Leontyne Price

Mary Violet Leontyne Price (born February 10, 1927) is an American soprano. Born and raised in Laurel, Mississippi,[1] she rose to international acclaim in the 1950s and 1960s, and was the first African American to become a leading performer at the Metropolitan Opera, and one of the most popular American classical singers of her generation.[2][3][4]

Leontyne Price in 1994

Reviewing her televised farewell opera performance at the Met in 1985, as Aida, one critic described Price's voice as "vibrant," "soaring" and "a Price beyond pearls."[5] Time magazine called her voice "Rich, supple and shining, it was in its prime capable of effortless soaring from a smoky mezzo to the pure soprano gold of a perfectly spun high C."[4]

A lirico spinto (Italian for "pushed lyric") soprano, she was considered especially well suited to the heroines of Verdi's "middle period" operas: Aida, the Leonoras of Il trovatore and La forza del destino. and Amelia in Un ballo in maschera. She also was noted for her interpretations of leading roles in operas by Giacomo Puccini and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

After her retirement from opera, she continued to appear in recitals and orchestral concerts until 1997.

Among her many honors and awards are the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1964), the Spingarn Medal (1965),[6] the Kennedy Center Honors (1980), the National Medal of Arts (1985), the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement (1986),[7] numerous honorary degrees, and 19 Grammy Awards for operatic and song recitals and full operas, and a Lifetime Achievement Award, more than any other classical singer. In October 2008, she was among the first recipients of the Opera Honors by the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2019, Leontyne Price was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from Boston Conservatory at Berklee.[8]

Life and careerEdit

Leontyne Price was born in Laurel, Mississippi.[9] Her father James worked in a lumber mill and her mother Katherine (née Baker) was a midwife who sang in the church choir. They had waited 13 years for a child, and Leontyne became the focus of intense pride and love. Given a toy piano at the age of three, she began piano lessons with a local teacher, Mrs. H.V. McInnis, at age five. When she was in kindergarten, her parents traded in the family phonograph as the down payment on an upright piano.

At 14, she was taken on a school trip to hear Marian Anderson sing a recital in Jackson, an experience she later said was inspirational. "The minute she came on stage, I knew I wanted to walk like that, look like that, and if possible, sound something near that," she told an interviewer in 2008.

Price in 1951

In her teen years, Leontyne accompanied the "second choir" at St. Paul's Methodist Church, sang and played piano for the chorus at Laurel's all-black Oak Park Vocational High School. The chorus was a prize-winning ensemble led by Mrs. McInnis. She earned extra money by singing for funerals and civic functions.

Meanwhile, at age eight, she had begun visiting the home of Alexander and Elizabeth Chisholm, a wealthy white family for whom Leontyne's aunt worked as a laundress. Leontyne became a favorite playmate of the Chisholms' older daughters, Jean and Peggy, and Mrs. Chisholm encouraged Leontyne's piano-playing and singing. After the onset of World War II, when she was in high school, Leontyne began working part-time in the Chisholms' household as a maid and baby-sitter for their youngest daughter, Cynthia. When not working, she was encouraged to play the piano and listen to the radio and record player.

Aiming for a teaching career, Price enrolled at the all-black Wilberforce College in Wilberforce, Ohio.[9] In her freshman year, Price joined Delta Sigma Theta, a sorority that later helped arrange and support several of her first recitals in major cities. Her success in the glee club led to frequent solos in the chapel (including her first performance of "Vissi d'arte," in English). She also participated in master classes, including one with the famous bass Paul Robeson at Antioch College. In 1947, she won third place in a six-state vocal competition that resulted in a performance in the National Negro Music Festival in Chicago.

In the summer of 1947, the publicly funded School of Music and Education was separated from Wilberforce University and became Central State University. Central State President Charles Wesley often took Leontyne along as a soloist to alumni and civic gatherings to promote the newly independent college, and encouraged her to consider advanced studies in voice. After her graduation in 1948, the famous bass Paul Robeson gave a benefit concert for her future training in Dayton, Ohio. She also sang on the program. After the Berlin blockade, Robeson became a controversial figure for his pro-Soviet views, and Price did not mention Robeson in later interviews, and at least once denied the benefit concert occurred.

The Chisholms now stepped in as her professional champions. In the summers of 1948 and 1949, Mrs. Chisholm and Leontyne gave recitals in Laurel, Greenville and Meridian. The Chisholms also agreed to defray some of Leontyne's expenses at the Juilliard School, starting in fall 1948, when she won a scholarship and was admitted to the studio of Florence Page Kimball, her principal voice teacher.[10][9]

In her second year, she heard Ljuba Welitsch sing Salome from the standing room section at the Met and became fascinated by opera. In fall 1950, she joined Juilliard's Opera Workshop and sang small roles in workshop performances of Mozart's Magic Flute (First Lady) and Puccini's Gianni Schicci (Aunt Nella). In the summer of 1951, she enrolled in the opera program at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood and sang Ariadne in Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos (second cast).

In early 1952, she sang her breakout performance as Mistress Ford in a Juilliard production of Verdi's Falstaff.[9] Virgil Thomson heard a performance and cast her in a revival of his all-black opera, Four Saints in Three Acts. After two weeks on Broadway, the production of Saints went to Paris. Meanwhile, Leontyne had been signed to sing Bess in a new production of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, directed by Robert Breen.

Fresh off the plane from Paris, she sang the opening performance of Porgy at the State Fair of Texas on June 9, 1952, receiving rave reviews. The production played Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., and then toured Vienna, Berlin, London, and Paris, under the auspices of the U.S. State Department.

Price from Porgy and Bess 1953

On the eve of the European tour, Price married William Warfield, her Porgy and a noted bass-baritone concert singer. The ceremony took place at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, with many in the cast in attendance.

Although many black newspapers criticized the export of Porgy and Bess as presenting a false and demeaning picture of black life, the Breen production showed off a new generation of highly trained black singers, and affirmed that Americans could revive a musical masterpiece while recognizing its outdated stereotypes. Many East Berliners crossed to West Berlin to see the show.

When Porgy and Bess returned to the States in 1953, Warfield was unable to adjust a busy recital and concert schedule and was dropped from the cast, while Leontyne sang Bess for another year, on Broadway and a second US tour. Warfield said the episode put a strain on their young marriage. The couple was legally separated in 1967, and divorced in 1973. They had no children.[11]

Price and Warfield both dreamt of careers in opera, but racial barriers limited opportunities for black singers. The New York City Center Opera under Laszlo Halasz had hired the first black singers in leading roles in the mid-1940s, starting with Camilla Williams and Todd Duncan. In 1949, the new general manager of the Met, Rudolf Bing, had said publicly he would cast Negro singers "for the right part."

The Met itself recognized Leontyne's potential by inviting her to sing "Summertime" at a "Met Jamboree" fund-raiser on April 6, 1953, at the Ritz Theater on Broadway. Price was thus the first African American to sing with and for the Met, if not at the Met as a member of the company. That distinction went to Marian Anderson, who sang Ulrica in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera on January 7, 1955. Leontyne and Warfield were in the audience.

While awaiting a chance to sing in opera, Price sang duo concerts with Warfield, and, after leaving Porgy, began a concert career for Columbia Artists. In 1953, she sang a recital at the Library of Congress, with composer Samuel Barber at the piano. The program included the world premiere of Barber's Hermit Songs. In November 1954, Price made her formal recital debut at New York's Town Hall.


The door to opera opened through the young medium of TV and the NBC Opera Theater, under music director Peter Herman Adler. In January 1955,[9] she sang the title role in Puccini's Tosca, the first appearance by an African American in a leading role in televised opera. (Another black soprano, Veronica Tyler, had sung in the chorus for several seasons.) Price went on to star in three other NBC broadcasts--as Pamina in The Magic Flute (1956), Madame Lidoine in Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites (1957), and Donna Anna in Don Giovanni (1960). The Tosca was not controversial--Price's appearance had not been widely advertised--and the Jackson, Mississippi, NBC affiliate carried the broadcast. However, Price's later opera broadcasts were boycotted by several NBC affiliates, most if them in the South, because of her race.

In March 1955, she was taken by her agent to audition at Carnegie Hall for the young Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan, who was touring with the Berlin Philharmonic. Impressed with her singing of "Pace, pace, mio Dio" from Verdi's La forza del destino, Karajan reportedly leapt to the stage to accompany Price himself. Saying she was "an artist of the future," he asked to be allowed to direct her future European career.

Over the next three seasons, Price continued to give recitals with David Garvey as her pianist. In 1956, she toured India and then, the next year, spent a month touring Australia, giving concerts and recitals. Both tours were under the auspices of the U.S. State Department. On May 3, 1957, she sang Aida in a concert performance at the May Festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan, her first public performance of what became her signature role.

External audio
  You may hear Leontyne Price performing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Requiem Mass in D minor K. 626 with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Fritz Wunderlich, Eberhhard Wachter, Hilde Rossel-Majdan, Walter Berry in 1960 Here on archive.org

Her grand opera debut occurred in San Francisco on September 20, 1957, as Madame Lidoine in the U.S. premiere of Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites. A few weeks later, Price sang her first staged Aida, substituting at the last minute for Italian soprano Antonietta Stella, who suffered an appendicitis. Her European debut followed in May 1958, as Aida, at the Vienna Staatsoper under Karajan. This was followed in short order by her first appearances at London's Royal Opera House (replacing Anita Cerquetti), and at the Arena di Verona, both as Aida.

The next season, she sang her first performances of Verdi's Il Trovatore in San Francisco, with the great Swedish tenor Jussi Bjoerling. Then she returned to Vienna to sing Aida and her first onstage Pamina, and repeated Aida at Covent Garden. In London, she also gave a BBC TV recital of American songs with Gerald Moore and a concert of operatic scenes by Richard Strauss for BBC Radio, conducted by Peter Herman Adler. In Vienna, she made her first full opera recording for RCA, singing Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni under Erich Leinsdorf.

That crowded summer, she made her debut at the Salzburg Festival in Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, conducted by Karajan; recorded a second full opera, Verdi'sIl Trovatore for RCA in Rome; then returned to Verona to sing Il Trovatore with tenor Franco Corelli. The Met's general manager Rudolf Bing attended one of the performances and, impressed, went backstage to invite Price and Corelli to make their Met debuts in 1960–61.

That fall, Price made her Chicago Lyric Opera debut as Liu in Turandot with Birgit Nilsson, and then sang Massenet's Thais. (Her Liu was well received. Her Thais was considered stiff and mannered.) On May 21, 1960, Price sang for the first time at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, again as Aida. The reception was tumultuous and a Milanese critic wrote that "our great Verdi would have found her the ideal Aida." She was the first African American to sing a prima donna role in Italy's greatest opera house. (The African American soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs had sung there two years earlier, in the seconda role of Elvira in Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri.) In Salzburg that summer, Price sang her first Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, under Karajan. She then returned to Vienna to sing her first Cio Cio San in Madama Butterfly. Both new roles were triumphs. However, after the Butterfly, she suffered an appendicitis, and was hospitalized briefly in Vienna.

Metropolitan OperaEdit

The Met had been slow to offer Price a major contract. In 1958, Bing had invited her to sing a pair of Aidas, but she turned him down on the advice of Peter Herman Adler and others. Her friends argued that she should wait until she had more repertoire under her belt and received a real offer of multiple roles. Adler said furthermore that she should not arrive in the racially stereotypical role of Aida, an Ethiopian slave. In his autobiography, William Warfield quotes Adler as saying, "Leontyne is to be a great artist. When she makes her debut at the Met, she must do it as a lady, not a slave." The Met agreed to her manager's insistence that she make her debut as Leonora in Il Trovatore,a traditionally white role. Shortly before her debut, Bing extended her first-season contract to include two roles recently added to her repertoire, Liu and Butterfly, for a total of five roles. He also invited her to sing Minnie in Puccini's La fanciulla del West on opening night of the 1961–62 season, an honor rarely given to an artist who had not yet sung with the company.

On January 27, 1961, Price and Corelli made a triumphant joint debut in Il Trovatore. The performance ended with an ovation that lasted at least 35 minutes, one of the longest in Met history.[9] (Price said friends had timed it at 42 minutes, and that was the figure she used in her publicity.) In his review, New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg wrote that Price's "voice, warm and luscious, has enough volume to fill the house with ease, and she has a good technique to back up the voice itself. She even took the trills as written, and nothing in the part as Verdi wrote it gave her the least bit of trouble. She moves well and is a competent actress. But no soprano makes a career of acting. Voice is what counts, and voice is what Miss Price has."

Reviewers were less enthusiastic about Corelli, who told Bing the next day he would never sing with Price again. The outburst was forgotten, and Price and Corelli sang together often over the next dozen years, at the Met, in Vienna, and in Salzburg.

That first season, Price achieved equal triumphs as Aïda, Cio-Cio-San, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, and Liu in Turandot. In recognition of this extraordinary run, Time magazine put her on its cover in March, and ran a profile under the headline, "A voice like a banner flying."

Four other African Americans had preceded her in leading roles at the Met: Marian Anderson (1955), baritone Robert McFerrin (1955), soprano Gloria Davy (1956), and soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs (1958). However, Price was the first to become a leading star, and the first to open a Met season.

The opening almost didn't happen. In September 1961, a musicians' strike threatened to abort the season, and Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg was called to mediate a settlement. Price received enthusiastic reviews for the opening performance. During the second performance, she lost her voice in the middle of the second act, and shouted the words to the end of the scene. The standby soprano Dorothy Kirsten was called to sing the third act. The newspapers reported that Price was suffering a viral infection, though exhaustion, stress, and the weight of the role seemed to have played a part. It was the first vocal crisis of her career.

After several weeks off, she returned to repeat Fanciulla and then, after a Butterfly in December, took a long respite in Rome. The official word was that she had never fully recovered from the earlier virus. However, Price later said she was suffering from nervous exhaustion. In April, well rested, she returned to the Met, triumphantly, in her first staged performances of Tosca, and then joined the Met's spring tour in Tosca, Butterfly, and Fanciulla.

Recognizing that Price's would have to be included on the Met tour, Bing had told Met affiliates that the company would no longer perform in segregated houses, starting in 1962. That spring, Price gave the first performance by an African American in a leading role with the company in the South, singing Fanciulla in Dallas. Two years later, she sang Donna Anna in Atlanta, a first for an African American, in the Deep South. Both performances occurred without incident.

Leontyne Price was consistently one of the Met's top box office draws, and her fee rose accordingly. By 1964 she was paid was $2,750 per performance, on a par with Joan Sutherland, Maria Callas, and Renata Tebaldi, according to the Met archives. Only Birgit Nilsson, who was unique in singing both Italian and Wagnerian roles, earned more, at $3,000 a performance.

While her Met star rose, Price remained busily engaged in Vienna, Milan, and Salzburg. She sang a famous production of Il Trovatore in Salzburg in 1962 and 1963, and gave performances of Tosca in Vienna in 1963 and 1964, all under Karajan. Karajan also chose her as his soprano soloist in many performances of the Verdi Requiem.

After her first Met season, Price added seven roles to her Met repertoire over the next five years (in chronological order): Elvira in Verdi's Ernani, Pamina in Mozart's The Magic Flute, Fiordiligi in Mozart's Così fan tutte, Tatyana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, Cleopatra in Barber's Antony and Cleopatra, and Leonora in La forza del destino.

Antony and CleopatraEdit

The biggest milestone in her career was the opening night of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center on September 16, 1966, when she sang Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra by American composer Samuel Barber, a new opera commissioned for the occasion. The composer had written the role especially for Price, often visiting her home in Greenwich Village to try out new pages of the score.

In the event, Price's singing was highly praised, especially her soaring moments in the climactic death scene, which she sang from a magnificent high throne. However, the opera was widely considered a failure. Critics found the sequence of fast-changing scenes confusing, much of the Shakespearean text unintelligible, and director Franco Zeffirelli's production overelaborate, burying an essentially intimate score under heavy costumes and giant scenery, with innumerable supernumeraries, and two camels. Bing had overreached, too, by scheduling nine new productions that season, three in the first week. This heavy burden fell on tech crews who had not yet mastered the new stage equipment and lighting. An expensive turntable (on which Zeffirelli intended to move armies) broke down, and, at the dress rehearsal, Price was trapped inside a pyramid. The chaos of the final rehearsals, along with excerpts of Price's beautiful singing, were captured by cinema verite director Robert Drew in a Bell Telephone Hour documentary that aired that fall, titled "The New Met: Countdown to Curtain". Price later said the experience was traumatic and soured her feelings toward the Met. She began to appear there less often.

Antony and Cleopatra has never been revived at the Met. In 1975, with the help of Gian Carlo Menotti, Barber reworked the score and the subsequent productions at the Juilliard School and the Spoleto Festival in Charleston were well received. A concert suite of Cleopatra's arias, with passages for orchestra, was premiered by Price in Washington, DC, in 1968, and then recorded for RCA.

Late opera careerEdit

In the late 1960s, Leontyne Price cut back her operatic performances and devoted more of her career to recitals and concerts. She said she was tired, stressed by the racial tensions in the country (and her role as a token of racial progress), and frustrated with the number (and quality) of new productions at the Met. Her recitals and concerts (generally programs of arias with orchestra) were highly successful, and, for the next two decades, she was a mainstay in the major orchestral and concert series in the big American cities and universities.

She knew to keep a presence in opera and returned to the Met and the San Francisco Opera, her favorite house, for short runs of three to five performances, sometimes a year or more apart. However, she undertook only three new roles after 1970: Giorgetta in Puccini's Il tabarro (San Francisco only); Puccini's Manon Lescaut (San Francisco and New York); and Ariadne in Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos (San Francisco and New York). And of these only Ariadne was considered as superlative as her established repertoire.

In October 1973, she returned to the Met to sing Madame Butterfly for the first time in a decade. In 1976, she was given a long-promised new production of Aida, with James McCracken as Radames and Marilyn Horne as Amneris, directed by John Dexter.

The following season, she renewed her partnership with Karajan in a performance of Brahms' Requiem, with the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.

She appeared more rarely in Europe. In the early 1970s, she sang Aida and a single Forzain Hamburg and returned to London's Covent Garden in Trovatore and Aida. She sang more often in recitals, in Hamburg, Vienna, Paris, and at the Salzburg Festival. At the latter she became a special favorite, appearing there in 1975, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1981, and 1984.

In the U.S., she had become an iconic figure and was regularly asked to sing on important national occasions. In January 1973, she sang "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" and "Onward, Christian Soldiers" at the state funeral of President Lyndon B. Johnson. (She had sung at his inauguration in 1965.) President Jimmy Carter invited her to sing at the White House for the visit of Pope John Paul II and at the state dinner after the signing of the Camp David Peace Accords. In 1978, Carter invited her to sing a nationally televised recital from the East Room of the White House. In 1982, she sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" before a Joint Meeting of Congress on the 100th anniversary of the birth of President Franklin Roosevelt. She also sang for Presidents Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Clinton.

In 1977, she made nostalgic returns to Vienna and Salzburg in Il trovatore, in the famous production from 1962, once again under Karajan. The Vienna performances were the first for both at the Staatsoper since 1964, when Karajan had resigned as its director.

That fall, Leontyne Price sang her last new role, and her first Strauss heroine: Ariadne in Ariadne auf Naxos The premiere in San Francisco was considered a great success. When she sang the role at the Met in 1979, she was suffering from a viral infection and had to cancel all but the first and last of eight scheduled performances. Reviewing the first performance, the New York Times critic John Rockwell was not complimentary.[12]

Price, 1981

In the fall of 1981, she had a late triumph in San Francisco when she stepped in for an ailing Margaret Price as Aida, a role she had not sung since 1976. The Radames was Luciano Pavarotti, in his first assumption of the role. Columnist Herbert Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Leontyne had insisted on being paid $1 more than the tenor. That would have made her, for the moment, the highest-paid opera singer in the world. The opera house denied the arrangement.

In 1982, Price returned to the Met as Leonora in Il Trovatore, a role she hadn't sung in the house since 1969. She also sang a televised concert of duets and arias with Marilyn Horne and conductor James Levine, later released on record by RCA. In 1983, she hosted two televised performances of "In Performance from the White House," with President and Mrs. Reagan, and sang the Ballo duet with Pavarotti in the 100th anniversary concert of the Metropolitan Opera.

She had considered her 1982 Met appearances her (unannounced) final opera performances, but the Met persuaded her to return for several Forzas in 1984 and a series of "Aidas" in 1984–1985. Performances of both operas were broadcast in the "Live from the Met" TV series on PBS, her first and only appearances in the series and important documents of two of her greatest roles. Shortly before the last "Aida", on January 3, 1985, word leaked to the press that it was to be her operatic farewell. The performance ended with 25 minutes of applause and the singer's photograph on the front page of the New York Times. The paper's critic Donal Henahan wrote that the "57-year-old soprano took an act or two to warm to her work, but what she delivered in the Nile Scene turned out to be well worth the wait." In 2007, PBS viewers voted her singing of the Act III aria, "O patria mia", as the No. 1 "Great Moment" in 30 years of "Live from the Met" telecasts.[13][5]

In 21 seasons with the Met, Leontyne Price sang 201 performances, in 16 roles, in the house and on tour. (After her debut in 1961, she was absent for three seasons—1970-71, 1977–78, and 1980-81; and sang only in galas in 1972–73, 1979–80, and 1982–83.)

Post-operatic careerEdit

Price in 1995

For the next dozen years, she continued to perform concerts and recitals in the U.S. Her recital programs, arranged by her longtime accompanist David Garvey, usually combined Handel arias or arie antiche, Lieder by Schumann and Leo Marx, an operatic aria or two, followed by French melodies, a group of American art songs by Barber, Ned Rorem, and Lee Hoiby, and spirituals. She liked to end her encores with "This Little Light of Mine", which she said was her mother's favorite spiritual.

Over time, Price's voice became darker and heavier, but the upper register held up extraordinarily well and her conviction and sheer delight in singing always spilled over the footlights. On November 19, 1997, she sang a recital at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that was her unannounced last.

In her later years, Price gave master classes at Juilliard and other schools. In 1997, at the suggestion of RCA Victor, she wrote a children's book version of Aida, which became the basis for the hit Broadway musical by Elton John and Tim Rice in 2000.

Price avoided the term African American, preferring to call herself an American, even a "chauvinistic American".[citation needed] She summed up her philosophy thus: "If you are going to think black, think positive about it. Don't think down on it, or think it is something in your way. And this way, when you really do want to stretch out, and express how beautiful black is, everybody will hear you."[14]

On September 30, 2001,[9] at the age of 74, Price was asked to come out of retirement to sing in a memorial concert at Carnegie Hall for the victims of the September 11 attacks. With James Levine at the piano, she sang a favorite spiritual, "This Little Light of Mine", followed by an unaccompanied "God Bless America", ending it with a bright, easy B-flat below high C.[15]

In 2017, age 90, she appeared in Susan Froemke's "The Opera House," a documentary about the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center in 1966.[16]


Most of Leontyne Price's many commercial recordings were made by RCA Victor Red Seal and include three complete recordings of Verdi's Il trovatore (the last on EMI-Angel), two of La forza del destino, two of Aida, two of Verdi's Requiem, two of Puccini's Tosca, and one each of Verdi's Ernani and Un ballo in maschera, Bizet's Carmen, Puccini's Madama Butterfly and Il tabarro, Mozart's Cosí fan tutte and Don Giovanni (as Donna Elvira), and R. Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos, her final complete opera recording. She also recorded a disc of highlights from Porgy and Bess, with William Warfield as Porgy, conducted by Skitch Henderson, with Price singing the music all three female leads.

Her most popular aria collection is her first, titled Leontyne Price, a selection of Verdi and Puccini arias released in 1961 and often referred to as the "Blue Album" for its light blue cover. It has been continuously in print, and is available on CD and SACD. Equally enduring is an album of Christmas music she recorded in 1961 with Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic.

Her five "Prima Donna" albums, recorded from 1965 and 1978, are an exceptional survey of operatic arias for soprano, mostly from roles Price never performed on stage. They are available in a boxed set from RCA-BMG. She also recorded two albums of Richard Strauss arias, an album of French and German art songs, a Schumann song album, two albums of Spirituals, a single crossover disc, "Right as the Rain," with André Previn, and an album of patriotic songs, "God Bless America." Her recordings of Samuel Barber's Hermit Songs, scenes from Antony and Cleopatra, and Knoxville: Summer of 1915, were brought together on a CD, "Leontyne Price Sings Barber".

Late in her career, she recorded an album of Schubert and Strauss lieder for EMI, and, for London-Decca, an slbum of Verdi arias with the Israel Philharmonic, conducted by Zubin Mehta.

In 1996, RCA-BMG released a limited-edition 11-CD boxed collection of Price's recordings, with an accompanying book, titled The Essential Leontyne Price.

Meanwhile, achival recordings of several important live performances have been released on CD. Deutsche Grammophon has issued Salzburg performances of "Missa Solemnis" (1959) and Il trovatore (1962), both conducted by Karajan. In 2002, RCA released a long shelved tape of her 1965 Carnegie Hall recital debut in its "Rediscoveries" series. It includes a rare performance of Brahms' Zigeunerlieder. In 2005, the complete Library of Congress recital with Samuel Barber was released, on Bridge, and includes her only recorded performance of Henri Sauguet's La Voyante, as well as songs by Poulenc and the world premiere of Barber'sHermit Songs A 1952 broadcast of a Berlin performance of Porgy and Bess with Price and Warfield was discovered in the German radio archives and released on CD.

In 2011, Sony launched its series of historic live broadcasts from the Met with Il trovatore (1961) and Tosca (1962), both with Price and Corelli, and, the next year, add d an Ernani (1962) with Price and Carlo Bergonzi. In 2017, a broadcast Aida (1967), with Bergonzi and Bumbry, was released separately and in a boxed set of live performances from the company's first season at Lincoln Center. The set includes the opening night performance of Antony and Cleopatra.

The major roles in Price's repertoire that were never recorded in complete sets are Liu in Puccini'sTurandot and Donna Anna in MozartDon Giovanni. For these, live performances are available. Price's Salzburg performances of Giovanni in 1960 and 1961, and a 1963 Vienna performance (with Fritz Wunderlich), all three under Karajan, are available on CD and can be found on YouTube. Her Liu can be heard in a live Turandot from Vienna from 1961, on CD and YouTube.

In the 1970s, RCA cut back on recording operas and recitals and much of Price's recital repertoire went unrecorded, including songs by Rachmaninoff, Poulenc, Respighi, Barber, Lee Hoiby, and Ned Rorem. Tapes of three of her Salzburg recitals were posted on YouTube and fill some of that gap. A broadcast tape of the 1956 premiere of John La Montaine's cycle of songs, Songs of the Rose of Sharon, written for soprano and orchestra, has been found and posted on YouTube.

Among recent discoveries are a 1952 Juilliard performance of Falstaff, a Juilliard recital from 1951, and another recital given at Juilliard in 1955, Price's first year on the concert circuit. (The 1951 recital includes her only recording of Ravel's Scheherezade, with piano accompaniment.) All three were available on YouTube. Kinescopes of NBC Opera Theatre performances are locked in NBC vaults and have never been released on disc or videotape. However, audio excerpts of her NBC performances in 'Tosca, 'Magic Flute," and Don Giovanni, can be heard on YouTube.



Critical appreciationEdit

In The Grand Tradition, a 1974 history of operatic recording, the British critic J.B. Steane writes that "one might conclude from recordings that [Price] is the best interpreter of Verdi of the century." The Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya remembered a 1963 Price performance of Tosca at the Vienna State Opera "left me with the strongest impression I have ever gotten from opera." In his 1983 autobiography, Plácido Domingo writes, "The power and sensuousness of Leontyne's voice were phenomenal—the most beautiful Verdi soprano I have ever heard."

From left to right, NEA Chairman Dana Gioia honors the first class of National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honorees in 2008: Price, Carlisle Floyd, Richard Gaddes.

The sopranos Renée Fleming, Kiri Te Kanawa, Jessye Norman, Leona Mitchell, Barbara Bonney, Sondra Radvanovsky, the mezzo-sopranos Janet Baker and Denyce Graves, bass-baritone José van Dam, and the countertenor David Daniels, spoke of Price as an inspiration.

Jazz musicians were impressed too. Miles Davis, in Miles: The Autobiography, writes: "Man, I love her as an artist. I love the way she sings Tosca. I wore out her recording of that, wore out two sets. Now, I might not do Tosca, but I loved the way Leontyne did it. I used to wonder how she would have sounded if she had sung jazz. She should be an inspiration for every musician, black or white. I know she is to me."[17]

She has also had her critics. In his book The American Opera Singer, Peter G. Davis writes that Price had "a fabulous vocal gift that went largely unfulfilled," criticizing her reluctance to try new roles, her Tosca for its lack of a "working chest register", and her late Aidas for a "swooping" vocal line. Others criticized her lack of flexibility in coloratura, and her occasional mannerisms, including scooping or swooping up to high notes, gospel-style. Karajan took her to task for these during rehearsals for the 1977 Il trovatore, as Price herself related in an interview in Diva, by Helena Matheopoulos. In later recordings and appearances, she sang with a cleaner line.

Her acting, too, drew different responses over a long career. As Bess, she was praised for her dramatic fire and sensuality, and tapes of the early NBC Opera appearances show her an appealing presence on camera. In her early years at the Met, she was often praised for her stage presence as well as her vocal skill.

In March 2007, on BBC Music Magazine's list of the "20 All-time Best Sopranos" based on a poll of 21 British music critics and BBC presenters, Leontyne Price was ranked fourth, after, in order, Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, and Victoria de los Ángeles.[18]



  1. ^ Randye Jones, "Biographies: Leontyne Price (b. 1927)", Afrocentric Voices in "Classical" Music.
  2. ^ "Price, Mary Violet Leontyne". Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. Encyclopedia.com. Retrieved February 21, 2011.
  3. ^ Garland, Phyl (June 1985). "Leontyne Price: Getting Out At the Top. A prima donna assoluta says goodbye to the opera, will continue as concert singer". Ebony Magazine. Retrieved February 21, 2011.
  4. ^ a b Walsh, Michael; Newman, Nancy (January 14, 1985). "Music: What Price Glory, Leontyne!". Time Magazine. Retrieved February 21, 2011.
  5. ^ a b Henahan, Donal (January 4, 1985). "Opera: Leontyne Price's Final Stage Performance". The New York Times. Retrieved February 2, 2011.
  6. ^ "Spingarn Medal winners: 1915 to today" Archived 2010-07-07 at the Wayback Machine, NAACP. Retrieved September 18, 2012.
  7. ^ "Golden Plate Awardees of the American Academy of Achievement". www.achievement.org. American Academy of Achievement.
  8. ^ Boston Conservatory at Berklee to Honor Sutton Foster, Leontyne Price
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Driscoll, F. Paul. "Leontyne Price". Opera News. Retrieved October 1, 2019.
  10. ^ Delta Sigma Theta celebrates centennial
  11. ^ "Time Magazine, Milestones, May 21, 1973". Time. May 21, 1973. Retrieved December 5, 2013.
  12. ^ Rockwell, John (February 19, 1979). "Opera: Met's 'Ariadne' Finally Comes to Stage". The New York Times. Retrieved December 5, 2013.
  13. ^ Great Performances – Great Moments at the Met: Viewer's Choice Archived 2012-06-30 at the Wayback Machine. KQED. Transcript. Aired Saturday, December 26, 2009. Retrieved February 21, 2011.
  14. ^ Story, "And So I Sing," p. 114.
  15. ^ Anson, Philip (September 30, 2001). "Carnegie Hall: A Concert of Remembrance". La Scena Musicale. Retrieved October 1, 2019.
  16. ^ Tommasini, Anthony (December 22, 2017). "Leontyne Price, Legendary Diva, Is a Movie Star at 90". The New York Times.
  17. ^ Miles Davis, Quincy Troupe, Miles: The Autobiography, Simon & Schuster, 1990. Pages displayed by permission of Simon & Schuster. 2005. Retrieved March 15, 2011.
  18. ^ BBC Music Magazine press release, March 13, 2007.


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  • LaBlanc, Michael L. LaBlanc (1992). Contemporary Black biography. profiles from the international Black community. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research Inc. ISBN 9781414435299.
  • Luciano Pavarotti with William Wright, Pavarotti, My Own Story (Doubleday, 1981), ISBN 978-0-385-15340-9
  • Lyon, Hugh Lee (2006). Leontyne Price: Highlights of a Prima Donna. New York: Authors Choice Press.
  • Stephen Rubin, The New Met (MacMillan, 1974).
  • Winthrop Sargeant, Divas (Coward, McCann, Geohegan, 1973).
  • J. B. Steane, The Grand Tradition: Seventy Years of Singing on Record (Timber Press, 1993).
  • Rosalyn M. Story, "And So I Sing:"African American Divas of Opera and Concert" (Amistad, 1990).
  • Robert Vaughan, Herbert von Karajan (W.W. Norton & Company, 1986).
  • Galina Vishnevskaya, Galina, A Russian Story (Harvest/HBJ Book, 1985).
  • Ward Plowden, Martha (2002). Famous Firsts of Black Women (2nd ed.). Gretna, La.: Pelican Pub. Co. ISBN 1565541979.
  • William Warfield, with Alton Miller, William Warfield: My Music and My Life (Sagamore Publishing, 1991).


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