Name: Mary Violet Leontyne Price
Born: 10 February 1927
Place of birth: Laurel, Mississippi, USA
Years active: 1951-1997
Known for: an American soprano who rose to international acclaim in the 1950s and 1960s; the first African American to become a prima donna at New York’s Metropolitan Opera
Leontyne Price’s remarkable career spans more than four decades. Her debut professional role was St Cecelia in an April 1952 Broadway revival of Four Saints in Three Acts by Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein. She gave her final performance on 19 November 1997 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She came out of retirement in October 2001, at the age of 74, to sing in a memorial concert at Carnegie Hall for the victims of the 11 September attacks.
Price made her operatic stage debut as Madame Lidoine in the American premiere of Francis Poulenc’s Les dialogues des Carmélites (1957) at the San Francisco Opera in September 1957. Prior to that she had sung several leading roles in operas on television.
A lirico spinto (Italian for ‘pushed lyric’) soprano, Price is considered to be one of the finest opera singers of the 20th century. Her voice has variously been described as “vibrant”, “soaring” and “rich, supple and shining”.
She is also known for breaking boundaries. She was the first Black opera singer to gain international acclaim and the first African-American woman to become a prima donna at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. She made her debut at the world-renowned company as Leonora in Verdi’s lIl trovatore (lThe Troubadour, 1853) in January 1961. She went on to sing 201 performances with the Met, in 16 roles including Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly (Puccini, 1904), Donna Anna in Don Giovanni (Mozart, 1787) and Liu in Turandot (Puccini, 1926).
Price retired from opera in 1985, giving her final performance in the titular role in a televised production of Verdi’s Aida (1871) on 3 January; she was 57. She continued to perform in concerts and recitals for the next 12 years.
She is the recipient of more than 20 Grammy Awards. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, the National Medal of the Arts in 1985, and a Lifetime Achievement award from the National Academy of Recorded Arts and Sciences in 1989. More recently she was presented with a Lifetime Achievement award at the 2019 International Opera Awards.
Leontyne Price was born to James, a lumber mill worker, and Katie, a midwife, in Laurel, Mississippi on 10 February 1927. Both her grandfathers had been Methodist ministers in Black churches in Mississippi, and she sang in her church choir as a girl.
Her love of music was evident from an early age and her parents were keen to encourage her. She was given a toy piano at just three years old and lessons with a local teacher quickly followed. Price studied music education at the all-Black Wilberforce College – now Central State University – in Wilberforce, Ohio, and subsequently won a scholarship to study at New York’s Juilliard School of Music.
In 1952, she married noted bass-baritone William Warfield. They met when performing the title roles in a revival of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. However, the marriage didn’t last, with Warfield saying their careers forced them apart. They separated in 1967 and divorced in 1972. They had no children.
Did you know?
In 1990, She published a storybook version of Verdi’s opera Aida, retelling the story for children. It became the basis for the hit Broadway musical of the same name by Elton John and Tim Rice.
Aida was Price’s signature role. Her first on-stage Aida came in 1957, when she stepped in for Italian soprano Antonietta Stella, who had withdrawn because of appendicitis; she sung the part many times afterwards. One of her greatest triumphs was her creation of the role of Cleopatra in Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, which premiered in 1966.
Operatic legend Leontyne Price.