How Leontyne Price went from studying education to becoming an opera icon with over 15 Grammy awards

Ben Ebuka February 25, 2023
Photo Credit: Gramophone.Co.Uk

Mary Violet Leontyne Price was born on February 10, 1927, in Laurel, Mississippi, USA. The 97-year-old multi-award singer began her singing career at her local church. Born into a religious family, her grandparents were Methodist ministers, and her parents, James Anthony Price and Katherine Bakker Price were in the church choir.

Leon had an affinity for music at an early age and began piano class at age 3. She attended Oak Park Vocational High School and began her music study in 1944 at the College of Education and Industrial Arts in Wilberforce, Ohio (now Central State University), where she gained admission to study and become a music teacher.

Her success in the school’s glee club brought the opportunity for her to do many solo assignments. After hearing her perform, the president of the college, Dr. Charles H. Wesley, advised her to switch her major from education to vocals. She changed to voice in her third year and participated in master classes, including one with the prominent bass, Paul Robeson, at Antioch College in 1948.

Impressed with Price’s voice, Robeson collaborated with the central state administration to host a benefit concert to raise money for Price’s education. She enrolled in the Julliard School of music in New York City to continue her music studies. At Julliard, she worked under a renowned concert singer, Florence Page Kimball.

In 1950, she joined the opera workshop in Julliard and performed small roles in the workshop’s performances of Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute’ (First Lady) and Puccini’s ‘Gianni Schicchi’ (Aunt Nella). In 1951, she enrolled in the opera program at the Berkshire Music Center, where she sang Ariadne in Strauss, ‘Ariadne auf Naxos.’

In 1952, she performed as Mistress Ford in the Julliard’s production of Verdi’s ‘Falstaff.’ Impressed by her performance, Virgil Thompson included her in the revival of his ‘Four Saints in Three Acts,’ where her performance earned her another invitation from Ira Gershwin to perform the role of Bess in his revival of ‘Porgy and Bess,’ which played for two years in New York City (1952 – 1954), with a further tour across the United States and Europe. Price married William Warfield, her Porgy, and a renowned bass-baritone concert singer on the eve of the European tour.

In April 1953, she was invited to sing ‘summertime’ at a Met Jamboree fund-raiser at the Ritz Theater. The Met’s performance earned her an enviable place in history as the first African American to sing with and for the Met. She also sang a recital at the Library of Congress in 1953 alongside composer and pianist Samuel Barber.

Price performed her formal recital debut in New York in November 1854. She performed the title role in Puccini’s ‘Tosca’ in 1955, standing out as the first appearance by an African American in a lead role in a televised opera. Price further performed in another three NBC Opera broadcasts as Pamina in Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute in 1956, as Madame Lidoine in Poulenc’s ‘Dialogues of the Carmelites,’ and as Donna Anna in Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’ in 1960.

She began touring US and Canada alongside John La Montaine and David Garvey at different times in recitals on the Columbia Artists roster. In 1956, she toured India alongside Garvey, and on May 1957, she performed Verdi’s ‘Aida’ alongside the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Price made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera (Met) in New York City, where she performed the role of Leonora in ‘II Trovature’ alongside Corelli. The performance climaxed with more than 35 minutes of ovations from the audience.

Leontyne Price went on to perform in many other operas, and from the 1970s, she began to concentrate more on recitals. However, she rendered her first performance of ‘Ariadne auf Naxos’ in October 1977 in San Francisco, which recorded great success. Leontyne Price performed her farewell in 1985.

Price received numerous awards and recognitions during and after her career, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1964), Kennedy Center Honors (1980), National Medal of Arts (1985), and Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement (1985). In October 2008, she received the Opera Honors from the National Endowment of Arts. She received an honorary doctorate in 2019 from the Boston Conservatory at Berklee.

Leontyne Price has 15 Grammy Awards. She is also a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. The 97-year-old living legend still enjoys the fame and fortunes from her almost seven decades of hard work.

Last Edited by:Sandra Appiah Updated: February 25, 2023


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