Price was a leading interpreter of the lirico spinto (Italian for "pushed lyric", or middleweight) roles of Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini, as well as of roles in several operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Her voice ranged from A flat below Middle C to the E above High C. (She said she sang high Fs "in the shower.") The voice is noted for its brilliant upper register, the smoky huskiness in the middle and lower registers (sounding almost like a contralto), its smooth "legato" phrasing, and wide dynamic range. She herself called her singing "soul in opera."
She is a quotable woman whose many bons mots have entered opera lore. Once, when discussing whether she would sing in Atlanta as Minnie, the cowgirl lead in Puccini's La Fanciulla del West, the Met's general manager Rudolf Bing warned her she wouldn't be able to stay in the same segregated hotel with the company. She said, "Don't worry, Mr. Bing, I'm sure you can find a place for me and the horse."
After her retirement from the opera stage in 1985, she gave recitals for another dozen years. Among her many honors are the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1965), the Kennedy Center Honors (1980), the National Medal of Arts (1985), numerous honorary degrees, and nineteen Grammy Awards, including a special Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989, more than any other classical singer. In 2005, American talk show host Oprah Winfrey honored Price and 24 other influential African-American women at a Legends Ball.
Leontyne Price was born in a black neighborhood of Laurel, Mississippi. Her father worked in a lumber mill and her mother was a midwife with a rich singing voice. They had waited 13 years for a child, and Leontyne became the focus of intense pride and love. Her parents gave her a toy piano at age 3 and she began piano lessons right away with a local teacher. When she was in kindergarten, her parents traded in the family phonograph as the down payment on an upright piano. At 10, she was taken on a school trip to hear Marian Anderson sing in Jackson, and she remembered the experience as inspirational. In her teen years, Leontyne accompanied the "second choir" at St. Paul's Methodist Church while singing and playing for the chorus at the black high school. Meanwhile, she often visited the home of Alexander and Elizabeth Chisholm, an affluent white family for whom Leontyne's aunt worked as a maid. Mrs. Chisholm encouraged the girl's early piano playing, and later noticed her extraordinary singing voice.
Aiming for a teaching career, Price enrolled in the music education program at the all-black Wilberforce College in Wilberforce, Ohio. (This institution split in her junior year and she graduated from the publicly funded half, Central State College.) Her success in the glee club led to solo assignments, and she completed her studies in voice. With the help of the Chisholms and the famous bass Paul Robeson, who put on a benefit concert for her, she enrolled as a scholarship student at The Juilliard School in New York City, where she studied with Florence Page Kimball.
Her first important stage performances were as Mistress Ford in a 1952 student production in Verdi's Falstaff. Shortly thereafter, Virgil Thomson hired her for the revival of his all-black opera, Four Saints in Three Acts. After a two-week Broadway run, Saints went to Paris. Meanwhile, she had been cast as Bess in the Blevins Davis/Robert Breen revival of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, and returned for the opening of the national tour at the Dallas State Fair, on June 9, 1952. The tour visited Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C, and then went on a tour of Europe, sponsored by the U.S. State Department. After stops in Vienna, Berlin, London, and Paris, the company returned to New York when Broadway's Ziegfield Theater became available for a "surprise" run.
Meanwhile, on the eve of the European tour, Price had married the man who had sung Porgy, the noted bass-baritone William Warfield, at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, with many in the cast in attendance. In his memoir, My Music and My Life, Warfield describes how their careers forced them apart. They were legally separated in 1967, and divorced in 1973. They had no children.
At first, Price had aimed for a recital career, in the footsteps of contralto Marian Anderson, tenor Roland Hayes, Warfield, and other great black singers to whom American opera houses were closed. Granted leaves from "Porgy" to sing concerts, she championed new works by American composers, including Lou Harrison, John La Montaine, and Samuel Barber.
Opera proved a stronger calling. She had been drawn to the big stage since hearing Ljuba Welitsch sing Salome at the Met while she was at Juilliard, and as Bess she had proved she had the instincts and the voice for opera. The Met confirmed this when she was invited to sing "Summertime" at a "Met Jamboree" fund-raiser on April 6, 1953 at the Ritz Theater on Broadway. Thus Price was the first African American to sing with the Met and for the Met, if not at the Met. That distinction went to Marian Anderson, who, on January 7, 1955 sang Ulrica in Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera. The occasion was important, but the role was small, racially typecast (Ulrica is specified in the libretto as a Negress), and came late in Anderson's career. The question was, when would a young black soprano be allowed to, and succeed in, making a career in leading roles?
Later that year, she auditioned for the Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan, in New York on his first tour with the Berlin Philharmonic. Declaring her "an artist of the future," he invited her to sing Salome at La Scala. (On advice, she wisely declined.) In 1956 and 1957, Price made recital tours across the country, and traveled abroad to India and Australia, sponsored by the U.S. State Department.
Her opera house debut was in San Francisco on September 20, 1957, as Madame Lidoine in the U.S. premiere of Francis Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites. A few weeks later, when the Italian soprano Antonietta Stella fell ill with appendicitis, she stepped in and sang her first staged Aida. Meanwhile, von Karajan, who had become intendant of the Vienna Staatsoper, invited her to make her European debut with him as Aida on May 24, 1958. The next year, she returned to Vienna as Aida and Pamina in Die Zauberflöte.
Over the next decade, Karajan led Price in some of her greatest performances, in the opera house (in Mozart's Don Giovanni, Verdi's Il Trovatore and Puccini's Tosca), in the concert hall (Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, Bruckner's Te Deum, and the Requiems of Verdi and Mozart), and in the recording studio, where they produced complete recordings of Tosca and Carmen, and a bestselling holiday music album A Christmas Offering. All are available on CD.
In the late 1950s, Price continued a string of European debuts, appearing as Aida at London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and the Arena di Verona, both in 1958. On May 21, 1960, she sang at La Scala, again as Aida. (Mattiwilda Dobbs had been the first African American to sing there, in 1953, as Elvira in Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri.)
Nevertheless, Price was the first African American to sing multiple leading roles to acclaim in the leading opera houses, at home and abroad. She was also the first to earn the Met's top fee. A 1964 memo revealed that she was paid $2,750 per performance, on a par with Joan Sutherland, Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi. (Birgit Nilsson, who had Wagner roles more or less to herself, earned a little more, $3,000.) The following season, in October 1961, she became the first African American to open a Met season, a sign of having arrived as a prima donna.
Over 24 years, Price sang in 201 Met performances, in 16 roles, at the house and on tour, including galas. (She was absent for 1970-71, 1977-78, 1980-81, and sang only in galas in three others: 1972-73, 1979-80, and 1982-83.)
Her timing had been careful. After receiving an invitation to sing a single Aida at the Met, after her Covent Garden success in 1958, Peter Herman Adler, director of NBC Opera, had advised her to turn it down, warning about being stereotyped as the Ethiopian princess. Adler said, according to Warfield, "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."
When Price arrived at the Met three years later, she had a strong European reputation and her first recordings out on RCA, and could bargain for several roles. She sang five in her first three months: Leonora, Aida, Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, and Liu in Turandot. Her impact landed her on the cover of Time magazine and she was named "Musician of the Year" by Musical America. In subsequent years, encouraged by her success, other African-American singers went on to make world careers, including Martina Arroyo, Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Jessye Norman, and Kathleen Battle.
The next season, she added Minnie in La Fanciulla del West, the role of her Opening Night, and Tosca. When a musicians' strike threatened to delay or even scuttle the 1961-2 season, Price appealed to President Kennedy, asking him to send Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg to mediate. With Goldberg's help, the strike was settled, and the Met opened on time with Fanciulla.
Midway in the second performance, however, she had another crisis: She gradually lost her singing voice and shouted her way to the end of the Act. Soprano Dorothy Kirsten was called and stepped in to sing the third Act. The cause of the lapse seems to have been a virus and overwork. Others said that Minnie's music was not suited to Price's essentially lyric voice. From 1962-67, Price added seven more roles at the Met (in order): Elvira in Verdi's Ernani, Pamina in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, 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. She proved herself best suited to "middle period" Verdi roles, with their high, legato lines and postures of noble grief and prayerful supplication, and they became her core repertoire, along with Verdi's Requiem.
The opera was not a success. Many blamed director Franco Zeffirelli for burying the music under heavy costumes, a multitude of extras and animals, floating steel clouds, and a rotating Sphinx. Others said Bing had undererstimated the challenge posted by a new high-tech house. The expensive new stage turntable broke down in rehearsals, and on opening night Price was briefly trapped inside a pyramid that didn't move. Others felt the problem with the opera was Barber's score, which was considered by some as lacking dramatic focus and satisfying set pieces. "Antony and Cleopatra" ran for eight performances, but the run was cut short and was never revived at the Met. Barber reworked it for productions at Juilliard and the Spoleto festival (Charleston, S.C.). These were more successful, and Price often sang Cleopatra's arias, in a suite prepared for her by the composer.
After 1970, she added three roles to her repertoire, all of them with limited success: Giorgetta in Puccini's Il Tabarro (in San Francisco), Puccini's Manon Lescaut, and Ariadne in Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos (both in San Francisco and New York). In January 1973 she sang Onward, Christian Soldiers at the state funeral of President Lyndon Johnson. In October, she sang Butterfly, for the first time in a decade, and earned a half-hour ovation at the Met. She returned that spring as Donna Anna. In 1976, she sang Aida, in a new production, with Marilyn Horne as Amneris, (directed by John Dexter). The next year, she renewed her partnership with von Karajan, singing the Brahms Requiem with the Berlin Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall, and then Il Trovatore in Salzburg and Vienna.
In 1977, Price sang Strauss' Ariadne--her last new role--in San Francisco, to enthusiastic reviews. When she sang the role at the Met in 1979, she had a virus infection. She canceled the first and last of three scheduled performances, and the Times reviewer didn't have much good to say about the second.
She had a late triumph in 1981 in San Francisco, when she stepped in at the last minute (for soprano Margaret Price), as Aida, a role she had not performed since 1976. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herbert Caen reported that she had insisted on being paid $1 more than the tenor, Luciano Pavarotti. This would have made her, for the moment, the highest paid opera singer in the world. The opera house denied this.
After revisiting her key roles in San Francisco (Forza, Carmélites, Il Trovatore, and more Aidas), and the Met ("Forza" and "Il Trovatore"), Price gave her last operatic performance on January 3, 1985, in a broadcast Aida from the Met (her 41st there). After taking "an act or two to warm up," wrote the "Times" chief critic Donal Henahan, she produced "pearls beyond price," notably the Act III aria, "O patria mia," which received a three-minute ovation. (In 2007, PBS viewers voted this performance of the aria the No. 1 "Great Moment" in 30 years of Met telecasts. Excerpts have been visible on YouTube.com.) Another Times critic, John Rockwell, had written harshly of the first performance in the run on Dec. 20: "The 'O patria mia' in the third act and the final duet had many of the opulent vocal characteristics that distinguished Miss Price in her prime. Unfortunately, they also had many of the self-indulgent vocal mannerisms, the stolid acting and the hoarse lower register with its rough linkage to the top that also marked her operatic prime."
In her later years, Price's voice became darker and heavier, but the upper register held up remarkably well, and the conviction and joy in her singing spilled over the footlights to sold-out houses. On November 19, 1997, when she was a few months shy of 71, she gave a recital in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, that turned out to be her last.
Price avoided the term African American, preferring to call herself an American, even a "chauvinistic American." She once summed up her philosophy thus: "If you are going to think black, think positive about it. Don't think down on it, or think it is something in your way. And this way, when you really do want to stretch out, and express how beautiful black is, everybody will hear you." Price continued to teach master classes at Juilliard and other schools. In 1997, she wrote a children's book version of Aida, which became the basis for a hit Broadway musical by Elton John and Tim Rice in 2000. She lives in Greenwich Village in New York City.
In October 2001, at age 74, Price was asked out of retirement to sing in a memorial concert in Carnegie Hall for victims of the September 11 attacks. With James Levine at the piano, she sang a favorite spiritual, "This Little Light of Mine," followed by an unaccompanied "God Bless America," capping it with a bright, well placed high B-flat.
In 1996, to honor her 70th birthday, RCA-BMG brought out a deluxe 11-CD box of selections from her recordings, with an accompanying book, titled "The Essential Leontyne Price." Copies are hard to find; one was recently sold on EBay for $650. Historical recordings have also appeared. In 2002, RCA found a tape of her 1965 Carnegie Hall recital debut and released it in its "Rediscovered" series. In 2005, Bridge Records released her 1954 Library of Congress recital, including the "Hermit Songs," and Henri Sauguet's song-cycle "La Voyante," and songs by Poulenc.
Miles Davis, in his self-titled autobiography, writes of Price, "I have always been one of her fans because in my opinion she is the greatest female singer ever, the greatest opera singer ever. She could hit anything with her voice. Leontyne's so good it's scary. Plus, she can play piano and sing and speak in all those languages... I love the way she sings Tosca. I wore out her recording of that, wore out two sets... I used to wonder how she would have sounded if she had sung jazz. She should be an inspiration for every musician, black or white. I know she is to me."
She has also had her critics. Peter G. Davis writes in his book, "The American Opera Singer," that Price had "a fabulous vocal gift that went largely unfulfilled," noting her reluctance to try new roles, criticizing her Tosca for its lack of a "working chest register," and her late Aidas for a "swooping" vocal line. Others have criticized her stiff technique in florid music, and her occasional mannerisms, particularly late in her career, including scooping or swooping up to high notes. Von Karajan took her to task for these in rehearsals in 1977 for "Il Trovatore," as Price herself related in an interview in Diva, by Helena Matheopoulos. As later recordings and appearances show, she took his advice to heart and sang with a cleaner line.
Her acting, too, varied over a long career. She was praised for bringing fire and sensuality to Bess, and her early NBC appearances show her moving naturally on camera. Later, she became a stiff, at times even an awkward, singer-actress. She herself once said, "I don't expect to win any Academy Awards." In a 1982 "Live from the Met" TV broadcast of "Forza," available on DVD--the only available film of Price in a complete opera --she carries herself with compelling dignity.
In March 2007, on BBC Music magazine's list of the "20 All-time Best Sopranos" based on a poll of 21 British music critics and BBC presenters, Leontyne Price placed fourth, after, in order, Maria Callas, Dame Joan Sutherland, and Victoria de los Angeles.