The first African American to become an international opera star, Mary Violet Leontyne Price was born on February 10, 1927, in Laurel, Mississippi. At nine, Leontyne attended a concert of singer MARIAN ANDERSON in nearby Jackson, an event she later cited as inspiring her to want a career in music. After years of singing in church and school groups, Leontyne left Mississippi to attend Central State College in Wilberforce, Ohio. Initially, she hoped to be a music teacher but soon decided to become a professional singer instead. After graduating in 1948, Price headed for New York City to attend the prestigious Juilliard School of Music on a full scholarship. She also took private lessons from vocal coach Florence Page Kimball, who would remain a mentor throughout Price’s career. While at Juilliard, Price performed in several school productions, including one of Falstaff in which she played Mistress Ford. Impressed by Price’s performance, composer Virgil Thomson asked her to appear on Broadway in the revival of his musical Four Saints in Three Acts. Price was then hired for the role of Bess in a popular revival of Porgy and Bess that toured the United States and Europe from 1952 to 1954. During its run, she married her costar William Warfield; they were divorced in 1973, although the couple separated much earlier.
In New York, Price was acclaimed for her concerts, especially her 1954 appearance at Town Hall. Although she showed herself adept at interpreting modern works, she was determined to build a career in grand opera. In 1955 she appeared as Floria in an NBC production of Tosca. The performance marked the first time an African American had ever played a major operatic role on American television. Price subsequently performed in several other operas on NBC, including Magic Flute (1956) and Don Giovanni (1960). Performing with the San Francisco Opera, Price made her opera debut on stage in 1957 as Madame Lidoine in Dialogues of the Carmelites. The same year, she was selected to perform the lead in the company’s production of Aida when the original star had an emergency appendectomy. From then on, Aida became a standard part of her repertoire. She performed the opera at La Scala in Milan, where she achieve another milestone by becoming the first African American to perform on its stage. Price soon emerged as an international opera star. Eventually, she would perform at nearly every major opera house in the world.
On January 27, 1961, Price had one of her greatest successes with her debut with New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Performing the role of Leonora in Il Trovatore, she received an astounding 42-minute ovation, the longest in the opera company’s history. Il Trovatore was only the first of 118 Met productions in which Price would appear before the end of the decade. One of her favorites was Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra (1966), the production chosen to inaugurate the Met’s new opera house at Lincoln Center. The role of Cleopatra was written with Price in mind. During the 1970s, Price became increasingly choosy about which parts she would play. Some in the opera world labeled her as difficult, but her selectiveness helped her preserve her voice, which has remained remarkably strong. Price continued to perform opera until age 57. She gave her final performance in Aida at Lincoln Center in 1985.
Since her retirement from opera, Price has continued to give recitals, a format she has always enjoyed since it allows her play different characters and experiment with different musical styles in a single performance. She has also become a respected teacher of master classes. Price maintains that helping nurture new talent is what “keeps me young.” She has received an array of awards including a Kennedy Center Honor and the Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Price has also been honored with The Essential Leontyne Price (1996), a set of 11 CDs of recordings made throughout her distinguished career.
Blier, Steven. “Time After Time: Throughout Her Long Career, Leontyne Price Has Inspired Fans and a New Generation of Singers.” Opera News. October 1996, pp. 10+.
Lyon, Hugh Lee. Leontyne Price: Highlights of a Prima Donna. New York: Vintage Press, 1973.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
The Essential Leontyne Price: Highlights. RCA, CD, 1997.
The Essential Leontyne Price: Spirituals, Hymns, and Sacred Songs. RCA, CD, 1997.
Leontyne Price: The Complete Bell Television Hour Performances. Video Artists International, VHS, 2000.