Price, Leontyne (1927—)

views updated

Price, Leontyne (1927—)

First African-American operatic soprano to achieve international recognition. Born Mary Violet Leontine Price in Laurel, Mississippi, on February 10, 1927; daughter of James Price and Katherine Price; graduated from Wilberforce College (later named Central State University); attended Juilliard School of Music; married William Warfield (a baritone), on August 31, 1952 (separated 1959 and divorced 1967).

Began her musical education at age three by learning piano, at which she had become an accomplished artist by eleven, and by singing in church choirs; determined on a musical career in high school and gave her first public recital (1943); graduated from Ohio's Wilberforce College before enrolling at New York's Juilliard School of Music (1948) where she soon decided on an opera career, even though opportunities for African-Americans in classical opera were extremely limited; made her American opera debut in San Francisco (1957); made her European debut in Vienna (1958); made her debut with the Metropolitan Opera in New York (1961), to great acclaim; became especially known for her interpretations of many of Verdi's heroines during her 24-year tenure with the Met; renowned in particular for her Aïda; retired from the opera stage (1985), concentrating on more intimate concert settings, and on teaching and recording; published Aida, her children's version of the opera, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon (Gulliver Books of Harcourt Brace, 2000).

One crisp autumn day on the verdant campus of Ohio's Wilberforce College, a group of seniors happened upon a lone freshman between classes, presenting another opportunity for hazing a hapless new arrival for the predominantly African-American school's 1943 semester. "What can you do?," they challenged her, to which she promptly replied, "I can sing!," and proceeded to do so in a voice of such clarity and power that the stunned upper-class students vowed never again to harass a freshman. Leontyne Price had won over another audience with the extraordinary talent that would bring future, and much more critical, listeners to their feet.

Leontyne Price had been considered a prodigy during her childhood in tiny Laurel, Mississippi, where she had been born on February 10, 1927, to James and Katherine Price . Her parents had been expecting a boy, whom they had pledged to call Leon after a family friend. Kate Price managed to honor the promise after a fashion by adding a feminine suffix to the chosen name, coming up with Leontine. (Her daughter, in an enthusiasm for French which developed much later, replaced the i with a y.) By the time her son George was born two years later, Kate had begun to notice Leontyne's attraction to music, and loved to tell the story of the local teacher who, on hearing two-year-old Leontyne mimic her singing, remarked to Kate, "You've got an armful of music there." When Leontyne was three, Kate arranged for piano lessons.

The source of Leontyne's aptitude was not hard to find, for both parents were musically inclined. James, a carpenter who had moved to Laurel from an even smaller village some 20 years earlier to look for work, played the tuba in Laurel's Methodist church band; while Kate, who had come from a similarly rural settlement in northern Mississippi, sang in the choir. The Prices gave their children a loving, but firm, Methodist upbringing, and church music played a large role in Leontyne's early musical development. At the age of five, her piano playing had made her somewhat of a local celebrity, and by the time Leontyne entered Laurel's Sandy Gavin Elementary School, she was often playing at church services, Sunday School, and church socials, as well as singing along with her mother in the choir.

The most wonderful thing in the world is to be who you are.

—Leontyne Price

Although the Prices lived in the poor, African-American section of Laurel, Leontyne never speaks of her childhood as being particularly deprived. "We were raised with love, discipline, respect for hard work, and faith in ourselves," she says. To supplement the family's meager income, Kate Price often worked as a midwife. On days she was tending a birth, Leontyne and her brother George were given over to the care of their Aunt Everline Greer , who worked as a downstairs maid to a prosperous white Laurel family, the Chisholms. Mrs. Chisholm in particular was charmed by Leontyne's voice and often invited her to sing at the social gatherings arranged at the family's home. Later, Price's talents graced similar functions all over Laurel. At seven years of age, Leontyne was earning a small income from her appearances and was considered a child prodigy, especially by Mrs. Chisholm, who would prove an important influence on Leontyne's later years.

The "original kickoff," as Price calls it, for her decision to pursue a musical career came when she was nine years old and traveled with her mother to Jackson, Mississippi, to hear soprano Marian Anderson sing. Anderson, fresh from a groundbreaking appearance at the White House at Eleanor Roosevelt 's invitation, electrified young Leontyne with her performance. "I woke up! I was excited!," Price recalls. "I was thrilled with this woman's manners, her carriage, her pride, her voice." The barriers which would face Price in later years were first successfully breached by Anderson, whom Roosevelt invited to sing at Washington's Lincoln Memorial in 1939, after she was refused permission by the Daughters of the American Revolution to appear at their Constitution Hall. Later, in 1955, Anderson would become the first black soprano to sing a leading role at New York's Metropolitan Opera.

A year after hearing Anderson sing in Jackson, Price entered Mississippi's segregated Oak Park Vocational School, considered the best school in the state for African-American students, and especially known for its musical education. Price was soon playing piano and singing with the Oak Park Choral Group, an award-winning ensemble that appeared at competitions and concerts throughout Mississippi. In December 1943, her senior year at Oak Park, Leontyne gave her first solo recital, playing and singing her own arrangements of such popular songs as "The Man I Love" and "White Christmas." The Prices were particularly pleased when Leontyne was named Miss Oak Park for having raised the most money for school projects and, even better, graduated cum laude.

Leontyne's music teacher at Oak Park had been sufficiently impressed with her abilities to secure her a full scholarship to Ohio's Wilberforce College (later renamed Central State University) which, like Oak Park, was considered the best musical school for black students in the Midwest. Price arrived at Wilberforce in 1943 intending to earn a degree allowing her to teach music in public schools. "At that time," she once remembered, "no black would aspire to be an opera singer. One would hope to be a music teacher." But her voice teacher at Wilberforce soon began urging her to consider a career as a singer, being impressed not only with Leontyne's clear, liquid voice but with her ability to learn new material quickly and thoroughly. Even the president of Wilberforce, who first heard Price perform at a faculty dinner, suggested she change her major to voice. But it wasn't until a concert audition for a visiting pianist from the East that Leontyne began to take the advice seriously. She had always considered herself a mezzo-soprano, but after one aria the pianist promptly told her that her range was much greater and began moving the piece up in pitch several times to prove it. When Price discovered she had no trouble extending her range, her extraordinary vocal gift as a full soprano finally became apparent to her. As if in confirmation, Leontyne won first place soon afterward at an interstate competition held in Cincinnati, which included delegates from eight other Midwest

schools, and she was made lead soloist of the Wilberforce Singers, an exclusive group consisting of the best vocal talent at the school.

In her senior year, school officials arranged an audition at New York's prestigious Juilliard School of Music which resulted, to no one's surprise, in a full scholarship. Unfortunately, the scholarship paid only tuition. With Leontyne's brother George attending school in South Carolina, the Prices confessed to Leontyne that money was too scarce for her living expenses in New York. No one had counted, however, on Mrs. Chisholm, who had been following Leontyne's progress with interest ever since the Oak Park days and who now offered to supply Price's travel expenses and the cost of her room, board, and textbooks. In addition, a benefit concert was arranged by Wilberforce's president at which actor and baritone Paul Robeson sang. Robeson had heard Price perform at Antioch College some months earlier and had offered to help her career in any way possible. The concert in Dayton—Robeson's first public singing engagement since he had embarked on a film career—raised $1,000 for Leontyne's New York education.

Arriving at Juilliard in 1948, Leontyne was assigned Florence Page Kimball , a former concert singer, as her vocal coach. Years later, Kimball admitted that she had been more impressed with her new student's charm and presence than with her voice on their first meeting, at which Leontyne sang Torelli's aria "Tu lo sai." Kimball was known for never rushing her students, telling them, "Quality comes with the luxury of time," but neither woman imagined that their relationship as student and teacher would continue for a good deal of time—indeed, more than 40 years. Kimball chose two operas as Price's course material, Verdi's Aïda and Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos, both of which Price would perform professionally in years to come, and one of which would make her famous.

Exposed to the excitements and opportunities of big city life, Price indulged in her first love affair (with a Haitian student at Juilliard who later left her to marry another), enjoyed movies and Broadway shows when she could afford them, and most important, attended her first operas: Puccini's Turandot at City Center and a Metropolitan Opera production of Strauss' Salomè, for which she found enough money for a gallery ticket allowing her to stand at the rear of the theater. Like the young girl ten years earlier who had been thrilled by Marian Anderson, Price was mesmerized by the drama and emotion of the opera stage and determined to give her future to it. She promptly arranged an audition for Juilliard's Opera Workshop, for which she was accepted in her sophomore year. The Workshop was under the direction of Frederick Cohen, the school's director of opera, and it was in Cohen's "Introduction to Opera" class that Price sang the "Lament" from Dido and Aeneas. Cohen excitedly told his wife that evening, "We have the voice of the century."

Also that year, Price gave a performance, arranged by Kimball, at Juilliard's concert hall. In the audience was composer Max Steiner, who had just been asked to cast a planned revival of George Gershwin's folk opera Porgy and Bess. After hearing Price, Steiner scribbled on his program, "She would make a good Bess," sent Kimball parts of the score, and urged her to work with Leontyne in preparation for auditions some months hence. Porgy and Bess, based on DuBose Heyward's novel, had originally opened on Broadway in 1935, but subsequent revivals had removed parts of the score considered too "operatic" for audiences used to musical comedy. The touring production planned by producer Robert Breen was to be the first to restore Gershwin's complete score, and Steiner knew it would require singers of considerable range and ability. Also in the audience at one of Kimball's student concerts was composer Virgil Thomson, who was then planning a restaging of the opera he had written with Gertrude Stein , Four Saints In Three Acts, to be presented at Juilliard. Thomson cast Leontyne as Saint Cecilia . The show ran for two weeks, with plans for a European tour, but by then Breen had begun auditions for Porgy and Bess.

True to Steiner's prediction, Price was given the part of Bess, her first professional role, opposite baritone William Warfield's Porgy. Warfield had recently taken the country by storm with his appearance as Joe in the 1951 film version of Show Boat, and had been touring with two nightclub revues, Set My People Free and Regina. Rehearsals for Porgy and Bess began in May 1952 in a Harlem loft, and Breen knew his casting was right the first time Warfield and Price sang the second act duet, "Bess, You Is My Woman Now." Cast members felt there was some special attraction between the two singers, a suspicion confirmed when Price and Warfield began dating. The show opened in Dallas during the summer of 1952, with Kate and James Price and Mrs. Chisholm in the audience. It later traveled to Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Washington, where President Harry Truman was the guest of honor at the old National Theater. The reviews were enthusiastic, especially focusing on Price's Bess. "Leontyne Price sings the most exciting and thrilling Bess we have ever heard," wrote the Washington Post's David Hume. Novelist Reynolds Price, who remains a loyal Leontyne Price fan, remembers seeing the production when it finally reached New York in 1953, after a European tour. "At the center of that famous Gershwin revival," he recalls, "there moved a blazing, striding, soaring young Bess." Price was especially praised for her combination of dramatic and vocal power, and many veteran theatergoers felt it was the first time they had ever heard Gershwin's score given full justice. "Leontyne Price sings with rapture and professional skill," wrote The New York Times' Brooks Atkinson, "and acts with fire and abandon, turning that wayward part into a new person."

The Porgy and Bess tour held many surprises for Price, not the least of which was her first full exposure to white prejudice. "I was highly naive to think that once the hurdles had been conquered I'd have automatic acceptance," she said many years later. "I've paid my price." Not being allowed at major hotels, the tour's all-black cast was often forced to stay in private homes and motels. Price was nearly barred from entering the Dallas hotel in which Mrs. Chisholm was staying, permitted to pass through the doors only after Chisholm soundly berated the doorman who had blocked Leontyne's entry. Cast members were routinely denied rental cars given to the tour's white management, while the significance of President Truman's presence at the Washington premiere was underscored by the fact that the National Theater had been closed by its previous management, who refused to admit either integrated audiences or casts.

Fortunately, a much happier discovery awaited Price just before the show began its run at the National. William Warfield proposed to her, and the two were married in New York on August 31, 1952. The marriage lasted until 1959, when the two separated amicably, citing the strains of their respective careers. The separation was formalized in 1967.

Price would play Bess for a full two years, a platform that brought her to the attention of such contemporary musical notables as Igor Stravinsky, Henri Sauget and William Kilmayer, many of whose works she introduced in recitals at the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum. Also while touring with Porgy and Bess, Price gave her first New York solo concert at Town Hall, though the response was a far cry from the ecstatic reviews she had been used to. Critics praised her stage presence and interpretative skills but took her to task for an overly pronounced tremolo and unevenness of tone. Price paid careful attention to these reactions and redoubled her efforts with Florence Kimball. Accompanying her on piano at Town Hall was composer Samuel Barber, who became a close friend and asked her to debut some of his early works at a Library of Congress recital in Washington later that year; he requested her again when he premiered his Prayers of Kierkegaard with the Boston Symphony. "Every note is just right for me," Price said of Barber's work. "As an artist … this is two-thirds of the job—not having to adjust your voice to the score." Barber's Hermit Songs, in fact, was Leontyne's first recorded release, in 1955 for RCA.

Fresh from the Porgy and Bess tour, Price extended her exposure to a national audience by singing Tosca in a television production mounted by NBC's Opera Theater in January 1955, just as Marian Anderson was breaking the color barrier at the Met. Producer Samuel Chotzinoff's choice for his Tosca was a risky one, since no African-American soprano had appeared in the role in a major stage production, let alone before a national television audience. "Is she a good singer?," NBC's David Sarnoff asked when Chotzinoff came to him for approval. "She's a great singer," Chotzinoff replied. "Then that's all you have to think about," said Sarnoff. Eleven NBC affiliates in the South refused to carry the show, which was broadcast live and sung in English. The response to Price's operatic ability was as enthusiastic as it had been for her Bess. "She can sail into those big, fat phrases and make them rise with a beauty that is both strong and controlled," Hume wrote. "She is a stunning, sumptuous Tosca, and ought quickly to follow Marian Anderson's lead into the Metropolitan." So enthusiastic was the audience reaction to the production that Price appeared in three other NBC Opera Theaters, Mozart's The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni and Poulenc's Dialogue of the Carmelites, over the next five years.

It was the latter production that brought Price's first offer from a major opera company, the San Francisco Opera, then under the baton of Kurt Adler. Adler had seen the NBC version of Poulenc's contemporary opera set in a convent during the French Revolution and cast Leontyne in the same role she had sung on television, Madame Lidoine. Price made her professional debut in the company's production on September 20, 1957, joining the likes of Birgit Nilsson and Renata Tebaldi , who had also made their debuts under Adler's direction. During intermission one evening, Adler presented Price with another opportunity which would serve her well. His female lead in the company's production of Aïda had just been rushed to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. Verdi's Ethiopian slave who falls tragically in love with an Egyptian military officer had been played by an African-American soprano only once before, when Caterina Jarboro sang the role for the Chicago Opera Company in 1933. But it was a role Price had been singing ever since her first days with Kimball, and one she felt capable of singing professionally. With little time to rehearse and no time to block her movements (forcing her during the second intermission to inquire of the director, "Where am I supposed to die?"), the performance ended with a standing ovation for her work and the beginning of a reputation for the role with which she would be most closely identified. Delighted with her reception, Adler cast her as Doña Anna in his company's Don Giovanni and as her first Leonora in Il Trovatore, in 1958. During her ten years with the San Francisco Opera, Price also sang her first Cio-Cio-San in Madame Butterfly, as well as Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera and Doña Elvira in Ernani. Over 40 years later, Price still called the San Francisco Opera "my grand alma mater."

In between seasons in San Francisco, Price sang with the Chicago Lyric Opera, where she was temporarily stung by negative reviews of her performance in that company's Thaïs. As she had after her Town Hall recital some years earlier, Price took the comments to heart and sought help from Kimball, returning to Chicago to garner triumphant reviews of her Liu in Turandot. With her reputation growing stronger with each performance, Leontyne received her first offer from the Met in New York, but she turned it down on the advice of her manager, Andrè Mertens. Like Kimball, Mertens preferred to nurse his artists slowly and encouraged Leontyne to begin accepting the several offers now coming in from Europe—especially from the Vienna State Opera, whose director, Herbert von Karajan, had heard her in a blind audition arranged by Mertens. Von Karajan was the most influential musical personality on the Continent at the time, ensuring that her European debut with his 1958 production of Aïda for the Staatsoper in Vienna was quickly followed by productions in Paris, London and, finally, at La Scala in 1960. As Price well knew, any diva appearing at La Scala must make appropriate compensation to the various "claques" which inhabit that venerable house, known to cheer and shout enthusiastically if the payment is generous or boo and hiss menacingly if it is not. Wisely, Price ensured that the claques were amply paid to do neither, thus assuring that the cheers of "Divina! Divina!" which filled the house during a standing ovation were an accurate reading of her performance. She was hailed throughout Italy as the Verdi soprano, leading one critic to effuse, "Our great Verdi would have found her the ideal Aïda"; and La Scala was so impressed with her reception that it accepted her contract requirement that no role would be denied her in future productions based on her race. Price thus became the first black Cio-Cio-San to appear on the La Scala stage, with one opera official commenting, "The public will have to get used to it. If … anybody objects, we'll say she's a suntanned Butterfly." He needn't have worried: every production of Butterfly that season was sold out well in advance.

It was Price's Doña Anna in von Karajan's production of Don Giovanni for the 1960 Salzburg Festival that brought another offer from the Met. This time, Mertens and Kimball agreed with Price that she was ready. Leontyne noted that by now, with a reputation at virtually every other major opera house in the United States and Europe, "I was box office." On the evening of January 27, 1961, Price became only the fifth black artist to sing a leading role at the Metropolitan when she appeared as Leonora in the Met's production of Il Trovatore, with Franco Corelli and Robert Merrill. Waiting to mount the stage for her first entrance, Price confessed to Kimball, "I'm scared to death. What should I do?" Her teacher merely held up a long-stemmed rose taken from a nearby bouquet. "Smell a rose, and sing," she replied.

Jarboro, Caterina (1908–1986)

African-American soprano. Born on July 24, 1908 (some sources cite 1903), in Wilmington, North Carolina; died in August 1986 in New York, New York; trained in Paris and Milan.

Born and raised in Wilmington, North Carolina, Caterina Jarboro became the first African-American to appear with an American opera company when she made her debut with the Chicago Opera in 1933, in Aïda. When the company performed at the Hippodrome that July in New York City, The New York Times' music editor wrote: "The young soprano brought a vivid dramatic sense that kept her impersonation vital without overacting, and an Italian diction remarkably pure and distinct." Even so, the newly founded New York Metropolitan Opera Association refused to accept her as a member. Hannah Block , a Wilmington community activist, was instrumental in the restoration of Jarboro's childhood home at 214 Church Street.

When the curtain rang down some three hours later, the old Met house on 39th Street thundered with a standing ovation that continued for 42 minutes, still a Met record. Swept up in the adoration for Leontyne were Kate and James Price, her brother George, and the Chisholms, all of whom had watched her triumph from the tenth row. "I'm very happy," Kate Price told a reporter that night. "My work has been accomplished." The New Yorker's review, among the nearly unanimous praise that appeared following the performance, told its readers that Price had given her Leonora "a special dramatic eloquence which arose partly from the rich, vibrant quality of her voice and partly from the authoritative artistry with which she used it." Price's four other starring roles with the Met that season were equally well received, particularly her Aïda, which remains her favorite role for a personal reason. " Aïda afforded me the opportunity to luxuriate in 'Black is Beautiful,'" Price says. "My interpretation is provocative, because to me Aïda is a princess in captivity." With her success as an internationally recognized diva now firmly established, Price became an outspoken supporter of many African-American causes. More than half of her benefit concerts at Carnegie Hall during the 1960s and 1970s, for example, raised money for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change, and the National Urban League. "Success," Price said at the time, "is when you have the luxury of doing what you feel like doing."

During her years with the Met, Price became the first black performer to open a Met season with her performance as Minnie in Puccini's Girl of the Golden West in October 1963—the first time the work had been mounted by the Met in 30 years. And on September 16, 1966, Price opened the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in her old friend Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra, commissioned especially for the occasion by then-general manager Rudolph Bing and staged by Franco Zefferelli, both of whom set an impossible schedule for preparing the work. It was generally agreed that the production was a disaster, plagued by technical problems that on one occasion left Price imprisoned inside a golden pyramid that stubbornly refused to open out toward the audience to reveal her Cleopatra. "It was a beautiful score and I have tremendous respect for Barber as a composer," Leontyne said during the post-mortems. "I don't think his music was properly heard." But the Barber work was the only blemish in an otherwise triumphant tenure at the Met. "I never dreamed it," Kimball said mid-way through Price's reign, remembering their early days together. "I thought she seemed intelligent and had a pretty voice, but it never occurred to me that she would develop the way she has."

In 1965, the Met agreed with Price's request to slow down her performance schedule, citing the strains on a voice she intended to preserve as long as possible. "I prefer to sing on my interest rather than on my capital," she said, and told a reporter in 1970 that she felt she had been losing the joy and beauty of music amid the demands of the opera stage. Throughout the 1970s, Price devoted more time to more intimate, and less stressful, concerts and recitals in which she sang spirituals, folk ballads, and new music by Barber and Ned Rorem. Her now less frequent work on the opera stage seemed to gain strength from her careful tending, and her performance in the San Francisco Opera's 1977 Ariadne auf Naxos is considered by many to be her finest work. Finally, Price gave her farewell performance as Aïda in the Met's production of January 3, 1985, hailed as the opera event of that year. (She sang the role one last time on public television later that same year.)

Since then, she has given herself over to the pure joy of singing that she knew as a young girl back in Laurel, performing at solo concerts and at benefits and keeping up an impressive recording schedule which has brought her 19 Grammy awards, not to mention three Emmy awards, the Kennedy Center award, and the President's Medal of Freedom. More important, her work opened the door even wider for a new generation of African-American opera stars, such as Grace Bumbry and Shirley Verrett , and her encouragement and support of new young artists is well known. "A serious argument could be made," writes Reynolds Price, "that no other singer has equaled the full panoply of her career in its beauty of endowment and discipline, in stamina and intelligence, in dramatic and stylistic variety." Price's own assessment of her career is more modest. "My parents taught me to be the best human being I could be," she says. "They told me that it was wonderful that I was black and that if I did my best, I would be rewarded." James and Kate Price were exactly right.


Abdul, Raoul. Blacks in Classical Music: A Personal History. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1977.

Campbell, Bebe Moore. "The 1990 Essence Awards," in Essence. Vol. 21, no. 6. October 1990.

Lyon, Hugh Lee. Highlights of a Prima Donna. NY: Vantage, 1973.

Price, Reynolds. "Bouquet for Leontyne," in Opera News. Vol. 59, no. 14. April 1, 1995.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York

About this article

Price, Leontyne (1927—)

Updated About content Print Article