One critic characterized Price's voice as "vibrant", "soaring" and "a Price beyond pearls", as well as "genuinely buttery, carefully produced but firmly under control", with phrases that "took on a seductive sinuousness." Time magazine called her voice "Rich, supple and shining, it was in its prime capable of effortlessly soaring from a smoky mezzo to the pure soprano gold of a perfectly spun high C."
A lirico spinto (Italian for "pushed lyric") soprano, she was considered especially well suited to the roles of Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini, as well as several in operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
After her retirement from the opera stage in 1985, she continued to appear in recitals and orchestral concerts until 1997.
Among her many honors are the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1964), the Spingarn Medal (1965), the Kennedy Center Honors (1980), the National Medal of Arts (1985), numerous honorary degrees, and 19 Grammy Awards for operatic and song recitals and full operas, and 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.
Leontyne Price was born in Laurel, Mississippi. Her father James worked in a lumber mill and her mother Katie was a midwife who sang in the church choir. They had waited 13 years for a child, and Leontyne became the focus of intense pride and love. Given a toy piano at the age of three, she began piano lessons with a local teacher. When she was in kindergarten, her parents traded in the family phonograph as the down payment on an upright piano. At 14, she was taken on a school trip to hear Marian Anderson sing in Jackson, an experience she later said was inspirational.
In her teen years, Leontyne accompanied the "second choir" at St. Paul's Methodist Church, sang and played for the chorus at the black high school, and earned extra money by singing for funerals and civic functions. Meanwhile, she often visited the home of Alexander and Elizabeth Chisholm, an affluent white family for whom Leontyne's aunt worked as a laundress. Mrs. Chisholm encouraged the girl's early piano playing. During World War II, Price worked as a part-time maid in the Chisholms' household where she was allowed to play the piano. Mrs. Chisholm noticed her extraordinary singing voice and accompanied her in several early recitals and church appearances in Mississippi during her college years.
Aiming for a teaching career, Price enrolled in the music education program at the all-black Wilberforce College in Wilberforce, Ohio. (This institution's public and private arms split in her junior year and she graduated from the new, public Central State University.) Her success in the glee club led to solo assignments, and she was encouraged to complete her studies in voice. She sang in the choir with another soon-to-be-famous singer, Betty Allen. With the help of the Chisholms and the famous bass Paul Robeson, who put on a benefit concert for her, she enrolled at the Juilliard School in New York City. She won a scholarship and was admitted to the studio of Florence Page Kimball, who would remain her principal teacher and advisor throughout the 1960s. Price is a member of Delta Sigma Theta.
In the summer of 1951, she studied in the opera program at the Berkshire Music Center and sang the leading role in a production of Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos (second cast), her first leading role. In early 1952 she was Mistress Ford in Juilliard student production of Verdi's Falstaff. Shortly thereafter, Virgil Thomson hired her for the revival of his all-black opera, Four Saints in Three Acts. After a two-week Broadway run, Saints went to Paris. Meanwhile, she had been cast as Bess in the Blevins Davis/Robert Breen revival of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, and returned for the opening of the national tour at the State Fair of Texas on June 9, 1952. The tour visited Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C., and then went on a tour of Europe, sponsored by the U.S. State Department.
On the eve of the European tour, Price married the noted bass-baritone William Warfield, who was singing Porgy in the Davis-Breen production, in a ceremony at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, with many in the cast in attendance. In his memoir, My Music and My Life, Warfield describes how their careers forced them apart. They were legally separated in 1967, and divorced in 1973. They had no children.
At first, Price planned on a recital career, modeling herself after Anderson, tenor Roland Hayes, Warfield, and other great black concert singers. In between performances of Porgy, she sang the premiere of Hermit Songs, a song cycle by Samuel Barber, at the Library of Congress. She also sang new works by Lou Harrison and John La Montaine.
However, her Bess proved she had the voice and the personality for the operatic stage, and the Met itself recognized this by inviting her to sing "Summertime" at a "Met Jamboree" fund-raiser on April 6, 1953 at the Ritz Theater on Broadway. Price was therefore the first African American to sing with the Met, if not at the Met. That distinction went to Marian Anderson, who, on January 7, 1955, sang Ulrica in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera.
In November 1954, Price made her recital debut at New York's Town Hall with a program that featured the New York premiere of Samuel Barber's cycle Hermit Songs, with the composer at the piano, and began her first recital tour in the Community Concerts series for Columbia Artists. Then, the door to opera opened through the NBC Opera Theare. In February 1955, she sang Puccini's Tosca for the NBC Opera Theatre, under music director Peter Herman Adler, becoming the first African American to appear in a leading role in televised opera. Several NBC affiliates (not all Southern) canceled the broadcast in protest. She returned in three other NBC Opera broadcasts, as Pamina (1956), Madame Lidoine in Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites (1957), and Donna Anna in Don Giovanni (1960).
In March 1955, she was auditioned at Carnegie Hall by the Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan, who was then touring with the Berlin Philharmonic. Impressed with her singing of "Pace, pace, mio Dio" from Verdi's La forza del destino, Karajan reportedly leapt to the stage to accompany her himself. Calling her "an artist of the future" he asked her management for control of her future European career. Over the next three seasons, Price crossed the U.S. in recitals with her longtime accompanist, David Garvey, and in orchestral appearances. She also toured India (1956) and Australia (1957), under the auspices of the U.S. State Department. She sang a concert version of Aida—her first public performance of the role—at the May Festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on May 3, 1957.
Her first appearance on the grand opera stage occurred in San Francisco on September 20, 1957, singing Madame Lidoine in the U.S. premiere of the Dialogues of the Carmelites. A few weeks later, Price sang her first on-stage Aida, stepping in for Italian soprano Antonietta Stella, who was suffering from appendicitis. The following May, she made her European debut, as Aida, at the Vienna Staatsoper on May 24, 1958, at Karajan's invitation and under his baton. Debuts followed at London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (replacing Anita Cerquetti), and at the Arena di Verona, both as Aida. The next season she returned to Vienna to sing Aida and her first onstage Pamina in The Magic Flute, repeated her Aida at Covent Garden, sang operatic scenes by R. Strauss on BBC Radio, and made her debut at the Salzburg Festival in Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, under Karajan.
The close artistic understanding between Karajan and Price was reflected in many of her early career successes in the opera house (Mozart's Don Giovanni, Verdi's Il trovatore and Puccini's Tosca), in the concert hall (Bach's Mass in B minor, 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). Most of her recordings and many of her live performances have been released on CD.
On May 21, 1960, Price made her first appearance at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, again as Aida, becoming the first African American to sing a leading role in Italy's greatest opera house. (In 1958, Mattiwilda Dobbs had sung Elvira, the secondary lead soprano role in Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri.)
The Metropolitan Opera invited Price to sing a pair of performances as Aida in 1958, but she turned down the offer on the advice of friends, including Peter Herman Adler, director of NBC Opera. In his autobiography, William Warfield writes that Adler said, "Leontyne is to be a great artist. When she makes her debut at the Met, she must do it as a lady, not a slave."
In 1959, after hearing her in Il trovatore that August at Verona with tenor Franco Corelli, Met General Manager Rudolf Bing invited her to join the Met company in the 1960/61 season. On January 27, 1961, she and Corelli made a triumphant double-debut in Il trovatore. The final ovation lasted at least 35 minutes, one of the longest in Met history. (Price often said her friends or family had timed it at 42 minutes, and that was the number used in her later publicity.)
In his review, The New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg wrote that Price's "voice, warm and luscious, has enough volume to fill the house with ease, and she has a good technique to back up the voice itself. She even took the trills as written, and nothing in the part as Verdi wrote it gave her the least bit of trouble. She moves well and is a competent actress. But no soprano makes a career of acting. Voice is what counts, and voice is what Miss Price has."
The reception and reviews were less positive for Corelli, who told Bing the next morning that he would never sing with Price again—an outburst that was soon forgotten. Price and Corelli sang together often over the next dozen years, at the Met and in Vienna and Salzburg.
In her first few weeks at the Met, Price gave four other company debut performances as Aïda, Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, and Liu in Turandot. In recognition of this extraordinary run, Time magazine put her on its cover in March. That fall, American music critics named her "Musician of the Year" and she was put on the cover of "Musical America."
In September 1961, Price opened the Met season as Minnie in La fanciulla del West. A musicians' strike had threatened to abort the season, but President Kennedy sent Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg to mediate a settlement. During the second Fanciulla performance, she had her first serious vocal crisis. In the middle of the second act, she grew hoarse and then lost her singing voice, shouting her lines to the end of the act. The standby, soprano Dorothy Kirsten, was called and sang the third act. The newspapers reported that Price was suffering a virus infection. After several weeks off, she returned and repeated the Fanciulla and then, after a Butterfly in December, canceled appearances and left for a several-month respite in Rome. The official word was that she had never fully recovered from the earlier virus. Price herself later said she was suffering from nervous exhaustion.
In April, she was back at the Met to give her first staged performances of Tosca, and then joined the Met tour that spring in Tosca, Butterfly, and two performances of Fanciulla, including the Met's first performance with an African American in a leading role on tour in the South (Dallas).
Other African Americans had preceded Price in leading roles at the Met. However, Price was the first African American to build a star career on both sides of the Atlantic, the first to return to the Met in multiple leading roles, and the first to earn the Met's top fee. In 1964, according to the Met archives, Leontyne Price was paid $2,750 per performance, on a par with Joan Sutherland, Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi. At the time, Birgit Nilsson, who was unique in singing Italian and Wagnerian roles, earned the Met's highest fee, $3,000 a performance.
Over the next five seasons, Price added seven more roles at the Met: (in chronological order) Elvira in Verdi's Ernani, Pamina in Mozart's The Magic Flute, 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. Her voice and temperament were especially well suited to Verdi's "middle period" heroines, noble ladies with high, glowing vocal lines and postures of dignified suffering and prayerful supplication. She was also the leading exponent of the plaintive soprano part in Verdi's Requiem.
Price's career climaxed on September 16, 1966, when she sang Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra by American composer Samuel Barber and conducted by Thomas Schippers, commissioned to open the Met's new house at Lincoln Center. The role of Cleopatra was written especially for Price. Since their early collaborations, Price and Barber had remained close friends and colleagues, and the composer tailored Cleopatra's music to Price's warm middle register and soaring top.
In the performances, although Price's singing was praised, especially in a powerful death scene, the opera as a whole was widely considered a failure. Director Franco Zeffirelli was blamed for burying the music under heavy costumes and huge scenery. Bing admitted he had underestimated the challenge of mounting nine new productions that season (three in the first week), and relying heavily on untested high-tech equipment. (In rehearsals, an expensive turntable broke down and, in the dress rehearsal, another mechanical failure left Price trapped briefly inside a giant pyramid.) The pressures and many of the glitches were chronicled by cameras for a Bell Telephone Hour special documentary, directed by Robert Drew.
Still others complained that Barber's score was difficult to grasp because of the dense Shakespearean verse, and lacked satisfying set pieces (apart from the death scene). The opera was never revived at the Met. However, with the help of Gian Carlo Menotti, Barber later reworked the score for successful productions at the Juilliard School and the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, where it received praise. Barber also prepared a concert suite of Cleopatra's arias, which Price premiered in Washington in 1968 and subsequently recorded. Price lobbied Kurt Herbert Adler to have it produced in San Francisco, but did not succeed.
In the late 1960s, Price cut back her operatic performances in favor of recitals and concerts. She was tired, frustrated with the number (and quality) of the Met's new productions, and perhaps felt the need to rework her vocal technique as she reached middle age. She became a popular artist in the orchestral and performing arts series in the major American cities and large universities. In the early 1970s, she also returned to Europe, for opera performances in Hamburg and London's Covent Garden, and gave her first recitals in Hamburg, Vienna, Paris, and the Salzburg Festival. At the latter she became a favorite recitalist, appearing in 1975, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1981, and 1984.
She continued to sing limited performances at the Met and San Francisco, but undertook only three new roles after 1970. They were: Giorgetta in Puccini's Il tabarro (San Francisco only); Puccini's Manon Lescaut (San Francisco and New York); and Ariadne in Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos (San Francisco and New York).
She was frequently called on as a soloist for state occasions. In January 1973, she sang "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" and "Onward, Christian Soldiers" at the state funeral of President Lyndon B. Johnson, at whose 1965 inauguration she had sung. President Jimmy Carter invited her to sing a nationally televised recital at the White House in 1978, and she returned to sing for a State Dinner after the signing of the Camp David Accords and on the visit of Pope John Paul II.
In October 1973, after missing a season, she returned to the Met to sing Madama Butterfly for the first time in a decade. In 1976, the Met mounted a long-delayed new production of Aida, with James McCracken as Radames and Marilyn Horne as Amneris, directed by John Dexter. The next year, she renewed her partnership with Karajan in a Brahms Requiem with the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, and returned to Europe for what proved her final opera performances there, in Il trovatore at the Salzburg Easter Festival and Vienna's Staatsoper, also under Karajan. The latter marked both her and Karajan's first performances at the Staatsoper since 1964. (She had canceled her contract when Karajan resigned as general music director, and returned only when he returned as a guest conductor.)
In 1977, Price sang her last new role, and her first Strauss heroine, the title role of Ariadne auf Naxos, in San Francisco, to positive reviews. When she brought the role to the Met in 1979, she was suffering from a viral infection and performed only the first and last of eight scheduled performances. Reviewing her first performance, the New York Times critic John Rockwell was not complimentary.
In fall 1981, she had a late career triumph when she stepped in for soprano Margaret Price as Aida in San Francisco, a role she had not sung since 1976. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herbert Caen reported that she had insisted on being paid $1 more than the tenor, Luciano Pavarotti. This would have made her, for the moment, the highest-paid opera singer in the world. The opera house denied these were the terms of her contract. In 1983, she hosted two televised performances of "In Performance from the White House."
After revisiting some of her most famous roles in San Francisco and at the Met, Price gave her operatic farewell on January 3, 1985, in a televised performance of Aida from the Met. Time Magazine described it as a "vocally stunning performance... that proved she can still capture her peak form." Donal Henahan wrote that the "57-year-old soprano took an act or two to warm to her work, but what she delivered in the Nile Scene turned out to be well worth the wait." In 2007, PBS viewers voted her singing of the aria, "O patria mia", as the No. 1 "Great Moment" in 30 years of "Live from the Met" telecasts. The performance ended with 25 minutes of applause.
Price sang 201 performances with 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 the next dozen years, she continued to perform concerts and recitals. Her recital programs, framed by her longtime accompanist David Garvey, usually combined Handel arias, French mélodies, German Lieder, an aria or two, and a group of American art songs by Barber, Ned Rorem, and Lee Hoiby, and ended with spirituals. She liked to end a sequence of encores with "This Little Light of Mine", which she said was her mother's favorite spiritual.
With time, Price's voice became darker and heavier, but her upper register held up well and the conviction and joy in her singing always spilled over the footlights. On November 19, 1997, she gave a recital at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that was her unannounced last.
Before retiring, Price gave several master classes at Juilliard and other schools. In 1997, at the suggestion of RCA Victor, she wrote a children's book version of Aida, which became the basis for the hit Broadway musical by Elton John and Tim Rice in 2000.
Price avoided the term African American, preferring to call herself an American, even a "chauvinistic American". She summed up her philosophy thus: "If you are going to think black, think positive about it. Don't think down on it, or think it is something in your way. And this way, when you really do want to stretch out, and express how beautiful black is, everybody will hear you."
In October 2001, at the age of 74, Price was asked to come out of retirement to sing in a memorial concert at Carnegie Hall for the victims of 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", ending it with a bright, easy B below high C.
Most of Leontyne Price's commercial recordings were issued by RCA Victor Red Seal and include three complete recordings Il trovatore, two of La forza del destino, two of Aida, two of Verdi's Requiem, two of Tosca, and one each of 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 also recorded a disc of highlights from Porgy and Bess, singing the music of all three female leads. It was conducted by Skitch Henderson and featured William Warfield as Porgy.
She recorded five Prima Donna albums of operatic arias generally of roles that she never performed on stage. She also recorded 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 recordings of Barber's Hermit Songs, scenes from Antony and Cleopatra, and "Knoxville: Summer of 1915", were reissued on CD as Leontyne Price Sings Barber. Her most popular operatic aria collection is her first, the self-titled Leontyne Price, sometimes referred to as the "Blue Album" because of its light blue cover. It has been reissued on CD, and also on SACD. In 1971, RCA released a spiritual album I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free, Price singing with the Rust College Choir (Mississippi). In 1996, for her 70th birthday, RCA Victor issued a limited-edition 11-CD boxed collection of her recordings, with an accompanying book, entitled The Essential Leontyne Price.
Archival recordings of live performances have also appeared. Deutsche Grammophon released CDs of live Salzburg performances of "Missa Solemnis" (1959) and Il trovatore(1962), both conducted by Karajan. In 2002, RCA discovered a tape of her 1965 Carnegie Hall recital debut and released it in its "Rediscovered" series. In 2005, Bridge Records released the complete 1953 Library of Congress recital with Barber, including the Hermit Songs, Henri Sauguet's "La Voyante", and songs by Poulenc. In August 2008, a tape of a September 1952 Berlin performance of the Breen-Davis Porgy and Bess was found in the Berlin radio archives and released on CD—offering the earliest recorded glimpse of Price's voice and style. In 2011, Sony Classics brought out on disc her first two Met broadcasts, Il trovatore (1961) and Tosca (1962), both with Corelli, followed in 2012 by a third broadcast, Ernani (1962) with Carlo Bergonzi.
In The Grand Tradition, a 1974 history of operatic recording, the British critic J.B. Steane writes that "one might conclude from recordings that [Price] is the best interpreter of Verdi of the century." For the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, a 1963 Price performance of Tosca at the Vienna State Opera "left me with the strongest impression I have ever gotten from opera." In his 1983 autobiography, Plácido Domingo writes, "The power and sensuousness of Leontyne's voice were phenomenal—the most beautiful Verdi soprano I have ever heard."
In an interview, Price once recalled that Maria Callas had told her, during a meeting with the older diva in Paris, "I hear a lot of love in your voice." The sopranos Renée Fleming, Kiri Te Kanawa, Jessye Norman. Leona Mitchell, Barbara Bonney, Sondra Radvanovsky, the mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, bass-baritone José van Dam, and the countertenor David Daniels, have talked about Price as an early inspiration.
Miles Davis, in Miles: The Autobiography, wrote: "Man, I love her as an artist. I love the way she sings Tosca. I wore out her recording of that, wore out two sets. Now, I might not do Tosca, but I loved the way Leontyne did it. I used to wonder how she would have sounded if she had sung jazz. She should be an inspiration for every musician, black or white. I know she is to me."
She has also had her critics. In his book The American Opera Singer, Peter G. Davis wrote that Price had "a fabulous vocal gift that went largely unfulfilled," criticizing her reluctance to try new roles, her Tosca for its lack of a "working chest register", and her late Aidas for a "swooping" vocal line. Others criticized her lack of flexibility in coloratura, and her occasional mannerisms, including scooping or swooping up to high notes, gospel-style. Karajan took her to task for these during rehearsals for the 1977 Il trovatore, as Price herself related in an interview in Diva, by Helena Matheopoulos. In later recordings and appearances, she sang with a cleaner line.
Her acting, too, drew different responses over a long career. As Bess, she was praised for her dramatic fire and sensuality, and tapes of the early NBC Opera appearances show her an appealing presence on camera. In her early Met years, she was often praised for her dramatic as well as vocal skill.
In March 2007, on BBC Music Magazine's list of the "20 All-time Best Sopranos" based on a poll of 21 British music critics and BBC presenters, Leontyne Price was ranked fourth, after, in order, Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, and Victoria de los Ángeles.