Leontyne Price is famous as one of the first widely acclaimed African-American opera singers. An accomplished soprano, Price performed all over the world. She is considered one of the most important operatic singers of the twentieth century.
Price was born in Mississippi in 1927; her parents—her father was a carpenter, her mother, a midwife—both loved music and were members of their church choir. They supported their daughter’s interest in music and singing, enrolling her in piano lessons at an early age. Both children of Methodist ministers, Price’s parents encouraged her to sing in their church’s choir.
In college, Price started training to be a public school music teacher, but when she received a scholarship to Julliard she shifted her focus, putting all her efforts into her own voice training. As a student at Julliard, Price performed in a number of operatic productions. When Virgil Thomson heard Price sing in one of these operas, he hired her to appear in the Broadway revival of Four Saints in Three Acts, the opera he composed to a text by Gertrude Stein.
When she performed Aida with Luciano Pavarotti, he remarked, “In the Nile scene . . . . Leontyne was so deep into the music that I began to cry backstage before my entrance. She was in superb form.”1 Terry McEwen, once the general manager of the San Francisco Opera, has said, “When Leontyne Price sings ‘Vissi d’arte’ it’s a spiritual experience.”2
Leontyne Price was among Carl Van Vechten’s favorite singers. He saw many of her performances and followed her reviews in the papers; in 1952 he wrote to Donald Angus, “Leontyne Price has made a sensation in Porgy and Bess. With [William] Warfield and Cab Calloway in the company, she has stolen the notices. The Saturday Review of Literature gave her a PAGE.”3 A decade later he was still an avid fan. “The excitement of the moment is mostly Leontyne Price who has since I wrote you about her Trovatore made an even greater success in Aida,” Van Vechten wrote to Sandy Campbell in 1961. “This week she sings Butterfly. I go to all her performances with rapture. She is sui generis and there is no one like her.”4