Today in History

Today in History: February 10

Leontyne Price

We should not have a tin cup out for something as important as the arts in this country, the richest in the world. Creative artists are always begging, but always being used when it's time to show us at our best.

Leontyne Price, quoted in Brian Lanker, I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America (New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1989), 44.

Portrait of Leontyne Price
Portrait of Leontyne Price,
singing "La voyante of Sanguet,"
Carl Van Vechten, photographer,
May 19, 1953.
Creative Americans: Portraits by Carl Van Vechten, 1932-1964

Lyric soprano Leontyne Price was born on February 10, 1927, in Laurel, Mississippi. Price debuted on Broadway in April 1952. Her successful career took her to leading opera houses around the world and brought eighteen Grammy awards as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The granddaughter of two Methodist ministers, Price began singing in church. Her parents encouraged her musical inclination at home. When she was five or six years old, they purchased a toy piano. "I was center stage," Price remembered, "from the time I received that toy piano…I had the disease then…"1

Leontyne Price in Porgy & Bess
Portrait of Leontyne Price, Porgy & Bess,
Carl Van Vechten, photographer,
May 19, 1953.
Creative Americans: Portraits by Carl Van Vechten, 1938-1964

As a young girl, Price heard legendary contralto Marian Anderson perform. "When I saw this wonderful woman come from the wings in this white satin dress," she remembered, "I knew instantly: one of these days, I'm going to come out of the wings…The light dawned. It was a magic moment."2

After graduating from the College of Education and Industrial Arts (now Central State College) in Wilberforce, Ohio, Price attended The Juilliard School of Music (founded as the Institute of Musical Art and now known as The Juilliard School), an internationally known school of the performing arts in New York City. She sang the role of Bess in Ira Gershwin's Porgy and Bess in New York City from 1952-54 and made her operatic debut at the San Francisco Opera in 1957. Despite the praise of European critics and enormous popularity at home, Price did not appear at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City until January 27, 1961. She performed there regularly, however, after her triumphant debut performance in Il Trovatore.

Price made other tours that included Australia and Argentina's Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires in 1969. In the 1970s, she drastically cut the number of her opera performances, preferring to focus instead on her first love, recitals, in which she enjoyed the challenge of creating several characters on stage in succession. In 1985, Price gave her final performance at New York's Lincoln Center in the title role of Verdi's Aida; she was fifty-seven years old.

1Brian Lanker, I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America. (New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1989), 44.
2ibid.