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Here’s Everything You Never Learned About Leontyne Price, The First Black Leading Performer In Opera

Here’s Everything You Never Learned About Leontyne Price, The First Black Leading Performer In Opera

It’s the 62nd anniversary of her premiere at the Metropolitan Opera!

Leontyne Price was born Mary Violet Leontyne Price on February 10, 1927 in Laurel, Mississippi. She got her start in church before rising to become one of the most recognized opera singers in the world. Today, at the age of 95, Price continues to serve as an inspiration for Black women opera singers of the past, present and future, paving the way for luminaries like four-time Grammy award winner Jessye Norman, J’nai Bridges, and Victory Brinker, the world’s youngest opera singer. In honor of her historic Met debut, here’s everything you never learned about Leontyne Price, the first Black leading performer in opera, courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica:



Price studied at the Juilliard School of music.

Leontyne Price grew up in the church, both of her grandfathers serving as Methodist ministers in Mississippi. She grew up singing in the church choir, only choosing to pursue a career in music after attending the College of Education and Industrial Arts, now Central State University. She then went on to study at New York’s Juilliard School of Music for four years.



She made her first debut on Broadway before traveling the world as a singer.

In April 1952, Price debuted on Broadway in a production of Four Saints in Three Acts. She performed in New York from 1952 to 1954, eventually taking her act across the United States and Europe. In 1955, she performed in the title role of NBC’s Tosca, leading to more broadcast television engagements over the years. 



Price didn’t make her opera stage debut until 1957.

In September 1957, Price made her operatic stage debut in the American premiere of Francis Poulenc’s Les Dialogues des Carmélites at the San Francisco Opera. She continued to perform on the San Francisco circuit until 1960, becoming one of the most famous lyric sopranos in the United States.



She debuted at the Met in 1961.

While Marian Anderson broke the Met’s color barrier in 1955, it was towards the end of her career and would be years later before Price ran through the door she opened. By the time Price debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in January 1961, she was already an accomplished singer. Her first Met role was as Leonora in Il Trovatore. She would go on to become one of the leading sopranos at the Met, performing in 204 Met productions before her farewell performance in 1985. 

“Her voice, warm and luscious, has enough volume to fill the house with ease, and she has a good technique to back up the voice itself. She even took the trills as written, and nothing in the part as Verdi wrote it gave her the least bit of trouble … Voice is what counts, and voice is what Miss Price has,” read an excerpt from journalist Harold Schoenberg’s New York Times review via The Met



Price made history as the first Black leading opera performer and the first African-American international superstar singer.

After her farewell performance, Price continued to give recitals. She published a children’s book, Aida, in 1990 that’s based on Giuseppe Verdi’s opera and was later turned into a musical by Elton John. She remains one of the most recorded opera singers ever and holds more than 20 Grammy Awards, a Grammy lifetime achievement award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Kennedy Center Honor, the National Medal of the Arts and was named a National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honoree. 



You are an absolutely phenomenal talent Ms. Price. Thank you for all of your contributions. Because of you, we can!

Here’s everything you never learned about Leontyne Price, the first Black leading performer in opera. Photo Courtesy of Jack Mitchell/Getty Images