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  • Shaw Furlow

Leontyne Price: Mississippi’s opera treasure

By guest columnist R. Shaw Furlow

Leontyne Price
Leontyne Price

One of my favorite stories about Mississippi musicians who blazed a trail for others wasn’t born on the flat delta farmlands, but rather at Laurel in Jones county Mississippi. The story of the Diva of all Divas -- Leontyne Price.

Reared in Laurel, she was encouraged by her parents to take piano lessons, and played her first recital at age six. She took dance lessons, and at age nine her mother took her to Jackson to see Marian Anderson sing in concert.

Young Price was hooked, and opera became her focus. She studied music education in college and, upon graduation, was awarded a full, four-year scholarship to the famed Juilliard School of Music in New York City. While studying at Juilliard, she also took acting and dance classes, and appeared in many operas. One night, composer Virgil Thompson heard her, and she was offered her first professional role in his opera Four Saints in Three Acts. Soon she was touring the United States as the lead. European tours followed. In 1955 NBC Opera Company broadcast her debut from coast to coast.

Based on her success in Four Saints in Three Acts, Price took on one of her first iconic roles -- Bess in George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

In 1961, Price started her lengthy relationship with the Metropolitan Opera. appearing 120 times on its stage. She was the first African American to have lead roles at the Metropolitan Opera and other opera houses throughout the world.

Contemporary composer Samuel Barber approached Price about the lead role in Anthony and Cleopatra. He had written the role for her, and frequently spent time at her house with new pages. Her performance in it at Lincoln Center was plagued with problems from the onset, with the heavy-handed direction of Franco Zeffirelli, overwhelming sets and acting, which covered the music. Although the opera was not successful, Price’s performance was notable.

In 1970, Price curtailed work in operas to concentrate on recitals and recordings. She retired in 1985 after performing in Aida at Lincoln Center.

While no longer recording, she has come out of retirement from time to time for special occasions. In September of 2001, she sand at a special concert for the victims of 9/11. With artistic director, James Levine at the piano, the 74 year old diva belted out the gospel song This Little Light of Mine and then God Bless America unaccompanied, ending on a perfect B-flat.

Price earned 20 Grammy Awards, with millions of copies of her albums sold. She was the first opera singer to win America’s highest civilian award, The Presidential Medal of Freedom presented by Lyndon Johnson. President Ronald Reagan presented her with the Medal of Arts. The governments of France and Italy presented their highest arts awards to her. This just scratches the surface of the life and career of the Mississippi treasure. Once again, from a lowly acorn, a mighty oak grows.

That’s it for now friends. Support the arts.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Shaw Furlow is a local composer, musician and arts promoter. He produces an internet-based video show -- From the Shadyside -- that spotlights area musical talent and is a consultant to school bands in the region. Bob Arnold is Editor of the Wesson News.

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