February 26, 2019
Her list of accolades and accomplishments would be enviable for any vocalist. They include 19 Grammy Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989), Recipient of the Presidential Medal of Honor (1964) and the Kennedy Center Honors (1980), as well as being termed the first African-American prima donna of the Metropolitan Opera. Some opera aficionados argue that her portrayal of Aida remains unmatched to this day. (You can hear her performance of Aida’s central aria “O patria mia” here.)
Despite emerging at a time when societal mindsets were certainly not in her favor, soprano Leontyne Price rose to become the first African-American opera singer to achieve international stardom and legendary status. For forty years—from 1972 to 2012—Price kept her offices in the St. James Building, Suite 920. In celebration of Black History Month—not to mention Price celebrated her 92nd birthday on February 10th—we wanted to take a look back at some highlights of the stellar career of this operatic icon and former Kew tenant.
Beginnings, Hard Work, and Early Success
Born in Laurel, Mississippi in 1927, the daughter of a midwife and a lumberman, Mary Violet Leontyne Price showed musical talent at an early age, taking piano lessons as early as age three and growing up singing in the church choir. While attending a performance of operatic vocalist Marian Anderson at age nine, Price was indelibly inspired and claims this was when she knew she wanted to be an opera singer. Continuing to display musical talent throughout high school and college, she graduated Central State College in Wilberforce, Ohio, then enrolled in Juilliard in NYC, where she studied through the early 1950s. While still a student, Price’s vocal abilities garnered her roles in opera performances and on Broadway, as well as with an international touring company playing the role of Bess in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. (You can hear her sing “Summertime” here.)
Rise to the Longest Met Applause, Ever
Price’s official New York recital debut came in 1954 when she performed the Hermit Songs cycle by Samuel Barber at New York’s Town Hall—with the composer himself accompanying on piano. Shortly after, she became a national figure when she appeared with the NBC Opera Theater in 1955 performing Puccini’s Tosca—the first African-American opera singer to play a leading operatic role in a televised opera. After landing additional roles both at home and abroad, Price made her first operatic recording, singing the role of Leonora in Il Trovatore with tenor Franco Corelli. It was in this role that she debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1961. Conflicting reports put the final ovation between 35 and 42 minutes; either way, it was the longest in Met history.
In the years to follow, Price would be a performer in residence at the Met, performing regularly in leading roles as well as in opera houses across the U.S. and Europe. And in 1966, she was selected as the diva to open the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center. From the late 1960s until her retirement in the mid-1990s, Price began singing fewer operas in favor of concert performances in recitals, while continuing to record. Her last known live appearance was at age 74 in 2001, performing a memorial concert at Carnegie Hall in honor of the victims of the September 11th attacks.
Resilience and Triumph
While Price’s talent and rise to international stardom was remarkable by any standard, it wasn’t without its controversies, especially in the early days. African-American classical vocalists were practically unheard of in the opera community when she first emerged as a talent. Despite the success of her televised appearance in Tosca with the NBC Opera Theater, a number of NBC affiliates refused to air the performance in protest that she was appearing alongside a white tenor as her lover.
Nevertheless, Price’s unmistakable talents shined through and rose above the resistance. At the height of her international fame, she was hailed throughout Italy as the quintessential Verdi soprano, and after she performed Aida at the renowned La Scala in Milan, the theater readily accepted her contractual requirement that no future roles would be denied to her on the basis of race.
Through it all, Price categorically refused to portray herself as a victim of prejudice, even eschewing the term “African-American” and referring to herself simply as American. “If you are going to think black, think positive about it,” she said. “Don’t think down on it, or think it is something in your way.” There are many clips of Ms. Price on You Tube, and if you view them, you will see that she has always been strong, gracious, generous, and intelligent. For example, listen to her in this interview.
Happy 92nd Birthday, Ms. Price. Kew Management is honored to have had such a great artist and admirable person as a tenant for 40 years.
For more on Ms. Price, please follow this link.