Musician of the Year 1962


“We have the voice of the century,” said Frederic Cohen, director of Juilliard’s Opera Department, to his wife after hearing Leontyne Price sing for the first time a little more than a decade ago. The song was the Lament from Dido and Aeneas and the very young soprano sang it for Mr. Cohen in his Introduction to Opera course. “I had no doubt from the first moment that she would make the grade,” he says. As the international musical world now agrees, he was right. The tumultuous extended ovation given Miss Price when she made her Metropolitan Opera debut a year ago this month gives ample proof of this. So, too, does the fact that she was chosen to open the Met’s 1961-62 season in La Fanciulla del West last October. These two triumphs stamped the seal of success on her 10-year rise. It is not at all surprising that Leontyne Price was elected for MUSICAL AMERICA’s Musician of the Year 1961 Award in this magazine’s nationwide poll of music editors and critics.

I first heard Leontyne Price in 1952, as St. Cecilia, in the revival of Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts. Even at that time, many key figures in the musical world were well aware of her first New York success, as Mistress Ford, in Juilliard’s production of Falstaff. In this extremely demanding role, she outclassed everyone else in the cast. Because of this, Virgil Thomson invited her to sing in the Broadway and subsequent Paris International Arts Festival revivals of his opera. Miss Price’s success in the work led to her singing Bess in the now historic production. After talking to more than a score of key figures who have helped and watched Leontyne Price rise to international fame, it became apparent that she is one of the most respected artists and beloved human beings in the contemporary music world. It is rare indeed to find professional rivals, opera and concert managers, impresarios, directors, musicians, teachers and mentors, recording and television executives, press and publicity people and even stagehands so completely in agreement. Eileen Farrell, for instance, says, “Leontyne Price is a personal friend of mine. I just adore her—wonderful person, superb artist.”

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.”

When you spend any time at all with Miss Price, you respond to her immense sense of humor, without ever forgetting her great elegance and regality. There is, most importantly, the humility that only great artists have. When she talks her face glows with interest and excitement, and her lovely hands, with their long, tapering fingers, constantly gesticulate. Off-stage she is lithe and statuesque, and moves with the innate grace and relaxation of a dancer. As she speaks on in her rich, liquid voice, you soon realize that she always works like fury and never seems completely satisfied. I found, for instance, that she spent more than four hours practicing with her hands so that they would have a truly Oriental style and feeling for Madama Butterfiy. Quite obviously, this is a minute fraction of the time that she spent in exploring the role, but it suggests the infinite pains she takes in developing a role. In approaching any new role, she says, “I learn the entire score and everyone’s part in it, and then it sticks. I’m very methodical, and I regard opera as a unity; I even have personal reasons for the way I use props. The voice is a wonderful thing, but I like realism. I want the audience to feel what I’m doing. There must be a real activity going on with what I’m singing. Sometimes I think that I must be a director’s plague. However, I believe that movement cannot be staid and studied. It must come from what the character is doing, and you must have something going on as a performer as well as a singer.”

“Actually, I have no eccentricities,” she continues. “I don’t diet, and I’m not going to do one thing to gain or lose a pound. I eat well and often, and I thrive on rest and sleep. On a performance day, I get up late and have a brunch consisting of a big glass of orange juice, two boiled eggs, and cafe au lait. At 5 o’clock, I have steak, a baked potato, salad and coffee. Then Lulu fixes me a vacuum of hot broth to take with me to the Met. Confidentially, I’m starved at the end of the First Act of Fanciulla and I also sip some broth just before the Nile Scene in Aida.”

No quirk of fate can deter this soprano. In November, when her voice failed, due to a virus infection, midway in Act II of La Fanciulla, she reports, “When I started to speak the words, I was forced to add something in place of song. This time there was an accent and a meaning to the words that I never had before, and the card game was more exciting than ever. Naturally, I prefer to sing the role, but it was an experience from which I learned a great deal.”

Working closely with some of today’s great conductors and composers has considerably widened Leontyne Price’s artistic scope. So, too, has her exposure to performances of her great colleagues. Among those most inspiring to her are, she says, “Giulietta Simionato, who is one of my pet loves. Callas is fabulous, and so are Tebaldi and Farrell. From these girls you can get a wealth of anything you want as a singer.”

“A concert is a completely different medium from opera. My concert career has helped me in opera because it taught me relaxation on the stage. Moreover, you have to be a different character in each song.” As I left her, Miss Price was in the midst of a photographic sitting for a feature story in a fashion magazine. Wearing a scarlet hostess gown, she posed on her blue sofa as though it were a throne. Banked behind her were vases of long-stemmed American Beauty roses, deliberately added to satisfy a fashion-magazine’s notion of how an opera star looks at home. By that time, we were on a first-name basis. When the photographer and editor asked her to change the pose of her hands, she laughed and said, “But I don’t make my living with my fingers!” As I left, she was calling instructions to Lulu to ice some champagne for Samuel Barber, who was on the way. “And mix some caviar and cream cheese,” she added. As I went down the front steps, I thought—here is a true prima donna; she’s on top of the world and deserves it. I wondered, however, how many people knew the work, energy, ambition and loving help that had brought Price to this pinnacle.

As everyone knows by now, Leontyne Price was born in Laurel, Mississippi, in 1927. Her mother, Kate Price, was a midwife who brought almost a thousand children into the world, and her father, James Price, was a carpenter. Kate Price recalls, “Leontyne heard opera on the radio and also listened to records. She also listened intently whenever she heard me singing at home or in church. She started to sing herself when she was about 10 years old, and then she joined the junior choir at church. Yes, she sang spirituals, too. They were her favorites, and she sang them real well at that age. During her last year in high school, she gave her first concert at the U.S.O. in Columbus, Mississippi, and Mrs. Hunter, a cousin, played for her at that time.” David Garvey, her long-time accompanist, adds, “Leontyne’s affectionate home life and background have given her stability in human relationships. It helps to sustain her. Also, deep inside, she has a basic devotion.”

After her graduation from high school, Miss Price’s parents sent her to Central State College, in Wilberforce, Ohio. Here, where she originally studied to become a music teacher (she had had piano lessons since the age of five), her voice soon was widely heralded in the college glee club. Encouraged to follow a singing career, she was awarded a scholarship at Juilliard School of Music after her graduation from college. William Schuman, president of Juilliard till the end of last month and now president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, says, “No one at Juilliard School has been in the least surprised by Leontyne Price’s rise to stardom. She was a brilliant, conscientious student and a wonderfully considerate person. It is a source of infinite satisfaction to note that, despite her great fame, she has retained her sense of proportion and humility, qualities as rare as they are welcome.”

It was at Juilliard that Leontyne Price first met Florence Page Kimball, the admirable teacher who is still her coach and mentor. ‘‘I’m a firm believer in technique, technique, technique to free the channel,” says Miss Kimball. “So many singers don’t stay with this long enough to face the final challenge. It’s a long, long task, but Leontyne has dedication, discipline and affection for her art. She also has humility, which is the greatest of all. She has a perfect routine which applies to anything she’s doing. Diet and exercise are of vital importance. The singer’s body is his instrument and needs much more care than a piano or a violin. When she studies a role, it becomes part of her. She doesn’t force it; she just lets it grow.”

Frederic Cohen says, “Leontyne Price is an amazingly honest human being. She has a shining honesty.” Elsa Kahl (in private life, Mrs. Cohen), who was a member of the internationally noted Jooss·Ballet, now teaches musical acting at Juilliard, says about Leontyne Price: “She uses movement for dramatic sense. She is exceptionally gifted and indefatigable.” Mary Hinkson, noted soloist in Martha Graham’s dance company, who lived at International House and attended Juilliard at the same time as Miss Price, says, “I remember her as being completely sincere, appealing and warm. You don’t have that power and dignity without something wonderful inside. She is a symbol to me.”

In 1953, the producers of Porgy and Bess arranged schedules so that she could take time off to do special concerts. Samuel Barber, who had half-completed his Hermit Songs in 1953, says, “After I heard Leontyne Price sing, I more or less wrote the balance of the songs for her. We performed them for the first time in the Library of Congress that year and, again, at the 20th-Century Music Conference in Rome. 1 also accompanied her at the piano in these songs when she made her debut recital in New York’s Town Hall m 1954. The same year, I was also responsible for her debut performance with the Boston Symphony in the premiere of my Prayers of Kierkegaard. I wanted her for this and asked Mr. Munch to get her. I admire her very much. She brought something very rich and very southern to my Knoxville: Summer of 1915 when Thomas Schippers conducted it for her.”

Also in 1953, she was invited by such other notable musicians as Stravinsky, Lou Harrison, Henri Sauguet, William Killmayer and John LaMontaine to premiere their works under such diverse auspices as the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Fromm Foundation. After Miss Price’s 1954 successes, which included her debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra, under Eugene Ormandy, she was ripe for her national television debut with the NBC Opera Company in the title role of Tosca. Everything after that followed in an upward spiral, including further appearances with the NBC Opera Company, in 1956 and 1957, in The Magic Flute and The Dialogues of the Carmelites. During this same period, Miss Price made her debut with the American Opera Company in Handel’s Julius Caesar; an ANTA tour of India at the invitation of the United States State Department; debuts with the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Opera; a tour of Australia; and three more appearances with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

“Approximately a decade ago,” says Rosa Ponselle, one of the greatest singers America has ever produced, “a young, relatively unknown talent sang for me at the request of Peter Herman Adler, at my home in Maryland. Before she had finished singing one of my favorite arias, Pace, Pace, Mio Dio, I was convinced that I was listening to one of the truly exceptional voices of our time. Many times before, I had heard fine natural voices which, for one reason or another, never achieved real artistic stature. I was extremely curious and anxious to know this girl better. We talked for an hour or more, and then I found that she possessed many of the other requisites, such as sacrifice, perseverance, dedication and, above all, humility, which are so necessary for the metamorphosis from a talent to an artist. I then predicted that this girl, Leontyne Price, was destined to rise to the heights which she now enjoys and so richly deserves.”

1955 was the great turning point in her career. As André Mertens, chairman of the board of Columbia Artists Management and Miss Price’s manager, explains, “Leontyne Price’s meeting with Herbert von Karajan, conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, was her springboard to fame. Despite the tension of his first tour here in 1955, I asked him to listen to her sing. I remember him sitting at the back of Carnegie Hall, exhausted after a concert, munching on a club sandwich. After hearing her sing for a scant three minutes, he moved up to the stage and made music with her for a quarter of an hour. He then invited her to come to Vienna and La Scala. He kept his word, too, offering her Salome at La Scala, which she and all of us, including her teacher, Florence Page Kimball, felt she was not yet ready for. We worked out a plan for her to sing in Aida in 1958 in Vienna. History was made that night. Since then, things have been simple.” Von Karajan then engaged her for further performances in Vienna, Salzburg and Berlin.

André Mertens, who is devoted to his artists and looks on them as his own children, says, “I first heard Leontyne in Porgy and Bess, and even then felt that she was one of the greatest talents of our time. Since then, I’ve found her to be one of the most intelligent and well-educated young women I’ve ever met. And she knows exactly what she wants. However, I can claim that there was one thing I didn’t want for her; 1 didn‘t want her to sing at the Met, which was her goal, until she was ready. In the meantime, she acquired tremendous experience in the NBC operas, working with Peter Herman Adler, who is a musician who knows immediately how to evaluate an artist.”

Another aspect of Leontyne Price is voiced by Allen Kayes, RCA Victor Manager of Red Seal Artists and Repertoire, who says, “I believe that she’s a completely reasonable woman with a marvelous personality. Also, she has a keen awareness of how her career is to be developed. She maintains a deep sense of loyalty to the NBC Opera, to Samuel Chotzinoff and Peter Herman Adler, and to us, too, because we placed her under contract before she had her first big successes. After her tumultuous debut and success at the Met last spring,” he goes on, “her album of operatic arias started to sell at the rate of 2,000 a week, and a similar effect was noted in the upswing of her album of ll Trovatore. I believe that there are no limitations to her operatic career. She has such a sure knowledge of her vocal and dramatic capabilities.”

Carl Van Vechten, noted author, critic and photographer, who was in the music department of the New York Times from 1906 to 1912, and who has heard every great singer of this century, first heard Leontyne Price sing in Florence Page Kimball’s studio in 1951. “I think she has the great voice of her age,” he says. “She has charm, strength, power, beauty and poise—everything you could ask for.” Mr. Van Vechten took a marvelous photograph of Miss Price in 1951, capturing the simplicity and all the other qualities that he finds in this artist. He also did a series of photographs of the soprano in the role of Bess. Our cover portrait captures Leontyne Price as she is today, but, by looking at the pictures that trace the singer’s life back to the age of seven, one can see that the divine seed was already there. ‘“While I was carrying her,” says her mother, “I went to many concerts, and sang in a number of them. Her voice came from God.”

Arthur Todd, who writes often for MUSICAL AMERICA, was born in a musical family and grew up hearing the sounds of music every day. His mother studied the violin with Richard Arnold, first violinist of the New York Philharmonic. His aunt was one of the distinguished pianist-teachers developed by Alexander Lambert. Galli-Curci was the first singer he ever heard and, since 1933, he has listened to every great singer who has appeared at the Met.


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