Leontyne Price is one of the greatest sopranos of the 20th century.
Born on Feb. 10, 1927 in Mississippi, she began piano lessons with a local teacher. She slowly built up some recognition in town for her musical skills, though she seemed destined for a teaching career early on. However, at the Wilberforce College, she was encouraged to study voice and eventually enrolled in the Juilliard School.
She never imagined that she would go far in opera due to the rampant discrimination of the time, but in the mid-1950s, she slowly garnered recognition after a New York recital and subsequent appearances on NBC Opera Theater. Herbert Von Karajan became a major boost after an audition in 1955 and the soprano’s first major debut came in 1957 in San Francisco. She then headed to Europe where she made a number of major debuts and even got a chance to record a full version of “Il Trovatore” for RCA.
Along the way, she became the first African American to sing a leading role at La Scala when she debuted in 1960.
In 1961, she made her Met debut alongside Franco Corelli, also in his debut. She received one of the longest ovations in Met history. She would become a major artist with the company and would be the centerpiece of the 1966 opening night of the new house in Lincoln Center, leading a production of Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra.”
In the late 1960s and throughout the 70s, Price started cutting back on opera performances, favoring recitals and concerts. On Jan. 3, 1985, she sang her final “Aida” at the Met in a farewell performance.
After retiring from performance, she turned her attention to teaching. She came out of retirement in 2001 for a memorial concert in honor of the Sept. 11 victims.
She has left a plethora of recordings that capture her artistry and won a whopping 13 Grammy Awards throughout her career.
Price was the Verdi and Puccini soprano of her time, dominating roles by the two great Italian masters in a way few have since. But if there is one role that defines Price it is that of “Aida.” She sang the role 42 times throughout her Met career and the final performance at the legendary house was in that very role; that performance is widely remembered as one of the historic nights at the Met.
The title role in Verdi’s opera became her calling card for debuts in Vienna, Teatro alla Scala, the Arena di Verona, and Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, among other companies. In her latter years she wrote a children’s book version of the famed opera, which became the inspiration for the Broadway music.
She also recorded the opera a number of times.
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Watch and Listen
Here is an album that compiles her greatest hits.
And here is an album dedicated to Verdi.