When 9-year-old Leontyne Price saw famous singer Marian Anderson live in Jackson, Mississippi, she was so starstruck that she knew she’d be an opera singer too.
She pursued her dream so steadfastly that she was accepted to Julliard on a full scholarship. She was “discovered” during a student performance there, leading to her 1952 Broadway stage debut. Later that same year, she starred in the tour of Porgy and Bess & gave 305 performances in the lead role. Her voice was so distinctly rich and entirely unmatched that by 1955 she was cast as Tosca in NBC’s Opera Theater TV broadcast, making her the first black woman to sing opera on U.S. national television.
But it was also then that she discovered that as her fame grew, so too would her encounters with fragile racists who, like it or not, had the power to affect her career. Because she was cast opposite an Italian-American man & thus paired in an interracial relationship, 11 Southern states refused to air the NBC broadcast. When she went on tour with opera companies, her performances were protested and rioted. When black people were able to afford to see her, even paying for the privilege didn’t guarantee they’d receive it. At one of her shows, black people in orchestra seats were asked to move so as not to upset the white patrons.
But Leontyne persisted.
She became the first black woman to be a season’s leading artist for the Metropolitan Opera before they asked her to officially join the company in 1960. In her company debut, she received a 42-minute standing ovation. Leontyne made history as a black woman in some of the most monumental roles opera had to offer — Aida, Cio-Cio-San in Madame Butterfly, and Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, as just a couple of examples. By the time her career was through, she’d sang in every major opera house in the world, and won a whole host of awards including: the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, the National Medal of Arts, 2 Emmys, and 19 Grammys (including a Lifetime Achievement Award), more Grammys than any classical singer ever.
Although she was never an activist in the truest sense of the word, Leontyne found a way to fight back against the racism she’d faced early in her career & used her place in history to open doors for black people in the most relevant way she could: if venues wanted to have one of the best opera singers in the world grace their stages, they had to let black people sit in their seats too.