When Everything Went Wrong, Leontyne Price Got it Right

Friday, February 10, 2017 - 12:00 AM

Leontyne Price, being honored by Delta Sigma Theta, a public service sorority, accepts a painting presented to her at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York on Oct. 10, 1973. Leontyne Price, being honored by Delta Sigma Theta, a public service sorority, accepts a painting presented to her at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York on Oct. 10, 1973. (AP Photo)

Simply noting that expectations for Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra were high is an understatement. The opera was commissioned to open the Metropolitan Opera’s new home at Lincoln Center in 1966, and Barber was already established as a top-flight American composer. The show’s producer, designer and librettist, Franco Zeffirelli, was an experienced opera director and producer who counted Maria Callas as a close friend. And then there was Leontyne Price, opera diva and inadvertent lady of firsts, whose every action increased the brightness of her spotlight.

By the mid-1960s, Price had attended Juilliard on a four-year scholarship, starred in a revival of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, completed a state-sponsored U.S. and European Tour and became the first African-American to sing with, not just at, the Metropolitan Opera. In 1955, she became the first black person to sing a leading role on NBC Opera Theater, as the titular character in Puccini’s Tosca.

As cultural critic Diane Brooks notes, this progressive move was momentous for both parties. For several years, NBC had been quietly practicing a strategy they dubbed “integration without identification,” which aimed to create more on-air diversity without drawing special attention to the shifting hues of the main cast. It was a subtle exercise in normalizing inclusivity and for the most part it worked. But when Price attracted the attention of executives and producers, they decided to make her ethnicity a central feature, in order to project an international vision of America as a land of opportunity and inclusivity — obviously meant to offset negative international perception from Cold War tensions and rampant civil rights violations. For Price, the opportunity came at a time when black America realized that television could be a useful tool in sharing the community’s artistic gifts and existential struggles with audience beyond the suffocating confines of the Jim Crow South.

Price’s turn as Tosca found favor with critics, even though some local broadcasters refused to air the special. When white viewers’ letters of outrage and protest began to stream into NBC headquarters, the network rebuffed them with an official statement that held up ability as the only measure by which roles would be cast. Price had that ability and starred in three more broadcast specials.

The NBC Opera Theater appearances helped to make Price a household name, and in 1960 she secured a contract with the Metropolitan Opera. She delivered acclaimed performances in operas that included Madame Butterfly, Don Giovanni and Turandot. But for all of the adulation for her stage presence and technical ability, it was Antony and Cleopatra that would earn an eternal, infamous place in opera history. But somehow, Price would still come out on top.

When Barber was commissioned by the Met to compose a new work to christen the new Lincoln Center Palace, there’s little doubt that Price was already on his mind. The two had a long friendship that reached back to 1954, when Price sang the premiere of Barber’s “Hermit Songs.” During the creation of Antony and Cleopatra, the composer wrote specifically for Price’s voice; the new work would not only be a testament to his compositional skill, but also a vocal showcase for one of the world’s finest opera singers.

But little would go right, thanks to the overambitious nature of Zeffirelli’s libretto and production. In retrospect, though, it’s hard to cast him as a villainous foil. This was a new, state-of-the-art opera house, so what producer wouldn’t want a freshly commissioned work to take full advantage of the new building’s technological functions and capabilities? And the libretto, criticized for being too dense, was closely modeled after the shakespearean text of Barber’s favorite play — an earnest attempt to retain the tone of the original work.

Antony and Cleopatra might have gotten an A for effort, but that didn’t stop the aesthetic misfires. Opera critic Peter G. Davis was there that evening and remembers the errors that marred rehearsals and opening night: lighting miscues, a dissatisfied stage crew and malfunctioning Pyramid taking it’s tomb-like function too literally and trapping Price inside. Barber and Zeffirelli had two opposite visions of the same opera and that fiasco of an evening highlights the importance of communication.

Davis noted that Antony and Cleopatra’s negative reception practically ruined Barber, and he lived out the remainder of his days without “the will to compose.” But despite the biting remarks, many reviewers found room to celebrate Price. The New York Times, which lamented how “everything about that evening ... failed in total impact,” took care to mention how Price “was superb in voice.” The Chicago Tribune, which wrote that the opera was “meandering” and “tedious,” at the same time hailed Price’s voice as one of the few things that saved the night.

Is Antony and Cleopatra a blemish on a stellar career? Not hardly. That Price could still receive such commendation in the face of relative disaster speaks volumes about her cultivated ability, and that’s not even taking into account the high esteem in which her contemporaries held her. In his autobiography, Miles Davis revealed that he wore out a recording of Price’s Tosca, and remarked that “she should be an inspiration to any musician, black or white.” Fond praises from the likes of Maria Callas and Placido Domingo aren’t to be taken lightly, either. But such favorability doesn’t need to be the litmus test for talent. Your ears can do just as fine a job. Have a listen:

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Comments [4]

Jonathan Holley from Brooklyn, NY

Leontyne Price is one of my all time favorite singers, and hers is the most exquisite voice I have ever heard. There are recordings of her singing D'amor sull'ali rosee and Tu, tu piccolo iddio which transcend description or definition; they are simply sublime.

I have also had the privilege of hearing her live on several occasions, as well as meeting and speaking with her afterwards.

Thank you for this article and these recordings, which, with the exception of the Verdi, I have never heard before. Along with the 50th anniversary exhibition on the Concourse of the Metropolitan Opera House, they make a wonderful tribute to this singer whose contributions to opera and to humanity's transcendence of marginalization cannot be overestimated.

Mar. 25 2017 09:36 AM
Diana Clark from Chatham Township, NJ

Did you know that "Not hardly" is the opposite of "hardly"? I think the A&C fiasco hardly blemished Ms. Price's amazing career. Not not hardly. MHRs dear Ms. Price, and thank you.

Feb. 11 2017 01:35 PM
David King from california

Leontyne Price - truly one of the great sopranos of the 20th Century, and I was privileged to hear her perform in person.

Unfortunately, it seems America still has not come to grips with race. It would be interesting to know if NBC kept those letters of "outrage and protest." If it did, they should be made available to educate Americans as to one of the significant problems with out society.

Also, in the ninth paragraph appears: "But despite the biting remarks, many composers found room to celebrate Price." Following that sentence are quotations from two reviewers. Was "composer" intended instead of "reviewers?" If so, some example of composers would be appropriate.

Feb. 10 2017 01:10 PM
HYH from Long Island

Thank you, thank you, thank you! I don't necessarily need WQXR to remind of the greatness of Leontyne Price (I am a huge fan of Miss Price and listen to her regularly) but so great to be reminded of her magnificent talent, dignity, and significant place in history. Not just in opera/classical music, but also in time and place.

Listening to & watching the Libera me and Tosca clips was a complete joy this frigid, post-snowstorm morning.

In today's social and political climate, an important reminder of the beauty of talent, class, respect and dignity over bias, prejudice and fear.

Viva la Leontyne Price!
P.S. WQXR -- don't be afraid to showcase Miss Price beyond Black History Month -- her talent and accomplishments as an opera singer, a woman and a Black woman coming up during the Civil Rights movement are examples of standing tall, overcoming adversity and believing in herself, her talent and her rights.

Feb. 10 2017 09:59 AM

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