Born February 10, 1927, in Laurel, MS; daughter of James and Kate (Baker) Price; married William C. Warfield (an opera singer), August 31, 1952 (divorced, 1973). Education: Central State College, Wilberforce, OH, B.A., 1949; attended the Juilliard School of Music, 1949-52; studied voice with Florence Page Kimball. Professional opera singer, 1952-85. Made operatic debut in Four Saints in Three Acts, 1952; performed in the United States and Europe. Also performed as a soloist with symphony orchestras. Addresses: Office-- c/o Columbia Artists Management, Inc., 165 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10019. Other-- 1133 Broadway, New York, NY 10010.
When Leontyne Price's angelic voice trailed off that night at New York's Lincoln Center in 1985, signaling the end of her final performance of the title role in Verdi's Aida --a role that has become synonymous with her name--the ensuing applause that embraced the great diva's farewell will forever echo, not only through the famed home of the Metropolitan Opera but through Price's heart as well. "That moment, I was a sponge, and I'll have all that moisture the rest of my life," Price told Robert Jacobson of Opera News. "I soaked that in. It's the most intense listening I've ever done in my life. For a change, I listened. I have every vibration of that applause in my entire being until I die. I just will never recover from it. I will never receive that much love as long as I live, and I would be terribly selfish to expect that much ever again."
Seldom has an artist received applause that was so genuine and so deserved. After all, Price was 57 years old that evening, performing one of the most demanding roles in the repertoire, and yet her voice was as full as the day she first performed Aida in 1957 and literally set the standard for its perfection. But then Price's voice, her instrument, was so rare and special to her that she had taken great pains throughout her career to guard it from overuse, and to not destroy it performing roles that she thought she couldn't handle.
If the time was not right, or she didn't think she could handle a certain part, Price was known to reject the invitations of such great conductors as Herbert von Karajan, Rudolf Bing, or James Levine with the wave of a hand. For this, she became known in music circles as arrogant and "difficult," but for the fiercely independent Price it was a matter of survival to be selective. "The voice is so special," she told Opera News. "You have to guard it with care, to let nothing disturb it, so you don't lose the bloom, don't let it fade, don't let the petals drop."
Whether she was known as "the girl with the golden voice" or "the Stradivarius of singers," Price is, without question, one of the great operatic talents of all time. The fact that she was the first black singer to gain international stardom in opera, an art-form theretofore confined to the upper-class white society, signified a monumental stride not only for her own generation, but for those that came before and after her.
By the time her career was in full blossom, for example, it was no longer a shock to white audiences to see black singers performing roles traditionally thought of as "white." In opera, the singing and the music are tantamount, and thanks to Price, black singers could now be judged solely on their artistic merit. And as the most successful heir of the great African-American vocal tradition, Price's achievements in opera can be seen as a justification for her lesser known but equally great predecessors, such as Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson.
Indeed, it was during an Anderson concert in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1936 that Mary Violet Leontyne Price, then just nine years old, first decided that she would dedicate her life to singing. From that day forward, she was driven to recreating the power and beauty which Anderson had brought to the stage. And with her 1985 retirement, Price has just as enthusiastically passed the torch to a new generation of young singers. "You have no idea how wonderful it is to know you had a part in the exposure of some of the great, marvelous talent," she told Jacobson. "I feel like a mother, a mother hen."
Though endowed with a miraculous talent, Price points to her own mother as the source of her common sense, which in no small way helped her to channel and safeguard that talent for such a long and glorious career. "You need [common sense] as much as you need talent in the career, Robert," Price told Jacobson. "Common sense, which means your own vibes, and going with them. I'm just homespun. I am still homespun. It's sort of down home, very country. I think of myself as a strange mixture of collard greens and caviar."
Price was born in Laurel, Mississippi, on February 10, 1927. Her father, James Price, worked in a sawmill, and her mother, Kate, brought in extra income as a midwife. Both parents were amateur musicians, and encouraged their daughter to play the piano and sing in the church choir at St. Paul's Methodist Church in Laurel. Price graduated from Oak Park High School in 1944, then left home for the College of Education and Industrial Arts (now Central State College) in Wilberforce, Ohio. There, she studied music education with the idea of becoming a music teacher, but her hopes of becoming an opera singer had not faded. When the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York offered her a four-year, full-tuition scholarship, Price leapt at the chance and arrived in the big city in 1949.
With living expenses so high in New York City, Price for a time feared that she would have to follow the path of some of her friends and take a job singing in blues clubs and bars, which would have been a little like Michelangelo working as a housepainter. But Elizabeth Chisholm, a longtime family friend from Laurel, came to Price's rescue with generous patronage, and the young singer was free to study full-time under vocal coach Florence Page Kimball. "It was simply the Midas touch from the instant I walked into Juilliard," Price told Opera News . "I learned things about stage presence, presentation of your gifts, how to make up, how to do research, German diction, et cetera." From Kimball, she went on to add, Price learned the steely control which would allow her to perform at top voice over so many performances, "to perform on your interest, not your capital. What she meant was, as in any walk of life, there should be something more to give."
Price thrived at Juilliard, and her role as Mistress Ford in a student production of Verdi's Falstaff caught the eye of composer Virgil Thomson, who cast her in a revival of his opera Four Saints in Three Acts, Price's first professional experience. This in turn led to a two-year stint (1952 to 1954) with a revival of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, which toured the U.S. and Europe. During this time Price married her co-star in that opera, William C. Warfield. The marriage was a disappointment, however, and the two divorced in 1973 after years of separation.
In 1954 Price made her concert debut at New York's Town Hall, where she exhibited great skill with modern compositions; a magnetic performer, she enjoyed the concert format and continued to tour regularly throughout her career, much to the chagrin of opera purists. Fast becoming a darling of the New York critics, Price soon saw her career take off. In 1955 she appeared in Puccini's Tosca on NBC television, thus becoming the first black singer to perform opera on television. And she was so well received that she was invited back to appear on NBC telecasts of Mozart's Magic Flute (1956), Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites (1957), and Mozart's Don Giovanni (1960).
One of the most fruitful associations of Price's career began in 1957, when she was invited by conductor Kurt Herbert Adler (he had seen her performance in Tosca ) to make her American operatic debut as Madame Lidoine in Dialogues of the Carmelites with the San Francisco Opera. In later years, San Francisco seemed to be the place where Price returned to challenge herself with new roles, thus expanding her repertoire.
In fact, Price first performed Aida there--under quite unusual circumstances. "The first Aida I did, period, anywhere, was on that stage, by accident," Price said in Opera News. "I've always threatened to give two wonderful medals to two wonderful colleagues who happened to have two wonderful appendectomies and gave me two wonderful opportunities to sing Aida. They are Antonietta Stella in San Francisco in 1957 and Anita Cerquetti at Covent Garden in 1958. The year I did Dialogues, Stella had an emergency appendectomy. Adler walked into the room and asked if I knew Aida. I told him yes, and I was on. I went through the score with Maestro Molinari-Pradelli, and I knew every single, solitary note and nuance. I had it ready to travel. After that Aida was definitely part of my repertoire. That was being in the right place at the right time."
In the following years, Price expanded her repertoire significantly on American soil, with such distinguished companies as the Chicago Lyric Opera and the American Opera Theater as well as the San Francisco Opera. She credits the great conductor Herbert von Karajan with introducing her to European audiences. Price's debut on that continent came at Vienna's Staatsoper in 1958 as Pamina in Zauberflote, not in Aida as has been commonly written. Her second European performance was in Aida at the same theater, and she quickly forged a reputation in Europe with a string of appearances on such venerable stages as London's Covent Garden, Verona's Arena, the Salzburg Festival, and Milan's historic La Scala, where her Aida won the hearts of Verdi's own countrymen.
Her international prominence now secure, Price returned home to make her debut at the mecca of American opera, New York's Metropolitan Opera, and thus began a long, often controversial, but always glorious association with that revered institution. Her Leonora in Il Trovatore on January 27, 1961, brought a standing ovation of 42 minutes, the longest ever given at the Met. Over the next several years Price was a staple in Metropolitan productions. When the company moved its home to the impressive new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, director Rudolf Bing extended Price the ultimate honor of opening the house in the world premier of Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra.
Although the opera itself was not well received, Price was magnificent, having dedicated herself to the role with total commitment. "Antony and Cleopatra was the event of the century, operatically speaking," Price told Opera News. "I was there! I lived the life of a hermit for a year and a half, so as not to have a common cold. From the moment I was asked to do this, I simply did everything I possibly could to have it be right. I accepted that responsibility with the greatest happiness. This was the greatest challenge of my life."
Clearly on top of the opera world, Price appeared in 118 Metropolitan productions between 1961 and 1969, when she drastically cut back her appearances not only in New York but elsewhere. It was here that she began to strike some opera insiders as ungrateful, vindictive, and arrogant, but Price insists that she was merely protecting herself from overexposure. "If I don't want to do something, I don't do it--nothing against anyone or the institution," she told Jacobson. "If you say yes to something that may not go, you are discarded--not the people who asked you to do it. They have something else to do. You are part of a unit, and they need your expertise to make the unit better.... The thing that's been misunderstood is that I don't give a lot of rhetoric before I say no. I just say no. It saves everybody time, and maybe because I don't give a reason, it's taken in a negative way."
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. Her career credits include countless recordings, many of them on the RCA label, which enjoyed an exclusive 20-year contract with the diva. She has won 13 Grammy Awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the nation's highest civilian award) in 1965, the Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement in the arts in 1980, and the First National Medal of Arts. She has appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and she performed at the White House in 1978. Price has lived alone for years in a townhouse in New York City's Greenwich Village.
by David Collins
Leontyne Price's Career
Leontyne Price's Awards
Recipient of numerous awards, including 13 Grammy Awards; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1965; Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement in the arts, 1980; first recipient of the National Medal of the Arts, 1985.
- Baker, Theodore, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Schirmer, 1984.
- Hitchcock, H. Wiley, The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, MacMillan, 1986.
- Souther, Eileen, The Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians, Greenwood Press, 1982.
- Opera News, July 1985; August 1985.