Leontyne Price is an American soprano who followed the footsteps of African American singers Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (1817–76) and Marian Anderson (1897–1993) to break barriers in the classical performing arts. She is widely recognized as one of the leading operatic singers of the twentieth century.
Mary Violet Leontyne Price was born on 10 February 1927 in Laurel, Mississippi. Her interest in music began at an early age, greatly influenced by her mother, Kate Baker Price, who often sang to her, and her father, James Price, who played tuba. Her parents encouraged her to begin piano lessons at age four. She also sang with her mother in the St. Paul’s Methodist Church choir in Laurel and later in the school choir at Oak Park High School, where she also played piano at school functions.
Price left Laurel for Wilberforce, Ohio, in 1944 to pursue a music education degree at Wilberforce College (now Central State University). She received a bachelor’s degree in 1948 and went on to enroll at New York’s Julliard School of Music. After hearing her sing in a school performance of Verdi’s Falstaff, composer Virgil Thompson offered her a role in a 1952 production of his opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, in which she made her professional opera debut. Price’s talent quickly attracted notice, and she began landing leading roles in major operas. Her role as Bess in the 1952–54 touring production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess exposed an international audience to her voice. On this tour, she married the operatic lead baritone, William Warfield, in 1952, though they separated a few years later and divorced in 1973.
In 1955 Price became the first African American to sing an opera role on television, performing Puccini’s Tosca on NBC. Following several other NBC opera productions, Price performed lead roles at the San Francisco Opera House, the Vienna Staatsoper, and London’s Covent Garden. In 1958 she shattered another barrier by becoming the first African American to sing a lead role at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala. In 1961 Price made her Metropolitan Opera debut, singing the role of Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore. Her performance so captivated the audience that she was honored with a staggering forty-two-minute standing ovation. Her success and admiration from fans led the Metropolitan Opera to open its next season with Price singing Aida, the role that became her signature. Composer Samuel Barber wrote the opera Antony and Cleopatra for Price, and she premiered it at the opening concert at the Metropolitan Opera’s new building at Lincoln Center in 1966. Price gave her farewell operatic performance at the Metropolitan Opera in 1985, singing her most famous role, Aida.
Outside of opera, Price premiered Barber’s Hermit Songs, with the composer playing piano, at the Library of Congress in 1953. During the 1960s she recorded several albums of church hymns and spirituals. Despite the end of her opera career, Price performed art song recitals for the next ten years, often featuring spirituals and songs that were written specifically for her by composers such as Samuel Barber and Ned Rorem. She has also given master classes at universities around the United States. Her last recital took place on 19 November 1997 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In October 2001 she briefly came out of retirement to perform at a memorial concert at Carnegie Hall for victims of the 11 September terrorist attacks. In 1990 she authored a children’s book, Aida.
Price has received many awards and honors, including numerous Grammy Awards for Best Classical Performance, Vocal Soloist; a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1989); the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1964); the Italian Award of Merit (1965); the National Medal of Arts (1985); the Kennedy Center Honors (1980); the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Lifetime Achievement Award (2000), and the National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honors (2008).
In 2017, she told the New York Times that she still sings every day.
- Hilary Mac Austin, in Black Women in America, ed. Darlene Clark Hine (2005)
- Alan Blyth, Grove Music Online website, www.grovemusic.com
- Dominique-René De Lerma, in Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, ed. Cornel West and David Lionel Smith (2006)
- Anthony Tomassini, New York Times, 22December 2017