On 28 January 1961 Langston Hughes wrote to a friend about having heard a black soprano the night before “busting the walls of the Metropolitan wide open.”
It was hyperbole that neared truth. Just days shy of her 34th birthday, Leontyne Price debuted before an audience whose standards and expectations were high; she lived up to them, and surpassed them beyond even her own imagination. At the final chord of Verdi’s Il trovatore the walls of the venerable institution vibrated with one of the most protracted and vociferous ovations in its history—nearly three-quarters of an hour—for the voice that Time magazine described as “like a bright banner unfurling.”
Price’s arrival at the pinnacle of American opera had a dual significance: She was one of the first American-trained singers to establish herself as a truly international star, and she continued, in grand style, the work of Marian Anderson as a trailblazer, barrier-breaker, and door-opener for black performers.
This according to “Leontyne Price: Prima donna assoluta” by Rosalyn M. Story, an essay included in And so I sing: African-American divas of opera and concert (New York: Warner, 1990, pp. 100–14).
Today is Price’s 90th birthday! Below, her Metropolitan Opera debut.