Thursday, February 10, 2011

Happy Birthday: Leontyne Price

Mary Violet Leontyne Price (born February 10, 1927) is an American soprano. Born and raised in the segregated Deep South, she rose to international fame during a period of racial change in the 1950s and 60s, and was the first African-American to become a leading prima donna at the Metropolitan Opera. Price's voice was noted for its brilliant upper register, "smoky" middle and lower registers, flowing phrasing, and wide dynamic range. A lirico spinto (Italian for "pushed lyric", or middleweight), she was well suited to the roles of Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini, as well as several in operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Her voice ranged from A flat below Middle C to the E above High C. (She said she reached high Fs "in the shower.") After her retirement from the opera stage in 1985, she continued to appear in recitals and orchestral concerts for another 12 years. Among her many honors are the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1964), 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 October 2008, she was one of the recipients of the first Opera Honors given by the National Endowment for the Arts. 

LISTENING PARTY CAREER HIGHLIGHTS (and more pictures) after the jump.

Leontyne Price has a large catalog of studio recordings and live pirated performances. Everyone has their favorite opera role or song that she sang. Below is just a small sampling of this body of work. Hopefully it provides a glimpse of this immensely talented artist.

"Vom himmel hoch, da komm ich her" Magnificat by Johann Sebastian Bach

"Care Selve" Atalanta by George Frideric Händel

"E Susanna non vien!...Dove sono" Le Nozze di Figaro by Wolgang Mozart

"Zweite Brautnacht" Die Ägyptische Helena by Richard Strauss

"O Patria Mia" Aida by Giuseppe Verdi

"Addio, mio dolce amor" Edgar by Giacomo Puccini

"Summertime" Porgy & Bess by George Gershwin

"Glück das mir verblieb" Die Tote Stadt by Erich Korngold

"La vergine degli Angeli" La Forza del Destino by Giuseppe Verdi

"Nacht und Träume" by Franz Schubert

"Allerseelen" by Richard Strauss

"Oh! quand je dors" by Franz Liszt

"They Didn't Believe Me" by Jerome Kern

"America the Beautiful" by Samuel Ward

"This Little Light of Mine" by Harry Dixon Loes, arr. by Margaret Bonds


 • Born in Laurel, Mississippi.

 • Father worked in lumber mill and mother was a midwife.

 • Received a toy piano at age 3, which after lessons was upgraded to an upright piano.

• At age 14, she took a school trip to see Marian Anderson sing in Jackson, Mississippi.

 • Sang in the high school and  St. Paul's Methodist Church choirs.

 • Worked as a laundress for a wealthy couple that encouraged her talents.

 • Studied music education at Wilberforce College (later Central State College) in Ohio.

• Bass Paul Robeson put on a benefit concert for her.

• Studied with Florence Page Kimball at Juilliard School of Music in New York.

• Her first stage performance was as Mistress Ford in a 1952 student production of Falstaff.

• Virgil Thompson hired her for Four Saints in Three Acts.

• Sang the title role in Porgy and Bess at the Dallas State Fair in June 1952.

• Married bass-baritone William Warfield (they separated in 1967; divorced in 1973).

• Invited to sing "Summertime" by the Metropolitan Opera for a fundraiser in 1953.

• In 1954 sang "Hermit Songs" by Samuel Barber at New York's Town Hall with the composer at the keyboard.

• She performed Tosca on NBC television in 1955.

• In 1956 and 1957, Price made recital tours across the U.S., India and Australia, sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

• Her professional opera debut took place in San Francisco Opera in 1957 as Madame Lidoine in the U.S. premiere of Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites. A few weeks later she stepped in for an ailing Antonietta Stella and sang her first Aida.

• Made her European debut at the Vienna State Opera under Herbert von Karajan in the title role of Aida in May 1958. Over the next decade, von Karajan conducted Price in many of her greatest performances, in the opera house (Mozart's Don Giovanni, Verdi's Il Trovatore and Puccini's Tosca), in the concert hall (Bach's B-minor Mass, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, Bruckner's Te Deum, and the Requiems of Verdi and Mozart), and in the recording studio (complete recordings of Tosca and Carmen, and a bestselling holiday music album A Christmas Offering--all are available on CD).

• Debuted at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden (1958), Arena di Verona (1958) and La Scala (1960 as Aida in all cases.

• She and Franco Corelli made their Metropolitan Opera debuts together in January 1961 singing Verdi's Il Trovatore with a final curtain call that lasted 35 minutes.

• Over the next weeks, she added Aida, Cio-Cio San, Donna Elvira and Lìu to her MET performances prompting Time Magazine to declare her "Musician of the Year."

• In 1964 she was earning a top fee at the MET of $2,750 per performance.

• President John F. Kennedy personally became involved to aid the musician's labor negotiations to ensure the soprano would open the 1961 MET season as Minnie in La Fanciulla del West.

• Tosca became a signature role that she first sang in 1962 at the MET and repeated it in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Vienna, Detroit and St. Louis.

• Her MET repertoire during the next decade included 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.

• A career milestone came on September 16, 1966, when Price sang Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra by American composer Samuel Barber, commissioned to open the Met's new house at Lincoln Center. 

• During the late 1960s she focused on concerts and recitals.

• The three operatic roles she undertook after 1970 brought her less acclaim than those of the previous decade: 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). 

• She was In January 1973 she sang "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" and "Onward, Christian Soldiers" at the state funeral of President Lyndon Johnson. 

• In October 1973, she returned to the MET to sing Butterfly, for the first time in a decade, and earned a half-hour ovation. 

• In 1976, she sang Aida in a new Met production, with James McCracken as Radames and Marilyn Horne as Amneris, directed by John Dexter. 

• After final revisits in her most famous roles—in San Francisco, Forza, Carmélites, Il Trovatore, and more Aidas, and, at the MET, Forza and Il Trovatore--Price gave her operatic farewell at the MET on January 3, 1985, in Aida

• In all, Price sang 201 performances for the MET, in 16 roles, in the house and on tour, including galas. (She was absent for three seasons—1970–71, 1977–78, and 1980-81—and sang only in galas in 1972-73, 1979–80, and 1982-83.)

• For twelve years after her opera farewell, she continued to sing concerts and recitals. Her longtime accompanist David Garvey and she typically combined French mélodies, German Lieder, with Spirituals, an aria or two, and a group of American art songs by Barber, Ned Rorem, and Lee Hoiby.

• She made biennial recital and concert visits to the major American cities and university music series. She gave recitals in Hamburg, Vienna, Paris, Lucerne, and, to great acclaim, at the Salzburg Festival (1975, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1981, and 1984).

• On November 19, 1997, she gave a recital at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that turned out to be her last.

• Price gave several master classes at Juilliard and other schools during the 1990s. 

• 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.

• In October 2001, at age 74, Price was asked to come out of retirement and sing in a memorial concert in Carnegie Hall after 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, easy high B-flat. 

• Leontyne Price's commercial recordings include three complete sets of Il Trovatore, two of La forza del destino, two of Aida, two of Verdi's Requiem, two of Tosca, and an Ernani, Un ballo in maschera, Carmen, Madama Butterfly, Cosí fan tutte, Don Giovanni (as Donna Elvira), Il tabarro and (her final complete opera recording) Ariadne auf Naxos. She recorded highlights from Porgy and Bess (including music for the other female leads Clara and Serena) with Warfield, under Skitch Henderson.

• She also recorded five Prima Donna albums of operatic arias that she never performed on stage, two albums of Richard Strauss arias, recitals of French and German art songs, two albums of Spirituals, and a crossover disc, Right as the Rain, with André Previn. 

• Her Barber recordings included the "Hermit Songs", scenes from Antony and Cleopatra, and "Knoxville: Summer of 1915". These were reissued on CD as Leontyne Price Sings Barber

• Perhaps her most well-regarded operatic solo disc was her first, titled Leontyne Price, and referred to as the "blue album" for its blue cover. It has been re-released several times on CD, and more recently on SACD.

• 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. 

• Archival recordings have also been released. 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 the 1954 Library of Congress recital with Barber, including the "Hermit Songs", 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. ... I love the way she sings Tosca. I wore out her recording of that, wore out two sets."

• She lives in Greenwich Village in New York City.


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