Leontyne Price, Legendary Diva, Is a Movie Star at 90

This represented a titanic shift from a painful event a decade earlier. NBC Opera Theater, a TV series that broadcast live opera stagings, had chosen Ms. Price to sing the title role of Puccini’s “Tosca” in 1955. This was “a breakthrough for me,” she said, before adding, almost as an aside, “My state didn’t carry it.” Indeed, many NBC affiliates in the South refused to show a program featuring a black Tosca and her white lover.

But racism was a reality for her from birth. When she was 9, her mother, celebrated for her singing in church, took the young Leontyne on a bus trip to Jackson, Miss., to hear the great contralto Marian Anderson in recital.

“She came out in a white satin gown, so majestic,” Ms. Price said. “And opened her mouth, and I thought, ‘This is it, mama. This is what I’m going to be.’”

Even though it was a concert by a distinguished black artist, the hall was segregated; Ms. Price and her mother sat in the “colored” section. Though just a child, she said she put this irony out of her mind. But even as Ms. Price argued that art “has no color,” she acknowledged that artists, of course, have origins and identities.

“One of the things about this extraordinary instrument that I have is the blackness in it, the natural flavor,” Ms. Price said. “It’s something extra.”

And something particularly appropriate, she added, when singing spirituals, which she called “black heartbeat music.” She speaks and sings with a Southern accent, she said, which gave her spirituals “even more of me.”

Barber, like so many, was captivated by her. At the recommendation of Florence Page Kimball, Ms. Price’s beloved voice teacher at the Juilliard School, he chose the young soprano, then 26, to give the premiere of his “Hermit Songs” in 1953. He wrote Cleopatra “for the timbre, the shadings — everything about my voice, which is not too shabby, actually,” Ms. Price said.


Ms. Price as Aida at her farewell Met performance in 1985. Credit James Heffernan/Metropolitan Opera Archives

She still won’t hear a word against “Antony and Cleopatra,” though she knows how tough the initial reviews were. Most critics acknowledged the score’s beautiful moments, especially Cleopatra’s death scene, in which the character’s plaintive lyrical lines are capped by a chilling choral threnody. Still, whole stretches of the opera came across as splashy and grandiose, an impression reinforced by Mr. Zeffirelli’s overblown production. Barber revised the score significantly for a 1975 revival at Juilliard and that version has been slowly gaining attention.

He also adapted a concert suite of Cleopatra’s arias for Ms. Price. “I sang it all over the world, and I sang the hell out of it,” Ms. Price said. “I don’t think the opera was a failure. Finally — not totally — in time, Sam accepted that it’s great music.”

She hopes the film will call attention to the Met and Barber’s opera, and to his works more generally.

She spoke at length about his “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” for voice and orchestra, a wistfully beautiful musical setting of a James Agee text, with its description of a child’s memories of an evening at home. (“On the rough wet grass of the backyard my father and mother have spread quilts.”)

That poem “is like painting a picture of my hometown,” Ms. Price said, “and that’s the way I sang it.”

She recorded it in the summer of 1968, after the death of her father. While she performed the music in the studio, she “could see the lawn chairs made by my daddy,” she recalled. “He never finished the ninth grade, and he could fix anything, which was fabulous.”

Then she started singing the pensive child’s final line about the parents who provide so much love, “but will not ever tell me who I am.”

At first Ms. Price faltered. Then she shifted to a higher key and sang the phrase tenderly, right to me.

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