Mary Violet Leontyne Price
February 10, 1927 – Present
Notable: Opera singer
Mary Violet Leontyne Price was born in Laurel, Mississippi to Katherine Baker and James Anthony Price who worked respectively as a midwife and carpenter. Price’s family was actively involved in the church as her grandfathers were Methodist ministers. But the family was also immersed in music via the church as her mother sang in the choir and her father played the tuba.
When Price was a toddler, her mother noticed that she seemed enraptured during choir practice. To encourage her burgeoning interest in music Price was enrolled in piano lessons around the age of three or five. During her childhood, Price would become well known in her community due to singing and playing the piano at church and its related events.
The Price family was not wealthy or even comfortably middle class. But Price’s parents provided a stable home for her and her brother that was grounded in their faith. Price would later recall being raised with love and not feeling at all deprived despite her humble upbringing.
The Price children spent time at their aunt’s job where she would watch over them when both of their parents were working. Their aunt, Everline Greer, worked as a maid for the Chisholms, a wealthy White family. When the Chisholms became aware of Price’s musical talent they began to hire her to perform at events.
When she was nine Price accompanied her mother to a Marian Anderson concert. She was mesmerized by the experience of seeing and hearing Anderson perform. Witnessing that performance combined with her own experience as a paid performer made Price determined to also become a professional singer.
As a student at Oak Park Vocational School, Price was actively involved with the school’s performing arts groups. She distinguished herself as a strong singer in the school choir and was the go-to pianist for performances. Being active in the choir added to her professional experience as the group traveled throughout the state to perform at competitions and concerts.
After high school, Price relocated to Ohio where she enrolled at Wilberforce’s College of Educational and Industrial Arts. At the time, there were not a lot of avenues for Black singers to become professionals, especially not within the realm of opera. Thus, Price initially planned to follow an education track that would prepare her to become a music teacher.
Upon arriving at Wilberforce, Price’s vocal talent so impressed her voice teacher and the school’s president that they encouraged her to switch her focus from teaching to voice. Price resisted taking this advice until a visiting pianist helped her realize the true range of her voice. Now more confident in her vocal ability, Price began to take advantage of opportunities to move forward with establishing a singing career.
Nearing graduation from college, arrangements were made for Price to audition at the Juilliard School of Music. The audition was successful and Price was awarded a scholarship to cover her tuition. When her parents were unable to provide funds to cover her room and board other members of the community stepped up. The Chisholms offered to cover Price’s living expenses as well as the cost of her books. And Paul Robeson who had heard Price perform and been impressed hosted a benefit concert that raised $1,000 to support her education at Julliard.
At Julliard, Price began her studies under Florence Page Kimball the start of a relationship that would last for over 40 years. Price attended Broadway shows and operas which drew her towards wanting to pursue opera. She successfully auditioned for Julliard’s opera workshop and became a member during her sophomore year. With her natural talent and Kimball’s instruction, Price would earn leading roles in several of the school’s operas.
The composer Virgil Thomas was so impressed with one of her student performances that he offered Price a role in one of his Broadway productions. Price made her Broadway debut in 1952 in Four Saints in Three Acts. Another school performance resulted in Price being cast as Bess in a touring production of Porgy and Bess.
Price received great reviews for her performance. Being cast in the show would also result in positive developments in her personal life. There was an attraction between Price and the show’s leading man, fellow opera singer, William Warfield. The two began dating and eventually married though the marriage would later end in divorce.
Unfortunately, given the era, there were also negative experiences. Porgy and Bess made its debut in Dallas, Texas, and visited several US cities before traveling to Europe. Price and other members of the show’s all-Black cast had to contend with Jim Crow. Like many other Black travelers, they were barred from staying at most hotels and were unable to utilize other facilities.
It was also nearly impossible for Price to secure roles in the companies of America’s or Europe’s premiere opera houses. Instead, she performed concerts as a soloist or in the company of Warfield. Price embarked on a tour and appeared in several NBC televised operas. She finally landed a role at the San Francisco Opera that raised her profile and granted her entry into the world of opera.
Leontyne Price debuted at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House in 1961. She became the opera house’s prima donna or chief female singer. In this position which she held for 24 years, Price would sing and perform the female lead in several operas. Price was the first Black prima donna to establish an international profile. And after boycotting segregated opera houses in the South, she also became the first to perform in the Deep South.
Price retired from opera performances in 1985 but continued to perform. In addition to her career as an opera singer, Price gave back to her alma mater Julliard as well as other schools by sharing her knowledge and experience through teaching. Leontyne Price fully retired in 1997 after an incredibly successful career that garnered 13 Grammy Awards, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Kennedy Center Honor, and a National Medal of the Arts.
- Biography.com Editors. 2021. “Leontyne Price.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. November 12, 2021. https://www.biography.com/musicians/leontyne-price.
- Clark, Peter. n.d. “Leontyne Price: A Legendary Met Career.” Metropolitan Opera. The Metropolitan Opera. Accessed April 19, 2023. https://www.metopera.org/discover/archives/notes-from-the-archives/leontyne-price-a-legendary-met-career/.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2023. “Leontyne Price.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. February 6, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Leontyne-Price.
- “Leontyne Price, 1927.” n.d. Wander Women Project. Accessed April 19, 2023. https://wanderwomenproject.com/women/leontyne-price/.
- “Leontyne Price.” n.d. The Kennedy Center. Accessed April 19, 2023. https://www.kennedy-center.org/artists/p/po-pz/leontyne-price/.
- “Price, Leontyne (1927—).” n.d. Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Encyclopedia.com. Accessed April 19, 2023. https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/price-leontyne-1927.
- Randye Jones. 2022. “Leontyne Price Biography.” Afrocentric Voices in “Classical” Music. December 5, 2022. http://afrovoices.com/leontyne-price-biography/.
- Serinus, Jason Victor. 2022. “The Essential Leontyne Price.” San Francisco Classical Voice. February 24, 2022. https://www.sfcv.org/articles/feature/essential-leontyne-price.
Disclosure: Noire Histoir is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for the website to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Noire Histoir will receive commissions for purchases made via any Amazon Affiliate links above.