Leontyne Price is the featured artist this week on the Lyric Stage Sunday night at 8PM. She will sing arias and songs by Verdi, Gershwin, Puccini, Bizet, Mozart and Richard Strauss. She debuted as Leanora in Il Trovatore at the Metropolitan Opera on January 27,1961. Other African Americans had preceded Price in leading roles at the Met; however, she was the first African American to build a star career on both sides of the Atlantic, the first to return to the Met in multiple leading roles, and the first to earn the Met's top fee, on a par with Joan Sutherland, Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi.
January 27, 1961 not only was the night of Price's debut, but it was also the Met debut of Franco Corelli, who sang Manrico. Price received a tumultuous and long ovation at the end - some accounts say 35 minutes, others 42 minutes. Corelli's reception was muted, with no tumultuous and long ovation at the end, which led to a Marx Brothers moment when he allegedly said that he would never sing with Price again. So there. But he did, frequently, in many live performances and on recordings.
Price was born in Laurel MS in 1927 and applied to study at Juilliard after graduating from Central State College in Ohio in 1948. Paul Robeson helped to raise funds for her tuition, and while she was at Juilliard, Virgil Thomson cast her in a production of his 4 Saints in 4 Acts, and Ira Gershwin cast her as Bess in Porgy and Bess, a production that toured the US and Europe from 1952 to 1954. Herbert Von Karajan did much to mentor her career in Europe after he first heard her sing in a private Carnegie Hall audition in 1955. Debuts in San Francisco and La Scala followed in the next few years and then, finally the Met debut.
Much of Price's career was devoted to concerts and recitals, not just opera, and after her farewell at the Met as Aida in 1985 she continued to give recitals for twelve years.