A SHOUT OUT TO LEONTYNE PRICE
—By Frederick A. Hurst—
I wanted to give a special shout out to Leontyne Price because I recall hearing her name so many times in my youth. I always thought she was “great” but I really never knew for what. I was barely aware of who Marian Anderson, who inspired Price, was. At least Anderson had the notoriety of being blocked from singing at Constitution Hall by its owners, the Daughters of the American Revolution, because she was Black and was catapulted into the American Civil Rights consciousness when Eleanor Roosevelt, who resigned from the organization over the dispute, arranged for her to sing at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial at the Washington Mall before 75,000 people.
I pride myself in learning over the years that Leontyne Price was, by news accounts, the first African American singer to gain international stardom in opera, an art form “previously reserved” for upper-class White folks, which explains why most of us Black folks only heard her name in passing until she performed in Porgy and Bess, a George Gershwin opera about destitute Charleston, South Carolina Black folks that opened opera doors to a lot of Black folks because it was performed in “listenable” English.
The writer who made the obvious observation that opera was “an art form previously reserved for upper-class white society” was right. I don’t know what he meant by “upper-class” but I am fully aware of what he meant by “White” because, for the most part, opera was simply not an African-American entertainment genre of choice. For most of us it was unintelligible with too high high notes, too low low notes and whether in English, Italian or whatever language, it had little attraction.
So the gifted Leontyne Price, who broke all of opera’s racial barriers, and who received such acclaim all around the world, was just a footnote in Black cultural history, an icon whom we should have paid more attention to because she is hardly alone among black greats whose accomplishments got swallowed in America for whatever reason.
Although I have gained a deep appreciation for the accomplishments of Leontyne Price, I must admit I still struggle to develop an appreciation for opera. But it is no longer mysterious to me, especially when mostly White audiences in attendance are hardly upper-class White folks but, rather, regular White folks who, I suspect, are often just as clueless about what is being said as I am. But they like the sounds and why shouldn’t I?
Leontyne Price was raised a poor girl in Laurel, Mississippi. She graduated in 1944, the same year I was born. Her mother worked for White families. Most of the literature doesn’t say what she did for those White families but I have some idea because my mother worked for White families in Longmeadow, Massachusetts and, trust me, my mother was dignified but the work was not. And I give my mother credit because she would never allow my sister to scrub the floors that she scrubbed to feed us.
One writer puts Leontyne’s discovery gently. “She was discovered by a wealthy white patron that her mother worked for.” “Gently” is, of course, relative. Leontyne gained her basic musical skills in church just like Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston and Jill Scott and so many other Black vocal artists. She could easily have been Ella Fitzgerald or Dinah Washington or more recently Alicia Keys & Beyoncé. But, after her genius was “discovered” by “a wealthy White patron,” it was redirected into a cultural genre that we Black folks were simply not close to. Maybe Leontyne Price was misdirected. We’ll never know. But she was no less great. Just less known by us Black folks except by name.
But now we have the opportunity to acquaint or re-acquaint ourselves with Leontyne Price on Saturday, February 28th as the Springfield Symphony Orchestra celebrates her.
And my late uncle, Alton King, Sr., would be proud of us. He was a plumber, a very good plumber who embraced Italian opera long ago. He got a kick out of bringing his newest album from New York when he visited his Italian friend at his Six Corners restaurant and bar where they would talk for hours about their opera fixation. I don’t know if he spoke or understood Italian. I don’t think so. But he loved his Italian opera with a passion that I struggled to understand.
But what my uncle helped me to understand is that music, art and culture that was unfamiliar to me could be mastered as refreshing entertainment. And, I admit, it was a lesson I had to cultivate over the years to finally appreciate, which is part of the reason why my wife, Margie, and I will be attending the Springfield Symphony Orchestra’s salute to the great Black opera pioneer Leontyne Price as should all African-Americans who want to pay tribute to the great ones whose historical accomplishments were obscured by cultural gaps. ■
Kevin Rhodes’ Reflections on Leontyne Price and the tribute to her on February 18th
Whenever we bring opera into the concert hall it is always an exciting time for all of us to delve into a medium so rich with passion, emotion and musical color. This season we are commemorating Black History Month with a special concert with dramatic soprano Othalie Graham (known to SSO patrons from last year’s Porgy and Bess) honoring the life and career of the iconic American opera star, Leontyne Price, on the occasion of her 90th birthday. Artists all rely more on earlier generations than perhaps any other field in terms of carrying on a tradition…a tradition of what is great and special. On anyone’s list of to whom so much is owed by the artists of today is Leontyne Price who broke not only racial barriers around the world, but also ushered in an era of American artists of any color being accepted on the world’s concert and operatic stages. Her impact carries far beyond the world of opera, but it is with opera that we will celebrate her. When I was considering what type of program to put together for this concert dedicated to Black History Month, I had just had the wonderful occasion to work with Ms. Graham and I instantly had ideas for various works which I would like to perform with her. It occurred to me that many of those works had been staples of Ms. Price’s repertoire, and that maybe this would be a perfect occasion to do that. After checking the calendar and discovering that February 2017 would be Ms. Price’s 90th birthday, I was quite convinced that was all the sign I needed that we were meant to do this concert. Ms. Graham and I have put together a program from her career defining role as the Ethiopian princess Aida, to the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra written for her by American composer Samuel Barber for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, with many other musical stops along the way, this concert will be a once in a lifetime event.