donna Anna in MozartDon Giovanni. For these, live performances are available. Price's Salzburg performances of Giovanni in 1960 and 1961, and a 1963 Vienna performance (with Fritz Wunderlich), all three under Karajan, are available on CD and can be found on YouTube. Her Liu can be heard in a live Turandot from Vienna from 1961, on CD and YouTube.

In the 1970s, RCA cut back on recording operas and recitals and much of Price's recital repertoire went unrecorded, including songs by Rachmaninoff, Poulenc, Respighi, Barber, Lee Hoiby, and Ned Rorem. Tapes of three of her Salzburg recitals were posted on YouTube and fill some of that gap. A broadcast tape of the 1956 premiere of John La Montaine's cycle of songs, Songs of the Rose of Sharon, written for soprano and orchestra, has been found and posted on YouTube.

Among recent discoveries are a 1952 Juilliard performance of Falstaff, a Juilliard recital from 1951, and another recital given at Juilliard in 1955, Price's first year on the concert circuit. (The 1951 recital includes her only recording of Ravel's Scheherezade, with piano accompaniment.) All three were available on YouTube. Kinescopes of NBC Opera Theatre performances are locked in NBC vaults and have never been released on disc or videotape. However, audio excerpts of her NBC performances in 'Tosca, 'Magic Flute," and Don Giovanni, can be heard on YouTube.



Critical appreciation[edit]

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.

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]



  1. ^ Randye Jones, "Biographies: Leontyne Price (b. 1927)", Afrocentric Voices in "Classical" Music.
  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.
  4. ^ a b c Walsh, Michael; Newman, Nancy (January 14, 1985). "Music: What Price Glory, Leontyne!". Time Magazine. Retrieved February 21, 2011.
  5. ^ a b Henahan, Donal (January 4, 1985). "Opera: Leontyne Price's Final Stage Performance". The New York Times. Retrieved February 2, 2011.
  6. ^ "Spingarn Medal winners: 1915 to today" Archived 2010-07-07 at the Wayback Machine, NAACP. Retrieved September 18, 2012.
  7. ^ Boston Conservatory at Berklee to Honor Sutton Foster, Leontyne Price
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Driscoll, F. Paul. "Leontyne Price". Opera News. Retrieved October 1, 2019.
  9. ^ Dionne Warwick; David Freeman Wooley (November 22, 2011). My Life, as I See It: An Autobiography. Simon and Schuster. p. 93. ISBN 978-1-4391-7135-6.
  10. ^ Delta Sigma Theta celebrates centennial
  11. ^ "Time Magazine, Milestones, May 21, 1973". Time. May 21, 1973. Retrieved December 5, 2013.
  12. ^ Rockwell, John (February 19, 1979). "Opera: Met's 'Ariadne' Finally Comes to Stage". The New York Times. Retrieved December 5, 2013.
  13. ^ Great Performances – Great Moments at the Met: Viewer's Choice Archived 2012-06-30 at the Wayback Machine. KQED. Transcript. Aired Saturday, December 26, 2009. Retrieved February 21, 2011.
  14. ^ Story, "And So I Sing," p. 114.
  15. ^ Anson, Philip (September 30, 2001). "Carnegie Hall: A Concert of Remembrance". La Scena Musicale. Retrieved October 1, 2019.
  16. ^ Tommasini, Anthony (December 22, 2017). "Leontyne Price, Legendary Diva, Is a Movie Star at 90". The New York Times.
  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.


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  • Helena Matheopolous, Diva: Sopranos and Mezzo-sopranos Discuss Their Art (Northeastern University Press, 1992).
  • LaBlanc, Michael L. LaBlanc (1992). Contemporary Black biography. profiles from the international Black community. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research Inc. ISBN 9781414435299.
  • Luciano Pavarotti with William Wright, Pavarotti, My Own Story (Doubleday, 1981), ISBN 978-0-385-15340-9
  • Lyon, Hugh Lee (2006). Leontyne Price: Highlights of a Prima Donna. New York: Authors Choice Press.
  • 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).
  • Rosalyn M. Story, "And So I Sing:"African American Divas of Opera and Concert" (Amistad, 1990).
  • Robert Vaughan, Herbert von Karajan (W.W. Norton & Company, 1986).
  • Galina Vishneyskaya, Galina, A Russian Story (Harvest/HBJ Book, 1985).
  • Ward Plowden, Martha (2002). Famous Firsts of Black Women (2nd ed.). Gretna, La.: Pelican Pub. Co. ISBN 1565541979.
  • William Warfield, with Alton Miller, William Warfield: My Music and My Life (Sagamore Publishing, 1991).


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