Everywhere I go these days, I cause a ruckus,” admits soprano Leona Mitchell, but isn’t that what prima donnas are for? Mitchell has come to artistic temperament—and triumph—at a very early age. At 29, she’s already tiffed with the brightest names in opera, including Luciano Pavarotti. That argument, like most of Mitchell’s, was just a quickie, and, says diva Mignon Dunn: “Leona disagrees like we all do, but she has a great sense of humor, and she’s going to have a gigantic career.” Going to? Mitchell is already regarded as the most promising lyric soprano on the international circuit. She has cut her first solo album, just appeared with Dame Joan Sutherland in Australia, begins a tour of the Orient this month with London’s Royal Opera and next year debuts with the Bolshoi.
“I’ve learned to pack for four months,” says the L.A.-based Mitchell. “I guess that’s a sign of success.” But she also finds opera in the jet age “very disorienting. No one yet knows the toll on the voice from all that travel and flying.” It doesn’t hurt the pocketbook, however. She is able to turn down more engagements than she accepts now that her performance fee has inflated from $1,000 to $4,000 within three years.
Leona grew up in Enid, Okla. in a home accustomed to neither money nor prima donnas. Her father was a Pentecostal minister who had to preach to two congregations to make worldly ends meet. Her mom worked as a nurse even during her frequent pregnancies. Leona had 14 brothers and sisters. “I realized how many kids there were,” she says, “when I was old enough to wash the dishes.”
She sang in the church choir but still had no formal training when on raw talent she won the first full scholarship granted a singer by Oklahoma City University. The first opera she ever saw she also performed in. “It was a workshop production of something called The Story of Ruth,” Mitchell recounts. “I had to be dragged into it. When you’re from Enid, you’ve hardly even heard of opera. I was a freshman and thought Moon River was serious music.” Yet after graduation she became the youngest person to win an audition for the San Francisco Opera, and her career blossomed further with regional work and the tutelage of her mentor, Ernest St. Jack Metz, who also coached Leontyne Price. When the Met asked her to sing Micaëla in Carmen in 1975, Mitchell admits, “I wasn’t ready. I was in shock. God must have smiled on me.”
Mitchell’s one tragic setback was personal: Her husband of two years, a Vietnam vet from her hometown, died in a car crash. That was in 1973, and she plans to remarry next year. Her man is Elmer Bush, an L.A. schoolteacher who moonlights with a gospel group, the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers. Leona’s other escapes are discoing, bowling and junk food, which the full-figured soprano tries to watch. But planning and pacing her career is her biggest concern. “I’ve seen too many go too fast and burn out,” says Mitchell, adding, in an allusion particularly meaningful to her: “There are a lot of good singers washing dishes.”