History Hunt: Leontyne Price

We’re back in North America in the twentieth century this week to meet a soprano with a connection to an opera star previously featured on History Hunt!

Leontyne Price was born as Mary Violet Leontine Price on February 10, 1927 in Laurel, Mississippi. Her mother was an amateur singer well known for her beautiful voice and her father played the tuba. Both parents encouraged Price to follow her love of music from a young age. Price was given a treasured toy piano when she was three, started lessons on a full-sized piano when she was five (or possibly also when she was three, according to one source), and participated in her first recital when she was six years old. She also sang from an early age in the church choir, the way her mother did, and performed at school.

When Price was nine years old, something happened to change her life: her mother took her on a trip to Jackson, Mississippi to a very special concert. The star was none other than Marian Anderson, the first African-American person to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Price was inspired by seeing an African-American opera star with a very successful career in spite of the racism of the time, and it was right then and there that she decided she wanted to be an opera singer, too.

Price worked hard at school as she grew up, both at her studies and her singing. She sang and played piano for her high school’s glee club, and she gave recitals and performed not just at school, but at church and in her community. When she graduated, it was with honours and a prize for “outstanding ability in music” (Nash).

Price knew that being an opera star isn’t easy. It’s often hard to make a living–and that was even more the case for an African-American woman in the 1940s. So when she went to university, she decided to get a music education degree as a fallback option. However, her voice teacher, Catherine Van Buren, encouraged her to take a chance and focus exclusively on her singing. That led Price to participate in a competition to earn a four-year scholarship to The Julliard School, a famous school of music–and she won the prize!

Though the scholarship money covered many of Price’s expenses, it still wasn’t quite enough. To fill in the gaps, Price was helped by Paul Robeson (a soon-to-be-featured History Hunt musician), who put on a benefit concert in which both he and Price participated. That concert raised $1000, which was a tremendous amount of money at the time. Price also received help from white musician Elizabeth Chisholm, who had often hired her in the past to sing at her concerts.

While studying at Julliard, Price sang in all kinds of operas put on by the school, and it was at one of these performances that her life once again changed. A composer named Virgil Thompson was so impressed by her that he offered her the role of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, in the opera Four Saints in Three Acts. That meant at the age of 25, Price was singing on Broadway and in Paris in the first–but definitely not last–major role of her career.

Her next big career break was being offered the role of Bess, from the opera Porgy and Bess (which previous History Hunt musicians Ruby Elzy and Robert McFerrin, Sr. had participated in). For the next two years, Price toured all across the United States and Europe giving performances before returning to her home country.

When Price was 28, she was hired to star in a television production of the famous opera Tosca, by Giacomo Puccini. She was the first African-American person to appear on TV in an opera role, and even though twelve TV stations in the American South refused to show the program for racist reasons, the performance brought Price still more fame. It was the first of several TV opera performances for Price over the next five years.

Two years later, in 1957, Price made her debut on the opera stage in San Francisco in a brand-new opera called Dialogues des carmélites (Dialogues of the Carmelites). In the same year, with a bit of good luck for her and bad luck for another singer, Price was able to sing in one of the most famous operas in Western classical music: Aïda. The soprano who was supposed to sing the lead role became too sick to perform, and so Price stepped in–and was a huge success.

Even though Price had developed an international career, performing at famous venues like Covent Garden in London, England, and the Teatro alla Scala (nicknamed La Scala) in Milan, Italy, it wasn’t until 1961 that she at last was able to give her first performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. She was only the fifth African-American opera singer to participate in an opera there; her first (but definitely not last!) performance was in Il Trovatore by Giuseppe Verdi, as the lead soprano. The audience for her debut was so astounded by her brilliance that they gave her a forty-two minute standing ovation!

Leontyne Price in costume for her starring role in Il Trovatore.

Leontyne Price in costume for her starring role in Il Trovatore.

Price gave 204 performances at the Metropolitan Opera over the next twenty-four years as one of the opera company’s lead sopranos. She had a role created just for her in an opera commissioned by the Met, that of Cleopatra in Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra. From then on, Price was so famous that she could pick which roles she would play. She chose carefully, making sure not only that she wouldn’t be too busy and would have time to give recitals, but also to avoid harmful stereotypes about black people.

Over the length of her career, Price won between eighteen and over twenty Grammy Awards (sources differ) and was awarded a number of high honours, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Arts, and a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Recorded Arts and Sciences. While she retired from the stage in 1985, her incredible singing hasn’t been forgotten, and she has a core of dedicated fans even thirty years after her farewell opera performance.

Below is a video of one of her performances in the role of Floria Tosca in Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca:

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To Learn More (Sources):
Leontyne Price on Mississippi Writers & Musicians
Leontyne Price on Biography.com
The 20th Century O-Z: Dictionary of World Biography ed. Frank N. Magill
Leontyne Price at the Encyclopædia Britannica
Leontyne Price at Women’s History on About.com
Leontyne Price Was Born February 10, 1927 on America’s Library.gov
Leontyne Price Biography on the Encyclopedia of World Biography
MetOpera Database on The Metropolitan Opera Archives
Leontyne Price by Randye Jones
Leontyne Price on Wikipedia.org
Image sources: Defining Diva and Leontyne Price

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