Leontyne Price is a remarkable, highly decorated singer who broke many color barriers in the world of opera. She was born Mary Violent Leontyne Price on February 10, 1928 in Laurel, Mississippi. Her mother played a huge role in fostering her musical talents as she herself was a soprano, though she worked as a midwife. Leontyne’s mother started giving her vocal lessons, and Leontyne began formal piano lessons when she was five years old. In high school, she played the piano for school events and concerts, and she was also in the school choir.
In 1944, Leontyne attended the College of Educational and Industrial Arts in Ohio to study to be a music teacher. However, the school’s president heard her sing and convinced her to change her major to vocal performance, and she earned her B.A. in 1948. She then continued her music study at the Juilliard School of Music on a full scholarship where she was trained by Florence Ward Kimball. In her final year at the school, she performed as Mistress Ford in the student production of the opera, Falstaff.
Leontyne made her Broadway debut in the opera Four Saints in Three Acts by Virgil Thompson. Though already incredibly accomplished, Leontyne was brought into limelight when she played Bess in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in June 1952. In this role, she toured with the production throughout the US and Europe. Leontyne made her television debut in February 1955, playing Floria Tosca in the NBC-TV Opera Company production of Puccini’s Tosca. She also was in the company’s production of Mozart’s Magic Flute!
She made her opera house debut at the San Francisco Opera House where she played Madame Lidoine in Dialogues of the Carmelites. Leontyne’s European opera house debut was playing Aida at the Vienna Staatsoper. With numerous successful performances in Europe, she performed at the legendary La Scala on May 21, 1960, where she was the first Black opera singer with a major role to perform here. Her debut at the Metropolitan Opera was in January 27, 1961 where she performed as Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore. Here, she received a 42-minute ovation, the longest in the Met’s history! She continued to perform in the operas Anthony and Cleopatra, Manon, Ariadne auf Naxos, and more.
Leontyne Price received many awards throughout the course of her life. In 1961, Musical America voted her Musician of the Year. She was also awarded the Presidential Freedom Award in 1964 and the Italian Award of Merit in 1965. Throughout her singing career, she won 15 Grammy Awards for her vocal recordings. She was the only opera singer in Life Magazine Bicentennial issue in 1976 on “remarkable American women.”
If you’re interested in learning more about Leontyne Price, check out this video from PBS where she was talks about opening the Met Opera in Anthony and Cleopatra.