A voice that built bridges
At the start of the war Russia is waging on Ukraine, a Ukrainian opera singer named Yuriy Yurchuk made headlines performing his country’s national anthem in front of the Prime Minister’s home in London, England. Another Ukrainian opera star sang the anthem on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York before a big performance.
And that’s not the only way the arts and the current international crisis have mingled. Many Russian artists have been banned from performing on the world’s top stages.
Today’s Learning Nugget isn’t about Russia’s war in Ukraine, but it is about a person whose art connected people during tumultuous times. Today, meet Leontyne Price, the first international African American opera star who rose to prominence during the height of struggles for civil rights in the United States.
A Mississippi childhood
Price was born in 1927 in southern Mississippi, a place where racial segregation was law throughout her early life. The future opera star would have grown up not being allowed to use the same facilities as white people, going to segregated schools, and being expected to be deferential to whites.
However, Price said in an interview with the Washington Post that her parents never allowed her or her brother to believe that because they were African American, they couldn’t reach lofty goals:
“‘My parents told my brother and me that there is nothing that you cannot achieve if you aim high enough,’ [Price] recalls. ‘I don’t remember them ever asserting that being me, being black, being Afro American, was anything but positive. … It was always approached as aiming high – climbing a mountain with your head held high, because you can’t climb a mountain looking down; you’re bound to fall.'”
The family wasn’t well-off, but they indulged their daughter’s interest in music by giving her piano lessons starting at age five. She also sang in the choir at her church and in chorus at school.
A formative experience during Price’s youth was, as a teenager, attending a performance by African American opera singer Marian Anderson. Price said that as soon as she saw and heard Anderson, she admired her and wanted to be as much like her as she could.
After finishing a program to become a music teacher, Price earned a full scholarship to the famous Juilliard arts school in New York.
Price got attention during her senior year at Juilliard for a role in the Verdi opera Falstaff. She accepted a leading role in an all-Black opera that appeared on Broadway and then toured internationally.
This led to Price’s first lead role. She played Bess in a revival of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which is a drama focused on African American characters living in Charleston, South Carolina.
Price continued to tour and sing internationally, and her fame constantly grew. The true arrival of Price as a force in the opera world came when she debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York as a lead character in the Verdi opera Il Trovatore in 1961. After her first performance in the role, the crowd gave her an ovation lasting over 40 minutes, and she received high critical praise for the quality of her voice and stage presence.
From then until deciding herself to retire from the stage in 1985, Price played big roles on opera’s biggest stages. She broke barriers for other performers of color, prompting more directors in the theater world to care more about talent than race when casting.
When she decided to stop performing, she was still in high demand. She told the Washington Post she wanted to leave her stage career “on the crest of the wave” rather than being “discarded.”
Where’s Leontyne Price now?
Leontyne Price is still alive. She moved from Greenwich Village in New York in 2013 and now lives near family in Maryland. She is 95 years old.
to be waging on – Krieg führen gegen
to make headlines – Schlagzeilen machen
national anthem – Nationalhymne
mingle – mischen
have been banned from sth. – vsind ausgeschlossen worden
height of struggles – Höhepunkt der Auseinandersetzung
civil rights – Bürgerrechte
racial segregation – Rassentrennung
allow – erlauben
facilities – Toiletteneinrichtungen
to be expected to – erwartet werden
be deferential to – mit Ehrerbietung anderen begegnen
lofty goals – hohe Ziele
achieve – erreichen
aim high – groß hinauswollen
asserting – ausdrücklich betonen
approach – angehen
to bond to fall – zwangsläufig fallen
well-off – wohlhabend
indulge in – sich etwas gönnen
formative – prägend
admire – bewundern, verehren
earn a scholarship to – ein Stipendium erhalten
attention – Aufmerksamkeit
1st year = freshman year
2nd year = sophomore year
3rd year = junior year
4th year = senior year
leading role – Hauptrolle
revival – Wiederaufnahme
fame – Berühmtheit
last – dauern
crowd – die Menge
praise – das Lob, loben
retire from – sich zurückziehen von (auch: in Rente gehen)
to break barriers – Barrieren brechen
high demand – hohe Nachfrage
crest of the wave – auf dem Höhepunkt sein
wave crest – Wellenkamm
discarded – ausgesondert