Mary Violet Leontyne Price, born in 1927, is an American soprano, winner of 18 Grammy awards (including a special Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989), and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Perhaps most importantly, she is a trail-blazer who helped pave the way for other black women in the arts.
Her talent was evident early on, and she wanted to have a career like that of Marian Anderson. She enrolled in the music education program at the all-black Wilberforce College in Wilberforce, Ohio and made such an impression there that the famous singer, actor, and intellectual Paul Robeson put on a benefit concert for her so she could enroll at the Juilliard School in New York City. Based on her appearances at Julliard, 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. 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 Sopranos” in BBC Music magazine’s poll.
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.”
This book for children features the highlights of Price’s career. It is the illustrations by Raúl Colón however that add music to the pages. Once described as having a voice that soared “from a smoky mezzo to the pure soprano gold of a perfectly spun high C” (Time Magazine), Colón actually shows these qualities by his uses of color and design.
An author’s note gives additional background about Price. But if you really want to know what she was all about in her prime, I recommend this video, showing the very 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. (I cry every time I watch it!):
Evaluation: Colón’s stunning pictures make this book into a wonderful introduction for kids of a courageous trail-blazer and very talented lady.
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2014