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Happy birthday Leontyne Price!

Mary Violet Leontyne Price (February 10, 1927) is an American soprano and one of the first African Americans to become a featured artist with the Metropolitan Opera. As a lirico spinto, "pushed lyric" soprano, Price was especially suited for roles from Verdi and Puccini, and several operas by Mozart. For her contributions to classical music, Leontyne Price has been honored with nineteen Grammy Awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award, and tthe Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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Leontyne Price was born in Laurel, Mississippi and began playing the piano at a very young age. When she was in kindergarten, her parents traded their phonograph as the down payment for an upright piano. Price was also close to the Chisolms, an affluent white family for whom Leontyne's aunt worked as their laundress. After studying music education at college, Leontyne earned a scholarship to Juilliard with the help of the Chisolms and famous bass Paul Robeson, who held a benefit concert for her. At Juilliard, she met Florence Page Kimball, who would become her most important teacher and mentor throughout most of her career.

 

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Price was cast in Virgil Thomson's all-black opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, which ran for two weeks on Broadway and then went to Paris. Price was then cast as Bess in Porgy and Bess, which toured Chicago, Pittsburgh, Washington, DC and then Europe.

Around this time, Price married fellow singer William Warfield, a noted bass-baritone who was singing Porgy in the same production. They later separated and divorced, which Warfield attributed to their busy careers.

For her performance as Bess, Leontyne was invited to sing "Summertime" at a fundraiser for the Metropolitan Opera in 1953. Leontyne became the first African American to sing with the Metropolitan Opera, although Marian Anderson would be the first African American to sing at the Met, in 1955.

In November 1954, Price debuted at New York's Town Hall, and soon followed with a television performance where she sang Tosca for NBC-TV Opera. Several NBC affiliates canceled the broadcast in protest. LeontyneTosca

Leontyne Price in a 1962 live broadcast of Tosca 

After Leontyne auditioned for the Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan, he called her "an artist of the future" and the two would work together for at least a decade. In 1958, the Metropolitan Opera invited Price to sing as Aida, but she turned it down on the advice of friends. Peter Adler, director of NBC Opera is thought to have said, "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."

 

On January 27, 1961, Leontyne Price and tenor Franco Corelli made their double-debut in Il trovatore at the Metropolitan Opera, in the first of several leading roles Price had been invited to perform. The final ovation lasted at least 35 minutes, although Price herself contests that her friends timed it at 42 minutes. The New York Times critic said of Price that her "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."

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Leontyne Price as Aida

 

In the next few weeks, Price sang as Aida, Cio Cio San in Madama Butterfly, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni and Liu in Turandot. Time magazine put her on its cover, and she was subsequently named "Musician of the Year".

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Price on the cover of Time magazine, March 10, 1961

In September 1961, Price sang as Minnie in La fanciulla del West, opening the season during a musician's strike. In the second performance, Price's voice grew hoarse and then she lost her singing voice, shouting the rest of her lines until the end of the act. She cancelled most of her appearances for the year and took a two-month vacation in Rome.

In April, Prince returned to the Met to resume performing, and sang her first staged performances of Tosca. During this time, Leontyne earned the same performance fee as fellow opera heavyweights Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, and Renata Tebaldi.

Over the next five seasons, Price went on to sing 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, Cleopatra in Barber's Antony and Cleopatra, Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, and Leonora in La forza del destino.

The most celebrated performance of her career came on September 16, 1966, when Price sang Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra. Although director Franco Zeffirelli was blamed for his distracting set and costume choices, Price was praised as a gifted and powerful Cleopatra.

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Leontyne Price as Cleopatra

After the 60s, Price sang less often at the Met and often gave recital performances instead, traveling throughout Europe to do so. She frequently performed for matters of the state, including the state funeral of President Lyndon B. Johnson, at whose inauguration she had sung. She gave a nationally televised recital at the White House in 1978, and sang at a State Dinner after the signing of the Camp David Accords. On October 2001, Price came out of retirement to sing in a memorial concert at Carnegie Hall for the victims of the attacks on September 11, 2001. 

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In 2007, PBS viewers voted her singing of the aria, "O patria mia", as the No. 1 "Great Moment" in 30 years of "Live from the Met" telecasts. In total, Price sang 201 performances with the Met, in 16 roles. Before retiring, she gave several master classes at Juilliard and other schools.

Additional Info

  • Birthday Date: Monday, 10 February 2014
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