Leontyne Price

African American Soprano

Soprano Leontyne Price in Antony and Cleopatra at the Met, 1966
Soprano Leontyne Price in Antony and Cleopatra at the Met, 1966. Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Leontyne Price Facts

Known for: New York Metropolitan Opera soprano 1960 – 1985; one of the most popular opera sopranos of recent history, known as the first black American-born prima donna; she was the first black opera singer on television
Occupation: opera singer
Dates: February 10, 1927 -
Also known as: Mary Violet Leontyne Price

Background, Family

  • Mother: Kate Baker Price, a midwife and singer in the church choir
  • Father: James Price, a carpenter who also sang in the church choir
  • Husband: William C. Warfield (married August 31, 1952, divorced 1973; opera singer)

Education

  • Central State College (formerly the College of Education and Industrial Arts), Wilberforce, Ohio.  BA, 1949
  • Juilliard School of Music, 1949 - 1952
  • Voice with Florence Page Kimball

Leontyne Price Biography

A native of Laurel, Mississippi, Mary Violet Leontyne Price pursued a singing career after graduation from college with a B.A. in 1948, where she had studied to be a music teacher. She had been inspired first to pursue singing  upon hearing a Marian Anderson concert when she was nine years old. Her parents encouraged her to learn piano and to sing in the church choir. So after graduation from college, Leontyne Price went to New York, where she studied at the Juilliard School of Music, with Florence Page Kimball guiding her as she would continue to do.

Her full scholarship at Juilliard was supplemented by a generous family friend, Elizabeth Chisholm, who covered most of the living expenses.

After Juilliard, she had her 1952 debut on Broadway in Virgil Thomson’s revival of Four Saints in Three Acts. Ira Gershwin, based on that performance, chose Price as Bess in a revival of Porgy and Bess that played New York City 1952-54 and then toured both nationally and internationally.

  She married her co-star, William Warfield who played Porgy to her Bess on the tour, but they separated and later divorced.

In 1955, Leontyne Price was chosen to sing the title role in a television production of Tosca, becoming the first black singer on a television opera production. NBC invited her back for more telecasts of operas in 1956, 1957 and 1960.

In 1957, she debuted in her first stage opera, the American premier of Dialogues of the Carmelites by Poulenc. She performed primarily in San Francisco until 1960, appearing in Vienna in 1958 and Milan in 1960.  It was in San Francisco that she first performed in Aida which was to become a signature role; she also played that role in her second Viennese performance.  She also performed with the Chicago Lyric Opera and the American Opera Theater.

Returning from a successful international tour, her debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in January, 1961, was as Leonora in Il Trovatore.  The standing ovation lasted 42 minutes. Quickly becoming a leading soprano there, Leontyne Price made the Met her primary base until her retirement in 1985.  She was the fifth black singer in the Met’s opera company, and the first to really achieve stardom there.

Associated especially with Verdi and Barber, Leontyne Price sang the role of Cleopatra, which Barber created for her, at the opening of the new Lincoln Center home for the Met. Between 1961 and 1969, she appeared in 118 productions at the Metropolitan. After that, she began to say “no” to many appearances at the Metropolitan and elsewhere, her selectivity earning her a reputation as arrogant, though she said she did it to avoid overexposure.

She also performed at recitals, especially in the 1970s, and was prolific in her recordings. Many of her recordings were with RCA, with whom she had an exclusive contract for two decades.

After her retirement from the Met, she continued to give recitals.

Books About Leontyne Price

  • Aida: Leontyne Price, illustrated by Diane and Leo Dillon. Trade Paperback, 1997. Price retells the story of the Ethiopian princess who is sold into slavery in Egypt.
  • Leontyne Price: Opera Superstar (Library of Famous Women): Richard Steins, Library Binding, 1993.

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