Long live Leontyne Price!
As it turns out, the celebrated soprano is doing exactly that — today marks her 90th birthday.
The sound of Price’s radiant voice got people talking even at the local weddings and funerals she sang at in her youth in Laurel, Miss. Later, thanks to a prominent Laurel family, she had financial backing to study at New York’s Juilliard School. Price’s student performances drew attention there too, leading to her first big break in 1955.
NBC’s David Sarnoff decided to put opera on the increasingly popular medium of television and Price was chosen to sing the title role in Puccini‘s Tosca. She was the first black artist to appear in an opera on TV, but not everyone appreciated it.
An African-American Tosca, singing opposite a white tenor as her lover, stirred up anxiety for some. NBC affiliates in 11 southern cites refused the broadcast.
That was probably not the first, and certainly not the last, racially motivated road block for Price. But there was no stopping her and that amazing voice. Price’s career quickly soared as high as her effortless top notes.
Over years of interviewing singers and critics, whenever Price’s name comes up, something special happens. The talk turns to that powerful, gleaming voice and the strength of her artistic convictions, even in the face of adversity.
It seems fitting today to brush the dust off of a few of those thoughts from soprano Jessye Norman, baritone Sherrill Milnes (who sang with Price often beginning in the 1960s) and Pulitzer-winning critic Tim Page.
As for Price, she’ll be spending a quiet 90th with family, according to her brother, retired Brigadier General George B. Price and his wife Laura, whom I occasionally bump into around Washington, D.C.
They also tell me that Price’s great voice continues to ring out. Yes, at 90, she still sings — but now just for her own enjoyment.
One day when Jessye Norman was in middle school, her brother brought home soprano record. It was the first time she heard Leontyne Price.
Hearing this voice — this vibrant, beautiful, soaring, amazing voice, on whatever that stereo equipment was at the time, was quite overwhelming. I used to sit — very often alone — just listening to the sound and wondering what she really looked like and what her friends were like and what it must it be like to carry such an instrument around in one’s own body.
[Her voice] was a cloud filled with silver, and the silver was the part that gave it its light. And that light, when one was able to experience her on stage, was all around her as well as coming out of her body.
I wasn’t there to hear those performances, but I have heard recordings of her doing Il trovatore with Herbert von Karajan at the Salzburg festival, and I mean that is truly, truly, truly great singing. And because it is what it is, it is more than simple singing. It is much more than that. Whatever those words should be, I don’t have them this moment, but it’s far more than singing.
She’s a role model still for many singers. A great number of African-American singers refer to her as “our empress,” “our queen.” She is the level of performance to which we aspire. That artistic output over all those years, that’s what we’d all like to do. And I hope that at this point in her life, that she’s able to understand and appreciate the amazing artistic life that she shared with the world.
SHERRILL MILNES, BARITONE
[Her voice] was like an avalanche of sound. She would open mouth and all this gorgeousness came out. It didn’t seem big, but almost the further you got away from her the bigger it became, which is ideal in vocal technique. It’s almost a religious experience to hear Leontyne sing — makes you feel closer to God. Whether you’re an atheist or believe in god, her sound elevated all of us.
Let me, if I may, go to another part of Leontyne’s life as important, perhaps more important, than her singing.
As a WASP from Illinois, a farm boy, we had no African-Americans in my hometown—well, maybe there was one family. But prejudice and all the civil rights issues that have been dealt with, and are still being dealt with, I really didn’t know anything about it other than reading in a newspaper.
We did Un ballo en maschera, a Verdi opera, in Atlanta. That was spring-summer, 1966. After the performance, [Metropolitan Opera General Manager] Mr. Bing took the whole cast to a country club. Leontyne was very famous. We walked in and the manager came up and whispered to Mr. Bing, “You can’t come in.” She had just sung her guts out, and couldn’t believe that I was in the middle of those things about which I had been reading. And Mr. Bing, to his credit, said, “Folks, we’re out of here.” And we went someplace else.
Leontyne, through her personality, through her voice and her influence, then really opened the door — the crack that Marion Anderson had opened — and made a place for the African-American. She opened the door for the ones of my generation: Martina Arroyo, Grace Bumbry, Reri Grist and others. That was Leontyne’s doing and she paid a price. Because I’m sure if I experienced that in Atlanta that one time, she must have had that situation many times. In that way her influence in civil rights, without being specifically a civil rights leader, she was a leader.
TIM PAGE, CRITIC
Leontyne Price was among the very best Verdi sopranos of her time. It was a dark, dramatic soprano voice with a good deal of freedom in it. It had real luster, especially at the beginning, and real command. There was something very queenly about her voice; Leontyne was a good name for her because she was leonine.
In my opinion, still the best performance of Aida I know on record would be hers with tenor Jon Vickers. There’s a sense of longing to it. There’s a real identification and loneliness, an ease in the high notes, as well as the medium range. There’s fierce musical intelligence and emotional intensity. The singing with Jon Vickers is extraordinary. There you had two spirits who were very much in alignment — the ferocity, the tenderness. It’s beautiful, it’s songful, it’s grand. It’s a marvelous statement from a great artist.
Setting aside the very special case of Marian Anderson — and setting aside the great gifts of some other people who were fairly well known, and not just for their singing, say a Paul Robeson, and even the smallish but immaculate gift of Roland Hayes — Leontyne Price remained the first real superstar.
Anderson was a great symbol and a very dignified, fine and admirable artist. Leontyne Price was a star — right from the very beginning, a very big star. She was attractive, she had a remarkable voice, a certain regal ferocity which could also fit in considerable tenderness.
She became a star at about the time that the civil rights movement was coming into its heyday. This was all happening at a point when the doors were beginning — albeit, especially at the start, reluctantly — to swing open for African-American artists in a number of different fields. It was a very big movement in the late ’50s, early ’60s. She really came to power at the heart of that. It was a wonderful happenstance of time and space.