Sunday 17 December 2017

Classic talk: Birthday for a diva - Leontyne Price at 90

Breaking barriers: Leontyne Price in 2001
Breaking barriers: Leontyne Price in 2001

George Hamilton

Across the pond last week, the candles were out in force - 90 of them to celebrate the birthday of one of the most acclaimed American artists, the soprano Leontyne Price. Though it's been a while since she graced the great stages, according to National Public Radio in the USA, hers is the voice we still love to talk about.

It's a remarkable story she has to tell. She was born into a black family in America's deep south, in Mississippi, where both her grandfathers had been Methodist ministers.

With a musical talent that was evident early on, she was encouraged by a white couple, the Chisholms, where her aunt did the laundry. With their support, and the backing of her parents who made huge sacrifices, she won a scholarship to the Juilliard School in New York, the top musical academy in America.

She'd had no idea she had the potential to reach for the stars in this way. As she put it in an interview with Gramophone magazine in 1971: "Everyone realised I had a voice except me."

Even then, she'd no designs on becoming an opera singer. A career as a soloist seemed the logical way to go for there were plenty of openings for black concert performers.

But the experience of seeing Salome at the Met convinced her of her own potential, and opera became her focus.

She was spotted by Ira Gershwin who cast her as the female lead in Porgy and Bess, an outing that revealed a stage presence and a personality that belonged in musical theatre.

This took her abroad on tour, a demanding schedule that lasted two years. Back home, she found herself in the eye of a controversy, and the unwitting architect of a watershed.

It was 1955, in segregated America. NBC, which was beginning to promote opera in its television schedules, cast Leontyne Price as the opera singer in the title role of Puccini's Tosca, a black heroine singing opposite her white artist lover.

This caused consternation. NBC affiliate stations across the south refused to carry the broadcast. But Price was on her way.

The first black artist to appear in opera on television, in 1961 she became the first black to open a season at the Met in New York. This was only a matter of months after she'd made her debut on that stage, as Leonora in Verdi's Il Trovatore.

She had certainly arrived. The ovation at the final curtain for Price and her co-star Franco Corelli lasted almost 40 minutes.

The autumn production was Puccini's tale of the American gold rush, La Fanciulla del West. Price was that Girl of the Golden West - Minnie, the good-hearted gun-toting saloon owner at the centre of the story.

The crystal clarity of a sumptuous voice teamed with an ability to bring out the depth of demanding roles meant she was made for Verdi's Aïda.

But there was another side to her talent that enabled her to tackle the altogether different demands of, say, Mozart's heroines like Pamina in the Magic Flute or Fiordiligi in Così fan Tutte.

She revelled in her voice which she described as her best friend, no less than she delighted in the role she played in opening the stage to black artists.

Retiring from opera around 30 years ago, her reputation remains assured thanks to a plump catalogue of excellent recordings. Though she only sings for herself these days, the legacy of three glorious decades is there for us all to enjoy.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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