The Kennedy Center

Leontyne Price


Leontyne Price
(singer; born February 10, 1927, Laurel, Mississippi)

Leontyne Price was born Mary Violet Leontine Price, to James Anthony Price, a carpenter, and Kate Baker Price, a midwife with a lovely soprano voice. Price received excellent vocal training at an early age when she is said to have sat enthralled in her stroller listening to her mother singing in the choir at the St. Paul Methodist Church in Laurel. Her formal music instruction began at age 5, when she started taking piano lessons.

Price entered Oak Park Vocational High School in 1937, where she was quickly designated as the pianist for the school concerts and functions. She was also considered one of the most talented members of her high school choir. In 1944, she went on to the College of Educational and Industrial Arts in Wilberforce, Ohio, to study to be a music teacher. After hearing her sing in the choir one Sunday morning, the president of the college, Dr. Charles H. Wesley, advised her to change her major from education and public school music to concentrate on voice.

Price earned her B.A. in June 1948, and headed to New York to study at the Juilliard School of Music where she had won a full tuition scholarship. At Juilliard, she received voice training from Florence Ward Kimball, a distinguished teacher, and, in her last year, she gave a strong performance as Mistress Ford in the student production of the opera, Falstaff. Upon seeing her in this production, Virgil Thompson immediately invited her to star in a revival of his opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, which ran on Broadway for three weeks in April 1952. Less than two months later, Price made her debut in Dallas, in a role that would carve her name in the minds of audiences everywhere; she appeared as Bess in a revival of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

For the next two years, Price toured with the production all over the world, including eight months in New York, an extended period in Europe, and finally in Russia. As a result of the show's worldwide success, Price gained international recognition. In addition, she married her co-star, William Warfield.

Throughout the 1950s, Price broadened her career as an opera singer by starring in a number of works in recital halls, opera stages, and on television. In February 1955, with Samuel Barber on piano, she made her television debut as Floria Tosca in an NBC-TV Opera Company production of Puccini's Tosca, and in 1956, she starred in NBC's production of Mozart's Magic Flute. The following year, Price made her opera house debut as Madame Lidoine in Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites at the San Francisco Opera House. In 1958, she made her European operatic debut as Aida at the Vienna Staatsoper. On July 2, 1958, she had a triumphant debut in London, at Covent Garden, and two years later, she played Aida to a packed house at the venerable La Scala on May 21, 1960, becoming the first black singer to sing a major role at this citadel of opera.

Price achieved one of the greatest artistic victories of her career on January 27, 1961, when she debuted at the Metropolitan Opera as Leonora in Verdi's Il Trovatore. This performance ignited a 42-minute ovation, one of the longest in the Met's history. Critic Harold Schonberg wrote: "Her voice was dusky and rich in its lower tones, perfectly even in its transitions from one register to another, and flawlessly pure and velvety at the top."

The 1960s welcomed Price to packed houses and rave reviews the world over. From 1961 to 1969, she sang in 118 performances. On October 23, 1961, she opened the Met's new season, playing Minnie in The Girl of the Golden West. That same year, Musical America voted her Musician of the Year with a poll of editors and critics all over the country. In 1964, she was awarded the Presidential Freedom Award, and the following year, she won the Italian Award of Merit. Price also was chosen to open the Met's 1966-67 season as Cleopatra in Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra.

Although she chose to perform less frequently during the 1970s, Price continued to accept challenging new roles. In 1974, she starred as Manon Lescaut in Manon, a role she repeated at the Met the following year. She made her debut as Ariadne in Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos at the San Francisco Opera, on October 19, 1977.

Over the years, Price has won 15 Grammy Awards for vocal recordings she has made, and she has been on the cover of Time and 27 other magazines. In addition, she was the only opera singer to be represented in the list of "Remarkable American Women: 1776-1976" in Life Magazine's Bicentennial issue in 1976. She now lives quietly in a cozy house in New York's Greenwich Village.

Image for Leontyne Price