“Utter petrification! Total tantrums and tension! I’m a wreck,” confessed Leontyne Price. The diva was contemplating her title role in the Metropolitan’s brand new production of Verdi’s Aïda, to be unveiled later that week. “When an artist hears the words ‘new production,’ ” she continued, “all she thinks of are fabulous new costumes, jewels, wigs. What I forgot was how scared to death you can be. I swear you’ll never hear me complain again. They can just haul out any old thing they’ve got in the warehouse.”
It was a curious revelation for one of opera’s first ladies about her signature role. In 1958 Price’s Aïda, under the direction of Herbert Von Karajan in Vienna, was described as “phenomenal.” Precisely 15 years ago her first Met performance of Aïda caused a frenzied ovation. Since that time, the Mississippi-born soprano has sung the role of the captive Ethiopian princess 27 times at the Met.
“That’s what makes me even more shocked at the way I’m acting,” she continued. “Aïda is very personal, very special to me. And not just because it saves the theater makeup. It’s been seven years since I’ve sung it. I’ve changed, and Aïda always reflects how I feel about myself.”
And, of course, on opening night, as it turned out, there was little need to worry. Her voice was pure cream, and her performance magnificent. At 49, Leontyne Price had scored another triumph.
Away from the footlights, in the serenity of the sea-blue living room of her Greenwich Village townhouse, Leontyne Price is more relaxed. “This season is a crossroads for me,” she explains. “I’m coming into the mature part of my career. That’s why this role means so much. Aïda was never just a princess hanging around the palace between the pillars: she is where I am as a black, and as an ex-token black, how I’ve grown! I’m a happier person, and I think that makes me a better performer.”
Price’s legendary career began to build during the infant years of the civil rights movement. Today she feels she has paid her dues as the operatic world’s first international black superstar. Her father was a carpenter in Laurel, Miss. Her mother, a practical nurse and midwife, dreamed of a musical career for her daughter, who studied piano as a child. They were poor, remembers Leontyne, “but only in material things.” As a music student at Central State College in Ohio, Leontyne sang in the glee club, which led to a scholarship at Juilliard. Her years of study in New York were partially financed by a wealthy white couple, Elizabeth and Alexander Chisholm, for whom Leontyne’s aunt worked as a maid. “The press has made too much of that legend,” Leontyne insists. “I love Miss Chisholm; she was here only last month. Her daughter Margaret Ann and I are best friends. But the Chisholms got exposure because of the racial angle. I guess it makes me angry because it denies the sacrifices my parents made for me.”
Leontyne has had a meteoric career. In 1960 came the Italian debut at La Scala. In 1961 she became the first black to open a Metropolitan season. But the toll was great. In 1962, during Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West at the Met, her voice gave out. “Now,” she says quietly, “I avoid every kind of pressure—it’s my Achilles’ heel. My voice shows whatever agitation I’m in. Now I choose to live differently.”
That means a carefully selected mixture of opera, concerts and records, cushioned by more free time. “For years I lived in New York and never felt a part of it,” she recalls. “All I saw was the front door of my house and the back door of the Met.” She also would like to get “this artist/ woman, Jekyll/ Hyde thing straightened out. If that’s possible,” she laughs.
In 1959 she separated from singer husband William Warfield (they were subsequently divorced), whom she married in 1952. She has no desire to remarry. But she makes no secret of a 16-year-old liaison which, she says, “is still going strong. We live separately, he’s not in the business and has the patience of Job. I’m not ready to live with anyone. Anyway, when I get like I did over this performance, I realize that you just can’t bring someone else into that.” Offstage, Price admits, she is “basically a hausfrau. Nothing I love better than having in a small group of friends, cooking up a storm and making a fuss. I hate froufrou restaurants. Every minute I get, I go to the theater; I can’t stand the opera. And the ballet! It amazes me—so much beauty without a bunch of people screaming their lungs out.”
To protect her own lungs she has a careful regimen of yoga, diet (she recently shed 18 pounds and now weighs 141) and “a healthy sex life. Best thing in the world for a woman’s voice,” she insists. “What I have to do now,” she reflects, “is to maintain my own standards. Callas told me once that was the hardest.”