February 10, 1927 – Leontyne Price:
”Aida was my warrior part, my heart-beat, the role that made me feel even more beautifully black, and the only time when, as a black soprano, I got to sing a black heroine.”
Opera is so gay. And, for someone who is not big on opera, I am still gay enough to have seen a bunch of productions, many on the very best opera houses on the planet, and to even own a few opera CDs, albeit mostly greatest hits aria collections. But, I am more Aretha Franklin than Leontyne Price.
The cult of the ”Opera Queen” was recognized by openly gay communities in the late 19th century, but undoubtedly existed long before that. In 1908, Edward Prime Stevenson who wrote under the pen name Xavier Mayne published The Intersexes, his defense of homosexuality defense from a scientific, legal, historical, and personal perspective. The book included a questionnaire to determine if you were homosexual where one of the first questions wasn’t ”Do you like to suck cock?” but ”Do you prefer operatic music?” and ”Are you peculiarly fond of Wagner?” Opera Queens are those men (and women) who are regularly in standing-room section at every opera and are especially passionate about their favorite divas.
Leontyne Price is the first African-American opera singer to become famous around the planet, and a diva recognized even by civilians. She didn’t start out to be an opera singer, but she changed how people thought about opera much to the world’s benefit.
Price was born Mary Violet Leontyne Price in Laurel, Mississippi. Her working-class parents instilled a love of music in her. They purchased a piano for her when was she was a little girl and paid for lessons. She loved music and began singing in a local church when she was in grade school.
Price enrolled in Wilberforce University the nation’s oldest private, historically black university, with the idea of becoming a music teacher. She possessed such a standout talent that her teachers suggested that Price study voice. She attended The Julliard School on a full scholarship.
She made her debut in a Julliard production of Giuseppe Verdi’s comic opera Falstaff in 1952. When she was a kid, Price attended a recital by African-American contralto Marian Anderson who inspired Price to focus on singing recitals only, forgoing doing opera. But, gay composer Virgil Thomson saw her perform at Julliard and in 1952, Price made her Broadway debut as St. Cecilia in the revival of Thomson’s and Gertrude Stein’s opera Four Saints In Three Acts. Three weeks after closing, Price was chosen for the lead role in a production of George Gershwin’s Porgy And Bess which toured Europe.
During her tour with the show, she married William Warfield, who portrayed Porgy. This production’s original cast also featured Cab Calloway as Sportin’ Life, a role that Gershwin had composed with him in mind. The role of Clara was played by young Maya Angelou. Porgy was the first role for Warfield after his appearance as Joe, singing Ol’ Man River in the 1951 MGM film version of Show Boat.
After a tour of Europe financed by the United States State Department, the production came to Broadway in March 1953. It later toured North America.
In 1955, Price starred in an NBC production of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca. The camera loved Price and she starred in a string of televised operas.
At the San Francisco Opera House in 1957, Price played Madame Lidoine in Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. Her moving performance brought her the full attention of opera companies around the globe. Within a year, Price was wowing European audiences at famous venues such as Covent Garden in London and La Scala in Milan. She was a worldwide sensation.
Price made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1961 as Leonora in Il Trovatore, a performance greeted with a 42-minute ovation that to this day maintains its record as one of the longest in the Met’s history. It brought her the beginning of her residency as one of the Met’s principal sopranos. She flourished, starring in such roles such as Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, Minnie in La Fanciulla del West and, most notably, as Cleopatra in gay composer Samuel Barber’s disastrous Antony and Cleopatra which opened the new Met at Lincoln Center.
Price became a leading interpreter of roles of Verdi, Puccini, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Her voice ranged from A flat below Middle C to the E above High C. She said she sang high Fs “in the shower.”
For the next quarter century, Price sang in 201 Met performances, in 16 different roles, in 21 seasons, at the house and on tour. In her ambitious first season alone, she sang five roles: the II Trovatore, Aida, Turandot, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, and Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly. The next season, she added La Fanciulla del West and Tosca. The next season she added six more roles.
She proved herself best suited to the Verdi roles, with their portrayals of noble grief and supplication. These works, plus Verdi’s Requiem became her core repertoire.
Price’s fame and her stature as the first African-American singer to gain international reputation in opera, allowed her to be selective with her roles throughout the 1970s. She finally was able to choose to perform in productions less frequently and focus on her recitals.
Price gave her farewell performance as Aida at the Met in 1985, which was telecast and was hailed as the most successful operatic performance in the Met’s history. In September 1964, at just 37-years-old, Price was awarded the Presidential Medal Of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by Lyndon B, Johnson. Nearly 20 years later, she became a National Medal Of Arts Recipient.
Price’s recordings have earned her many honors and awards, including 20 Grammy Awards. Price rose to stardom as a woman of color during a time of segregation in America and in a profession where the odds of succeeding were not in her favor because the paths to opportunities in the world of opera were limited.
The Opera House is a new film with a soundtrack from the Met’s own archives. In the film, Price, at 90-years-old, is warm, honest and very funny. There’s a scene from her farewell performance in Aida, and a passage from Verdi’s Requiem that accompanies stills of the demolition of the old Met at 39th Street and Broadway. She’s also heard in brief excerpts from that ill-fated world premiere of Antony And Cleopatra, where the Met’s new turntable breaks down under the weight of director Franco Zeffirelli’s grandiose staging and then Price gets trapped inside a giant pyramid.
Her voice transcends all barriers of race, class and expectation. It is not just her singing that had audiences transfixed; Price commanded the stage with a stoic, unfaltering stance. For the queens, Price is a queen of fierce fortitude, and an ultimate Fashion Icon, known for her extraordinary flowing gowns, turbans and those beautiful full lips and flawless dark skin. Price is an artist who, during a divisive time in our country’s history, sang recitals in venues small and large, and toured with the Met in the segregated South when the company had to boycott opening night receptions that were for ”whites-only”. She is elegant and earthy and always her diva self.