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Leontyne Price: the first African-American singer to perform opera on television

Goran Blazeski

Mary Violet Leontyne Price is one of the best-known African-American opera singers. She was born on 10 February 1927 in Mississippi, to James Anthony Price and Kate Baker Price.

Both of her parents sang in the church choir where one of her grandparents worked as a minister. As a girl, Leontyne showed her love for music and sang in the church choir too.

When she was five years old, Leontyne took piano lessons and after just one year of practicing she gave her first public performance. In 1937, she started her education at Oak Park Vocational High School where she sang in the high school choir and was the main pianist for the school concerts. Upon graduating, she received an award for outstanding ability in music.

Leontyne Price in 1951
Leontyne Price in 1951

After graduating from Oak Park Vocational High School in 1944, Leontyne entered the College of Education and Industrial Arts in Wilberforce, Ohio. Her primary intention was to become a music teacher, but the principal of the college advised her to change her major and concentrate on voice.

After her graduation in 1948, Leontyne won a four-year scholarship at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. She was guided by her teacher Florence Ward Kimball. In the last year of her education at Julliard, Leontyne performed Mistress Ford in the student production of the opera Falstaff. Her beautiful soprano voice was noticed by Virgil Thompson who invited her to make her Broadway debut and sing the role of St. Cecelia in opera, Four Saints in Three Acts. This was her first professional experience.

Soon after, she was chosen to perform as Bess in George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. This role gave her a chance to travel around Europe and the US. The show was performed in Germany, France, England, Russia and many other states. The success of the show gained Leontyne international recognition.

Price from Porgy and Bess 1953
Price from Porgy and Bess 1953

In 1955, Leontyne sang the leading voice in Puccini’s Tosca on NBC television and became the first African-American singer to perform opera on television. She continued to give TV performance for the next two years and in 1957 she made her opera house debut at the San Francisco Opera House. She played the role of Madame Lidoine in Dialogues of the Carmelites.

Leontyne Price - Prima Donna Vol. 5 Great Soprano Arias From Handel To Britten. Photo Credit
Leontyne Price – Prima Donna Vol. 5 Great Soprano Arias From Handel To Britten. Photo Credit

After performing in Aida, Leontyne became one of the most popular lyric sopranos in the country. In 1961, she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera. She played the role of Leonora in Verdi’s  II Trovatore. 

Her flawless performance won her a standing ovation of an incredible forty-two minutes. Later, she also played in  Madama Butterfly, Don Giovanni, Liu in Turandot, and perhaps most notably in Antony and Cleopatra.

Her musical talent won her many awards, including Musician of the Year in 1961, the Presidential Freedom Award in 1962, and the Italian Award of Merit in 1964.

Donna Zapola, soprano, works with Leontyne Price. Photo Credit
Donna Zapola, soprano, works with Leontyne Price. Photo Credit

During the 1970s, Leontyne performed less frequently. In 1985, she gave her final performance at the Lincoln Center, playing the role of Aida, her favorite one. Leontyne also made numerous recordings which won her many Grammy Awards.

Read another story from us: Hazel Scott: A classical and jazz musician who became one of America’s premier pianists

After her retirement, she continued to give recitals. Today, she is known as the first Afro-American opera singer who achieved stardom at home and on the international stage.

Goran Blazeski

Goran Blazeski is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News