World-famous operatic diva Leontyne Price was born on February 10, 1927 in Laurel, Mississippi, to James Anthony Price, a carpenter, and Kate Baker Price, a midwife with a beautiful singing voice. Price showed an interest in music from a young age and sang in the choir at her hometown St. Paul Methodist Church.
Following her time at Oak Park Vocational High School, where she was a standout pianist and member of the glee club, Price enrolled at the College of Education and Industrial Arts in Wilberforce, Ohio. She began with a focus on music education, but later switched to voice. After graduation, Price headed to New York City to attend The Juilliard School on a full scholarship.
At Juilliard, Price studied under her beloved vocal instructor, Florence Page Kimball. Price’s beautiful lyric soprano voice landed her feature roles in many of the school’s operas. After witnessing Price perform the role of Alice Ford in a student production of Verdi’s Falstaff, composer Virgil Thomson leapt at the chance to bring her into one of his productions.
In April 1952, Price made her Broadway debut as St. Cecilia in the revival of Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts. Immediately following that, she joined a world tour of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and for the next two years, she dazzled audiences with her stunning portrayal of Bess, gaining global acclaim. During that tour, she married co-star William Warfield, who portrayed Porgy.
In her operatic stage debut in San Francisco in 1957, Price took on the role of Madame Lidoine in Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites. Within a year she was appearing at such famous venues as London’s Covent Garden and La Scala in Milan. She had become an international star.
Price debuted at the New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1961 as Leonora in Il Trovatore, launching her residency as one of the Met’s principal sopranos. She flourished in such roles such as Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, Minnie in La Fanciulla del West and, perhaps most notably, as Cleopatra in Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra that opened the new Met at Lincoln Center in 1966.
As the first African-American singer to gain an international reputation in opera, Price opened the doors to many who followed. As her operatic career tapered off, she focused mainly on recitals. Price delivered her farewell performance in Aida at the Met in 1985, which was telecast and hailed as one of the most successful operatic performances in the Met’s history.
Leontyne Price’s recordings earned her numerous honors, including more than a dozen Grammy Awards. She rose to stardom as a woman of color in a time and profession where the odds were not in her favor.
Happy birthday, Ms. Price!
Photo: Jack Mitchell/Wikipedia (CC)
Watch a video of Price singing “O patria mia” from Aida here.
Adapted from biography.com.