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Born in 1927
Inducted in 1998
While Leontyne Price’s rise to international prominence may be in many respects a typical American success story, it was a unique combination of natural gifts, commitment, character, and sound artistic judgment that propelled and sustained her remarkable career.
Mary Leontyne Violet Price grew up in a small town in Mississippi. Her aunt worked in the home of the Alexander Chisholms, a prominent Laurel family; the Chisholm’s were aware of young Leontyne’s gifts, and in 1949, when she won a scholarship to the Juilliard School, their generosity enabled her to take advantage of it. In 1951 she sang the role of Alice Ford in a Juilliard production of Verdi’s Falstaff.
Virgil Thomson heard Miss Price at Juilliard, and chose her to appear in the 1953 revival of his opera Four Saints in Three Acts, at the International Arts Festival in Paris and in New York. In 1953 Miss Price gave the premiere of Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs at the Library of Congress, with the composer at the piano. The following year saw her New York recital debut at Town Hall and her first appearances with both the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Charles Munch conducting) and the Philadelphia Orchestra (under Eugene Ormandy); and the year after that she became the first black artist to sing a major operatic role on television.
Miss Price’s performance of the title role in the NBC Opera Company presentation of Puccini’s Tosca, in 1955, was seen and heard by Kurt Herbert Adler, who was at that time director of the San Francisco Opera; he immediately invited her to San Francisco to sing Madame Lidoine in the American premiere of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites. She sang her first Aida in San Francisco in 1957.
Her long awaited Metropolitan debut took place on January 27, 1961, as Leonora in Il trovatore. Her 42 minute ovation at the final curtain set a record in the history of the house.
Barber, with whom Price had introduced his Hermit Songs in 1953, chose her for the leading role in his Antony and Cleopatra, which was commissioned to open the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966.
Miss Price retired from the opera stage in 1985 after a televised performance of Aida at the Met, but continued to perform in concerts and recitals. Her artistry has been recognized with the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1965), the Kennedy Center Honors for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts (1980), and the first National Medal of Arts (1985), as well as numerous honorary doctorates and other awards and medals from around the world.