Mary Violet Leontyne Price, born on this day in 1927, is an American soprano, winner of 18 Grammy awards (including a special Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989), trail-blazer, and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Her talent was recognized early on. In fact, the great that Paul Robeson was among those who sang at a benefit to pay for her further musical education. In the late 1940’s, Julliard awarded her a full scholarship, and based on her appearances in a production there, she was invited to Broadway.
In 1952 she debuted as Bess in a revival of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”, and toured with the production all over the world for the next two years. This video shows only stills from the show, but features the very first recording of her voice, on September 21, 1952, in a beautiful duet with co-star William Warfield, who later became her husband. (In his memoir, My Music and My Life, Warfield wrote that their careers drove them apart. They were legally separated in 1967, and divorced in 1973. They had no children.)
In 1961, Ms. Price debuted at the Metropolitan Opera as Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore. This performance resulted in a 42-minute ovation, one of the longest in the Met’s history. Critics went crazy over her performance as well. In 1964, she was awarded the Presidential Freedom Award, and the following year, she won the Italian Award of Merit. In 2007, she was named one of the “20 All-time Best Supranos” in BBC Music magazine’s poll.
Although Ms. Price officially retired in the mid-1980’s, she came out of retirement for special occasions, such as Carnegie Hall’s free concert of remembrance in October 2011 to honor the victims of September 11th. The New York Times reported that, at age 74, Ms. Price’s voice took time to get “settled.” But by the time she sang a solo rendition of “America the Beautiful,” “her voice resounded throughout the hall. As she capped the anthem with a lustrous top note, decades suddenly disappeared.”
During her active years before retirement, she served as a role model for an entire generation of African American youth. But she eschewed the designation of African American, preferring to call herself an American. She said, moreover:
“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.”
And finally, can you not cry through this? This video shows the very end of Leontyne Price’s last performance at The Met (as Aida), as she tries to maintain her role and her composure in spite of the crazy outpouring of love from the audience: