Mary Violet Leontyne Price (born February 10, 1927) is an American soprano. Born and raised in the Deep South, she rose to international acclaim in the 1950s and 1960s, and was one of the first African Americans to become a leading artist at the Metropolitan Opera.
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 for another 12 years.
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 nineteen Grammy Awards, 13 for operatic or song recitals, five for 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.
Life and career
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, and later noticed her extraordinary singing voice.
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 publicly funded half, which became 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 on a scholarship at the Juilliard School in New York City, where she studied with Florence Page Kimball, who would remain her principal teacher and advisor throughout the 1960s.
Her first opera performance was as Mistress Ford in a 1952 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 Dallas State Fair, 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. On occasional leaves from Porgy, she sang new songs and song cycles by American composers, including Lou Harrison, John La Montaine, and Samuel Barber.
However, her Bess proved she had the instincts and the voice 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. (They had performed the world premiere of the cycle the previous fall at the Library of Congress.) Then, opera opened its door to her through TV. In February 1955, she sang Puccini’s “Tosca” for NBC-TV Opera, under music director Peter Herman Adler, and became the first African American to appear in a leading role in televised opera. Several NBC affiliates (not all Southern) canceled the broadcast in protest.
That March, Andre Mertens, Price’s agent at Columbia Artists, arranged an audition for her at Carnegie Hall with the Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan, then touring with the Berlin Philharmonic. Karajan declared her “an artist of the future” and invited her to sing Salome under his baton at La Scala. (On the advice of Miss Kimball and Mertens, she declined.) In 1955-56, 1956–57 and 1957–58, Price made recital tours across the U.S. in the Community Concerts series, and toured India (1956) and Australia (1957), sponsored by the U.S. State Department.
She took her first steps onto the grand operatic stage in San Francisco on September 20, 1957, singing Madame Lidoine in the U.S. premiere of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites. A few weeks later, Price sang her first Aida, stepping in for Italian soprano Antonietta Stella. The following May, she made her European debut at the Vienna Staatsoper on May 24, 1958, as Aida, under Karajan. There followed debuts at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (replacing Anita Cerquetti), and at the Arena di Verona, both in Aida. She returned to Vienna the following year to sing Aida and her first onstage Pamina in The Magic Flute, and in the summer of 1959, made her debut at the Salzburg Festival in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, under Karajan.
Over the next decade, Karajan conducted Price in many of her greatest performances, 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), as well as in the recording studio (complete recordings of Tosca and Carmen, and a bestselling holiday music album A Christmas Offering—all of which are available on CD).
On May 21, 1960, she made her first appearance at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, again as Aida. She was 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.)