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LEONTYNE PRICE - A True Diva Par Excellence

Updated: Dec 20, 2023

LEONTYNE PRICE (born Mary Violet Leontyne Price on February 10, 1927) is a true diva, noted for her exquisite vocal technique and clarity, 3-1/2 octave soprano range, and dramatic phrasing. She is the first African-American opera singer to achieve international superstardom and hers has been called "the voice of the 20th century". On January 27,1961, she became the first African-American cast in an operatic leading role by a major opera house when she and her co-star tenor Franco Corelli made a triumphant joint debut in Verdi's Il Trovatore at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City (NYC).

Photo by Jack Mitchell, 1981

The performance ended with a standing ovation that lasted a staggering 42 minutes. Throughout her long career, Price has performed at other major opera houses, including The Royal Opera House (London), the Vienna Opera, San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and La Scala (Italy). Her signature character is the lead in Verdi's Aida, a role she has said is perfectly matched to her voice.

Price was born in segregated Laurel, Mississippi to her father, James Price, a laborer in a sawmill and part-time carpenter and her mother, Katherine Baker-Price, a midwife. She has said she didn't know they were poor because their home was "filled with love and good values." Music was an integral part of her childhood. Both her grandfathers were Methodist ministers, and she grew up singing in church, as did her mother. At age four she began taking piano lessons on a toy piano; by age five her parents sacrificed to purchase an upright piano for her and her only sibling, younger brother George, to play. She fell in love with classical music at age 9, when on a school trip she heard the great Marian Anderson sing a recital. Price has called Anderson her idol, recalling that, "The whole aura of the occasion had a tremendous effect on me, particularly the singer's dignity and, of course, her voice."

Facing discriminatory Jim Crow laws, Price aimed to become a music teacher. In 1948, she graduated with a bachelor’s in music education from Wilberforce College (now Central State University) in Ohio, a historically Black college. However, while there she became enthralled with vocal performance. At the urging of then college President, Charles H. Wesley, she earned a partial scholarship to the prestigious Juilliard School in NYC. Working part-time and with financial support from a wealthy white couple, Alexander and Elizabeth Chisholm, for whom her aunt worked as a laundress, she began her studies at Juilliard in 1949. There she met her beloved mentor, former concert singer Florence Page Kimball, who guided her vocal development.

Price sings the aria from Verdi's Aida, "O patria mia". (1961)

Price found herself drawn to opera. After hearing her sing in a school performance of Verdi's Falstaff, composer Virgil Thomson cast her in a 1952 Broadway production of his opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, her professional debut. The production traveled to Paris, where the American composer, Ira Gershwin, persuaded her to play Bess in his revival of Porgy and Bess, first in New York, then across Europe. Just before leaving on tour, she married her operatic lead baritone, William Warfield in 1952, though they separated years later and divorced in 1973. They had no children. In 1955, Price became the first African-American to sing an opera role on television, performing Puccini’s Tosca on NBC. After her debut at the Metropolitan, she toured with the company in the segregated South where they boycotted opening-night festivities that were "whites-only" affairs. Yet, she triumphed. Her acclaim as one of the great voices in opera grew and her career continued to soar.

In 1985, Price retired from the formal opera stage, but continued to perform in recitals and

orchestral concerts until 1997. The teacher in her relished her now historic master classes at

Juilliard. Since then, she has performed at special events, including in 2001 at Carnegie Hall in a memorial concert for victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In 1990, she published a children’s book, Aida, based on Verdi's opera. In addition to her more than 20 Grammy Awards for her recorded albums, including a lifetime achievement Grammy (1989), Price's many honors and awards include the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor (1964), a Kennedy Center Honor (1980), the National Medal of the Arts (1985), and is a National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honoree (2008). A little known fact is that Price is a maternal cousin to legendary singers Dionne Warwick and Whitney Houston. Clearly talent runs in their family. She now happily resides in Maryland, surrounded by her brother and his children.

In closing, Leontyne Price has said this about her amazing gift and career, "I don't want to come on like a Black Joan of Arc, but I do believe I was singled out (by God) for a certain responsibility-- to be a pioneer and a barrier-breaker...I consider it a most fortunate responsibility." True to her Christian roots, Price has always loved singing the Negro spirituals, which she calls "Black heartbeat music". She muses, “One of the things about this extraordinary instrument that I have is the blackness in it, the natural flavor. It’s something extra.”

For all the above reasons, we say "Brava, Ms. Leontyne Price!"

1. 1981 Video interview--Price talks about her childhood, faith, racism, and her "gift”

2. Price's recording of the Negro Spiritual, Deep River

S. Patricia Pearson, M.D.

Coalition4Justice, Steering Committee



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