A few years after she retired, I said to Leontyne Price, “I attended thirteen Price recitals.” “So few?” she said. I answered, apologetically, “I got a late start.”
And I never heard Price in the opera house—only in the recital hall. Yet there are hundreds of recordings of Price in opera, and some videos, too.
The soprano from Laurel, Mississippi, was born in 1927. She sang all over the world, including at the Metropolitan Opera, of course. Her years at the Met stretched from 1961 to 1985. (She gave recitals for a dozen years after that.) The Met has now produced a sampler of her career on its stage, in a two-CD set.
Price made her Met debut in Il trovatore on January 27, 1961. On the new CDs, we have her about a week later, on February 4. We also have her very last appearance at the Met: as Aida on January 3, 1985.
Naturally, her voice changed over the years—getting darker, huskier—but it was still hers. She was always Price, in the way she sang and the way she sounded.
A bonus of this new collection is that we get glimpses—aural glimpses—of other singers. There is Franco Corelli, in a Tosca from 1962. He gives us that glorious little bleat. In the Trovatore excerpts from 1961, we have Teresa Stratas, age twenty-two, in the little role of Ines.
In 1974, Price sang a Donna Anna (Don Giovanni) with James Levine. The conductor was thirty, two years away from being named music director of the Met.
Leontyne Price made commercial recordings of all the works heard on the new CDs. (In some cases, she made several recordings.) But, as a rule, there’s nothing like live, especially for dynamism. I have chosen a word that Ned Rorem, the composer, once applied to Price: dynamism.
But listen: can any recording, live or not, capture the feeling of actually being there? Sergiu Celibidache, the conductor, once said, “Listening to a recording is like kissing a photograph of Brigitte Bardot.” (Anyway, that’s how the statement has come down to us. Chances are, he did not say “kissing.”)
Some recordings can do the job, I think. On YouTube, you can find four of Price’s recitals at the Salzburg Festival (from 1975 to 1984). There are moments—particular songs, or fragments of songs—that really let you know what it was like to attend a Price recital (despite the scratchiness and general poverty of the recordings). That dynamism comes through.
It is a curious fact that some voices “record” well and others don’t. Some voices record faithfully, others unfaithfully. I’ll give you two examples, two extremes.
In my view—to my ear—Renée Fleming records very well. She sounds like herself, lucky woman. Olga Borodina, however, does not, unlucky woman. I have never heard a recording that does anything like justice to that great singer.
Leontyne Price? In between, I think. She records well enough—but, oh, to have been there . . .
I don’t have a favorite singer, there being so many, providing different satisfactions. But, to be honest, Price is the singer I most often refer to, most often listen to, in a wide variety of repertoire. She may be the one deepest in my heart.
Does that make her my favorite? If you say so (and you are probably right). In any case, the Metropolitan Opera has given us an excellent and gratifying taste of Price in a realm that she ruled, or co-ruled: the opera.