Leontyne Price: A Legendary Met Career
By Peter Clark
Metropolitan Opera audiences began an extraordinary love affair with American soprano Leontyne Price immediately upon her debut on January 27, 1961. She was by then an internationally heralded singer and an experienced, refined musician and artist. But more than anything, it was the sheer beauty of her voice that excited her listeners. What they heard was a vibrant, glowing, yet never metallic tone that called forth adjectives like velvety, soft-grained, and elegant. Her vocal production seemed effortless, free, and soaring, with plentiful volume and an amazing dynamic control. And the timbre of her voice was unique, personal, and immediately identifiable—she sounded like no one else. At the age of 90, in a charming interview for the documentary film The Opera House, she commented on her own voice, remembering when she heard the reverberations for the first time in the new Met auditorium, saying, it was “so beautiful you just wanted to kiss yourself!” This was not a prima donna’s vanity, but a mere statement of fact. And the audiences wanted to kiss her too, for hearing Leontyne Price live was an experience not to be forgotten.
Price was a known entity by the time of her Met debut. She had been brought to the attention of General Manager Rudolf Bing as early as 1952 when the young Juilliard graduate starred in a touring company of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess that also played on Broadway. Her vocal qualities had drawn critical admiration, and in 1953 she was invited to sing “Summertime” for a radio broadcast Met fundraising event, held at the Ritz Theater. Her growing career in Europe included debuts at the Vienna State Opera, London’s Royal Opera, the Salzburg Festival, and the Verona Arena. It was at the last of these that Bing heard her as Leonora in Il Trovatore and offered her a contract backstage afterwards, together with her co-star, tenor Franco Corelli. (Price and Corelli are pictured above with Bing.)
Price’s Met debut, again as Leonora, met with critical approval as well as sensational public success. From Harold Schoenberg’s New York Times review: “Her 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 … Voice is what counts, and voice is what Miss Price has.”
Her triumphs continued as she took on new roles in the same season as her debut: the title roles in Aida (pictured at the top of this page from a 1965 performance) and Madama Butterfly (pictured above), and Donna Anna in Don Giovanni. Her performances were the phenomenon of the season as indicated in a Time magazine review of her Donna Anna: “If anybody was unhappy about her success, it was the Manhattan ticket brokers: obtaining Price tickets these days, they report, is about like wangling a reserved seat beside the first astronaut.”
For her second Met season, Price was given the honor of a season opening new production of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West (pictured above). Reaction to her first performance was positive, but at the second, she had to cancel after Act II. It was the only setback in her career, but the role of Minnie was perhaps a step too heavy for the still-young soprano. She carefully returned to more congenial repertory, wisely took a few months rest, and dropped the role of Minnie. Soon, she was back with new successes: Elvira in Ernani (1962), Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte (1965), and Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera (1966).
Then followed the greatest honor of all: Price was chosen to open the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966 as Cleopatra in the world premiere of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, composed specifically for the occasion. (Price is pictured above as Cleopatra, with Justino Díaz, who sang Antony.) While the opera did not garner much favor, Price had a personal triumph, and her status was confirmed as the company’s leading American soprano.
But Leontyne Price was first and foremost a Verdi singer. More than half her 204 Met performances were as Verdi’s leading ladies. She added Leonora in La Forza del Destino (pictured above)—another of her finest roles—in 1967, and often repeated the Trovatore character of the same name. But it was as Aida that she was most famous and for which she set the standard still in force today. Her ability to shape Verdi’s melodies with a smooth legato and to approach the role’s high climatic notes without strain made her the unrivalled interpreter of the Ethiopian princess. She sang Aida for the opening night in 1969, again for a 1976 new production premiere, and finally for her own farewell performance in 1985.
Price’s Met repertory of course included other composers as well. In addition to Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte, she sang Mozart’s Pamina in Die Zauberflöte. Puccini’s vocal style suited her less well than Verdi’s, but she was a notable Tosca (pictured above, with Cornell MacNeil as Scarpia), Butterfly, Liù in Turandot, and Manon Lescaut. She sang Tchaikovsky’s Tatiana in Eugene Onegin in English in 1964, and the title role in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos in 1979.
Whenever Leontyne Price sang, it was an event. Among her most ravishing concerts were three performances she gave at the Met of Verdi’s Requiem, twice in 1964 in memory of the recently assassinated John F. Kennedy, and once in 1982 in memory of long-time Met assistant manager Francis Robinson. She also sang a special televised concert partnered by mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne with the Met Orchestra conducted by James Levine in 1982.
It is impossible to speak of Price’s Met career without noting that she was the first African American superstar singer—one who was indispensable and around whom the company planned its season repertory. The legendary black contralto Marian Anderson had broken the Met’s color barrier in 1955, but she was at the end of her distinguished career and only sang one role in a handful of performances. As one of the company’s leading prima donnas, Price accompanied the Met on tour, including to several Southern cities where theaters were segregated. Her presence there was an important factor in changing the discriminatory policies. In fact, the rise of her Met career coincided with the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and she was proud to be a part of it. Along with her exceptional artistic achievements, it remains part of her remarkable legacy.
Peter Clark is the Met’s Director of Archives