“A goddess performing among us.”
– Jay Harrison, The Herald Tribune, 1954
Great Interpreters: Leontyne Price
Broadcast “live” on Fine Music Radio on 14 March 2008.
Leontyne Price (b. 1927) was the outstanding lyric-dramatic soprano of her generation. Many critics have argued that she posessed perhaps the most sumptously beautiful soprano voice of the recording era and Price herself famously declared that she adored the sound of her own voice. This self-assessment, which if uttered by any other singer might have smacked of arrogance, was endorsed by critics, conductors and audiences worldwide.
Her reputation as one of the supreme interpreters of the middle-period Verdi roles of the past century is undisputed. The esteemed critic John Steane wrote of Price that “one might conclude from recordings that she is the best interpreter of Verdi of the century,” while Placido Domingo, wrote in his 1983 autobiography how the “power and sensuousness of her voice was phenomenal – the most beautiful Verdi soprano I have ever heard.” Even Herbert von Karajan admitted that when he heard Price’s voice for the first time, it gave him goose pimples.
Price’s voice was noted for its sheer beauty, which as one commentator notes, was like a shimmering velvet cloak that envelops the listener. Her voice was also known for its brilliant upper register, the smoky timbre and huskiness in her voice’s middle and lower registers, its wide dynamic range and her special glory – a legato line of floating, fine-spun phrases. Price herself described her singing as “soul in opera.”
In many ways, Price opened the door for many other African American singers. Although she was not the first African American to sing leading roles at the Met, she became, in October 1961, the first African American to open a Met season. She was also the first African American to earn the Met’s top fee: a 1964 memo revealed that she was paid $2,750 per performance, which put her on a par with Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and Renata Tebaldi. In February 1956, she furthermore sang the title role in Puccini’s Tosca for NBC-TV Opera thereby becoming the first black person to appear in televised opera.
In addition to her performances in opera and of lieder, Price became one of 20th century’s most important interpreters of African-American spirituals. “I consider myself an American troubadour,” Price once said. “It is my duty to express the beauty and prowess of our composers. Spirituals are my soul. They are the expression of me as an American, of me as a human being.” She characterizes them as having “the depth, the wonder” of any German lied or French chanson. “I will sing your lied,” she once noted, “and I would like you to listen to mine.”
Miles Davis, in his self-titled autobiography, writes of Price: “I have always been one of her fans because in my opinion she is the greatest female singer ever, the greatest opera singer ever. She could hit anything with her voice. Leontyne’s so good it’s scary. Plus, she can play piano and sing and speak in all those languages… I love the way she sings Tosca. I wore out her recording of that, wore out two sets… I used to wonder how she would have sounded if she had sung jazz. She should be an inspiration for every musician, black or white. I know she is to me.”