While it is a well-established fact that our neighborhoods have attracted and been home to some of the most groundbreaking artists and art movements of the past couple of centuries, the stories of our groundbreaking residents never cease to amaze us. One such maverick who lived in our midst was La Diva Divina, opera legend Leontyne Price.
Ms. Price was one of the first internationally recognized African-American opera stars. Her career broke through racial barriers at a time when the United States was experiencing intense racial strife and conflict.
Leontyne Price was born in Laurel, Mississippi on February 10th, 1927. Her father James worked in a lumber mill and her mother Katherine was a midwife who sang in the church choir. Leontyne was the focus of her parents’ intense pride and love. Given a toy piano at the age of three, she began piano lessons with a local teacher at age five.
When Leontyne was 14, she was taken on a school trip to hear a recital in Jackson, Mississippi by Marion Anderson, a black contralto who was a critical figure in the struggle for black artists to overcome racial prejudice in the United States during the mid-twentieth century. This proved to be a life changing experience for Ms. Price. “The minute she (Anderson) came on stage, I knew I wanted to walk like that, look like that, and if possible, sound something near that,” she told an interviewer in 2008.
In the fall of 1948, Leontyne Price enrolled at the Juilliard School and won a scholarship. She was admitted to the vocal studio of the venerable Florence Page Kimball, who remained her principal voice teacher. In early 1952, she sang her breakout performance as Mistress Ford in a Juilliard production of Verdi’s Falstaff. Virgil Thomson, an American composer and critic, heard a performance and cast her in a revival of his all-black opera, Four Saints in Three Acts. After two weeks on Broadway, the production of Saints went to Paris. Meanwhile, Leontyne had been signed to sing Bess in a new production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and her international career was launched like a rocket.
It is impossible to speak of Ms. Price’s career without noting that she was the first African American superstar opera singer, and one who shattered the racial barrier at the Metropolitan Opera. She made her debut there in 1961 as Leonora in Il Trovatore, and was such a success that the audience gave her a standing ovation that lasted 40 minutes! Her incredible voice became indispensable to the Met, and the company began to plan its season repertory around her — a practice they continued for some time.
As one of the company’s leading prima donnas, Ms. Price accompanied the Met on tour, including to several Southern cities where theaters were segregated. Her presence there was an important factor in changing the discriminatory policies. In fact, the rise of her Met career coincided with the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and she was proud to be a part of it. Along with her exceptional artistic achievements, it remains part of her remarkable legacy.
It is an extraordinary footnote that Ms. Price was able to buy her Greenwich Village townhome in 1961, well before the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The Fair Housing Act prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin or sex. Prior to 1968, African Americans and other minorities were chronically subjected to race-based housing patterns. Those who challenged them often met with resistance, hostility, and even violence. Organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) lobbied for new fair housing legislation to be passed, and only in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was it finally passed. Purchasing the townhouse in 1961 is yet another revolutionary aspect of Ms. Price’s life and legacy. What she achieved both on and off the stage was, quite simply, extraordinary.
Ms. Price sold her Vandam Street townhouse in 2013 and moved to Maryland to be close to her family. But we have a remarkable description of the interior of her home that was written in 1962 by Arthur Todd of Musical America, on the occassion of Ms. Price’s award for Musician of the Year:
“Leontyne Price’s New York home is a little jewel box of a white brick house on a quiet street in Greenwich Village. Measuring just 25 feet wide and 40 feet deep, it is backed by a serene little garden running behind the house for another 60 feet. When I went down to talk to her the day after Thanksgiving, she had just breezed in from the Met. “I am late,” she exclaimed. “I had an early appointment with Mr. Bing this afternoon. Then I wandered into the auditorium and was caught and enthralled by Joan Sutherland’s dress rehearsal of Lucia di Lammermoor. She is supreme!” Excusing herself for a moment to make some telephone calls, she left me in the capable care of her adroit secretary, Hugh Dilworth, and her treasured housekeeper, Lulu Shoemaker.
“Almost the entire first floor of her house is given over to a long drawing room. It is quietly opulent, warm and friendly, and serves as a delightful setting for Miss Price’s entertaining, which she does on an expansive scale. Naturally, there’s a grand piano as well as a built-in high-fidelity system. Shelves lining part of one wall contain rows of neatly alphabetized boxes for scores, photos, programs and clippings. One focal point of the room is the original painting of the singer as she appeared on the cover of Time magazine last year. This is set in a mirror over the mantle. Almost everywhere in the room are glowing examples of her two favorite colors—delphinium blue, especially notable in a huge brocaded sofa, and avocado green, particularly in the broadloom carpet. Returning to the room, she pointed down at some scuffs in the carpet and laughingly explained, “We had a big Thanksgiving dinner party here last night for von Karajan, conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, and ended up doing the Twist until 5 a.m. I had a wonderful time.”Arthur Todd for Musical America
Francis Mason, the well respected editor, writer, cultural diplomat, and dance critic once quipped that he could hear Ms. Price vocalizing from his home on Charlton Street, one block away! Don’t we wish that we could still hear her dulcet tones pouring from a window on Vandam Street?
Leontyne Price was summoned from her retirement in 2001 to sing a memorial concert for the victims of 9/11 at Carnegie Hall. She was 74 at the time and her voice was as rich and strong as ever. You can listen to that astonishing performance here. Truly she was the Voice of a Century.