Leontyne Price was the first successful black female opera singer and was born in Laurel, Mississippi, on February 10, 1927. She grew up in Laurel, Mississippi, and graduated from Oak Park High School (now only elementary, 1205 Queensburg Avenue Laurel, MS 39440) in 1944. She also sang in the choir at St. Paul’s Methodist Church (517 Jefferson St., 601-428-7613) in Laurel, Mississippi. Throughout her career she would return to this church to do an annual Christmas Concert. She was discovered by a wealthy white patron that her mother worked for. In High School she sang soprano with the Oak Park Choral Group and performed in numerous school concerts, at churches, in community programs, and in solo recitals, singing and playing the piano. Price enrolled at the College of Education and Industrial Arts (Central State College) in Wilberforce, Ohio. At Central State, Price studied music education, hoping to become a music teacher if becoming a performer failed. Price won a four-year scholarship to the esteemed Juilliard School of Music in New York City and left for New York in 1949. She appeared in many of Julliard’s operatic productions. During one of her performances she was seen and heard by composer Virgil Thompson. This performance gave her the start to her career. Virgil Thompson asked her to sing the role of St. Cecelia in the opera Four Saints in Three Acts, which was her first appearance as a professional. From then on, Price began touring the United States and Europe as a professional singer.
Throughout the 1950’s, Leontyne Price broadened her career as an opera singer by starring in a number of works in recital halls, opera stages, and on television. In February 1955, with Samuel Barber on piano, she made her television debut as Floria Tosca in an NBC-TV Opera Company production of Puccini’s Tosca, and in 1956, she starred in NBC’s production of Mozart’s Magic Flute. The following year, Price made her opera house debut as Madame Lidoine in Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites at the San Francisco Opera House. On July 2, 1958, she debuted in London at Covent Garden, and two years later, she played Aida to a packed house at the venerable La Scala on May 21, 1960, becoming the first black singer to sing a major role at this citadel of opera.
Leontyne Price achieved one of the greatest artistic victories of her career on January 27, 1961, when she debuted at the Metropolitan Opera as Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore. This performance ignited a 42-minute ovation, one of the longest in the Met’s history. Critic Harold Schonberg wrote: “Her voice was dusky and rich in its lower tones, perfectly even in its transitions from one register to another, and flawlessly pure and velvety at the top.”In 1961 Musical America voted her Musician of the Year with a poll of editors and critics all over the country. In 1964, she was awarded the Presidential Freedom Award, and the following year, she won the Italian Award of Merit. Price also was chosen to open the Met’s 1966-1967 season as Cleopatra in Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra. Over the years, Leontyne Price has won fifteen Grammy Awards for vocal recordings, and she has been on the cover of Time and twenty-seven other magazines. In addition, she was the only opera singer to be represented in the list of “Remarkable American Women: 1776-1976” in Life Magazine’s Bicentennial issue in 1976.
In 1999 Price was inducted into the Mississippi Musician’s Hall of Fame and in 2000 she was the recipient of the Mississippi Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award.