Price, Mary Violet Leontyne

views updated

Price, Mary Violet Leontyne

February 10, 1927

Born in Laurel, Mississippi, the soprano Leontyne Price came to be regarded as a prima donna assoluta during her exceptionally long operatic career (19521985).

Price's parents had been involved in the musical life of Laurel and provided her with piano lessons from the age of four. Soon thereafter she joined her mother in the church choir and, after attending a recital by Marian Anderson in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1936, she resolved on a career in music. At that time African-American women could aspire in music only for roles in education, and it was with that major in mind that Price enrolled at Central State College in Ohio. Before she graduated in 1949, however, her vocal talent was manifest and she was encouraged to enter the Juilliard School of Music, where she studied with Florence Kimball. As Mistress Ford in a school production of Verdi's Falstaff, she attracted the attention of American composer Virgil Thomson, who enlisted her for the role of Cecilia in a 1952 revival of his Four Saints in Three Acts (1934), a work calling for an all-black cast, thus initiating her professional career and terminating her formal study.

Following this production in New York and performances at the Paris International Arts Festival, Price was engaged for the role of Bess in George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, with which she toured in Berlin, Paris, and Vienna into 1954. In November of that year, she made her New York debut at Town Hall. The following February she appeared in the title role of Puccini's Tosca on television, later adding Mozart's Die Zauberflöte and Don Giovanni, and Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites to her NBC telecasts. In 1956 she sang the role of Cleopatra in Handel's Giulio Cesare.

It was in the Poulenc opera as Madame Lidoine that Price made her debut with the San Francisco Opera in 1957, following this with the leading soprano roles with that company in Verdi's Il Trovatore and Puccini's Madama Butterfly and debuts that year at the Arena di Verona, Covent Garden, and the Vienna Staatsoper (Aida ). Her debut with the Lyric Opera of Chicago was as Liù in Puccini's Turandot (1959).

The Metropolitan Opera had only begun adding black singers to its roster in 1955 with Marian Anderson and Robert McFerrin, followed by the debuts of African-American artists Mattiwilda Dobbs (1956), Gloria Davy (1958), and Martina Arroyo (1959). Actually, Price had already appeared in the Metropolitan Opera Jamboree, a fund-raising broadcast from the Manhattan Ritz Theater, April 6, 1953, when she performed "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess, but her formal debut was as Leonora in Verdi's Il Trovatore on January 27, 1961, when she won an unprecedented forty-two-minute ovation, fully justifying her selection as the leading lady to open the next Met season (as Puccini's Minnie in La Fanciulla del West ) and that of the next year (repeating her 1957 Vienna role of Aida, in which she was heard each season for the following five years). During the last six years of the "old Met," she particularly excelled in the Italian repertory (as Liù in Puccini's Turandot, Cio-Cio-San in Puccini's Madama Butterfly, and Elvira in Verdi's Ernani, which she had sung for Herbert von Karajan at the 1962 Salzburg Festival).

The new home of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center was inaugurated in 1966 with a new opera by Samuel Barber, Antony and Cleopatra, written specifically for Price. When she concluded her career in opera performances on January 3, 1985, with Aida at the Metropolitan Opera, she had proved her interpretive leadership in the Italian repertories of Verdi and Puccini, but she had expanded the previously practiced limits to move far past any stereotypes, excelling in German, Spanish, French, and Slavic works, as well as in spirituals and other American literature. Her principal opera roles, in addition to those mentioned, were the Prima Donna and Ariadne (Ariadne auf Naxos ), Amelia (Un Ballo in Maschera ), Fiordiligi (Così fan tutte ), Donna Anna (Don Giovanni ), Tatiana (Eugene Onegin ), Minnie (La Fanciulla del West ), Leonora (La Forza del Destino ), Manon (Manon Lescaut ), and the title role in Tosca.

Price's recorded legacy is extensive. In addition to many of the operatic roles in which she appeared onstageBizet's Carmen, Mozart's Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte, Puccini's Madama Butterfly and Tosca, Verdi's Aida, Un Ballo in Maschera, Ernani, La Forza del Destino, and Il Trovatore she has recorded Samuel Barber's Hermit Songs and music of Fauré, Poulenc, Wolf, and R. Strauss, as well as Verdi's Requiem and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. She has also recorded excerpts from Porgy and Bess (with her then-husband William Warfield), an album of popular songs with André Previn (Right as Rain ), and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, a collection of fourteen spirituals. In 1992 RCA reissued on compact disc forty-seven arias by Price under the title Leontyne Price: The Prima Donna Collection, arias that had been recorded from 1965 to 1979.

See also Anderson, Marian


Blyth, Alan. "Mary Violet Leontyne Price." In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, vol. 15. London: Grove, 1980, pp. 225226.

"Leontyne Price." In Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 7th ed., edited by Nicholas Slonimsky, p. 1363. New York: Schirmer, 1992.

Lyon, Hugh Lee. Leontyne Price: Highlights of a Prima Donna. New York: Vantage Press, 1973.

Sargeant, Winthrop. Divas. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1973, pp. 134167.

dominique-renÉ de lerma (1996)

About this article

Price, Mary Violet Leontyne

Updated About content Print Article