Leontyne Price

“The most wonderful thing in the world is to be who you are.”

Leontyne Price, American opera singer, 1927-present. 

From church choir to world-class prima donna, Leontyne Price was the first African-American opera singer to be recognized internationally. One of the most-recorded opera singers of her generation, her powerful, soaring voice was unique, and her singing sounded effortless, even liquid. To hear Price perform live was “an experience not to be forgotten” wrote the Metropolitan Opera, where sold-out audiences took to their feet. Her career dovetailed with the American Civil Rights Movement, and her presence on stage was symbolic at a time when some theaters were still segregated and Black artists were turned away from hotels when touring. Price has won an impressive more than a dozen Grammy Awards, including a lifetime achievement award.

Born to a musical Methodist family in Mississippi, Price’s parents had been expecting a boy, choosing the name Leon. So they added a female sounding suffix, and called her Mary Violet Leontine. (Price would change the spelling to Leontyne, to sound more French, later in life.) She started her musical training on the piano at age three and sang at church. Upon hearing the toddler singing, a local teacher told her mother “You’ve got an armful of music there.” A seminal moment was a trip to Jackson with her midwife mother at age nine to hear a recital by the ground-breaking African-American contralto Marian Anderson. After studying education, she set out for New York City where she studied voice on a full scholarship at the prestigious Juilliard School. At her audition, the director of the Opera Workshop declared to his wife “we have the voice of the century.” She debuted on Broadway in 1952 in a revival of Four Saints in Three Acts which later travelled to Paris. The famed lyricist Ira Gershwin took note, and cast her in his revival of Porgy and Bess, which became her star turn, touring the U.S. and Europe. In 1955, television operas came calling, and her reputation broadened even more with a brilliant performance starring in Tosca. Back on stage, she performed Aïda in San Francisco and at the famed Teatro alla Scala in Milan. She was briefly married to a baritone singer from 1952 until their split in 195, but it proved only a minor distraction. By 1960 she was heralded as one of the top lyric sopranos in the world.

Price debuted to much acclaim at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in 1961, with audiences swooning for her elegant, velvety voice that was like no other. She had been incredibly nervous backstage and has asked her vocal coach what to do. Plucking a long stemmed rose from a bouquet, she handed it to her, saying “smell a rose and sing.” 

Tickets for any of her performances were difficult to come by, but most memorable were the performances she gave at the Met of Verdi’s Requiem in 1964, in memory of the recently assassinated President John F. Kennedy.  She became a regular there in operas such as Madama Butterfly and Don Giovanni and became the company’s lead soprano in 1966 after a triumphant performance in Antony and Cleopatra. Her farewell performance at the Met was in her signature role as the Ethiopian princess in Verdi’s Aïda in 1985. After retiring, she still performed recitals, her first love, and wrote a children’s book based on Aïda.  


No items found.


No items found.