Sunday Morning Opera: Happy Birthday Leontyne Price


The Diva in a Turban turned ninety this week! There is no argument that she is one of the greatest voices this country has ever produced, Bubbles and Aretha being another two. I never saw her on stage. I did, though, get to see her during a backstage tour of the Met. She was rehearing Aida. Like school children in awe, we were allowed to watch her for a few minutes. Then, she walked out, graciously speaking to everyone. I will admit I bawled a little.

She became such a diva, it is hard to imagine when she first began her career, due to the way black artists were treated in this country, she did not even plan on a stage career here.

“…The Metropolitan Opera invited Price to sing a pair of performances as Aida in 1958, but she turned down the offer on the advice of friends, including Peter Herman Adler, director of NBC Opera. In his autobiography, William Warfield writes that Adler said, “Leontyne is to be a great artist. When she makes her debut at the Met, she must do it as a lady, not a slave.”

In 1959, after hearing her in Il Trovatore that August at Verona with tenor Franco Corelli, Met General Manager Rudolf Bing invited her to join the Met company in the 1960–61 season. On January 27, 1961, she and Corelli made a triumphant double-debut in Il Trovatore. The final ovation lasted at least 35 minutes, one of the longest in Met history. (Price often said her friends or family had timed it at 42 minutes, and that was the number used in her later publicity.)

In his review, The New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg wrote that Price’s “voice, warm and luscious, has enough volume to fill the house with ease, and she has a good technique to back up the voice itself. She even took the trills as written, and nothing in the part as Verdi wrote it gave her the least bit of trouble. She moves well and is a competent actress. But no soprano makes a career of acting. Voice is what counts, and voice is what Miss Price has.”

The reception and reviews were less positive for Corelli, who told Bing the next morning that he would never sing with Price again—an outburst that was soon forgotten. Price and Corelli sang together often over the next dozen years, at the Met and in Vienna and Salzburg.

In her first few weeks at the Met, Price gave four other company debut performances as Aïda, Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, and Liu in Turandot. In recognition of this extraordinary run, Time magazine put her on its cover in March. That fall, American music critics named her “Musician of the Year” and she was put on the cover of “Musical America.”…”

At this moment, I cried, and cried, and cried.


According to local legends, when the diva first appeared with the Metropolitan Opera when they were on tour in Atlanta, she was not allowed, nor invited, to attend private parties at several of the country clubs in the city.  When this happened, her colleagues refused to attend them, either.  The tale is, Met performers did not attend certain parties, ever, after that.