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CD Set Of Leontyne Price's Live Performances At The Met Opera Is A Treasure



This is FRESH AIR. Soprano Leontyne Price, who's now 93 years old, has been one of America's most beloved opera divas. She was the first African American soprano to have a major career at the Metropolitan Opera. Critics and fans agreed that she had one of the most beautiful singing voices they'd ever heard. The Met has just released a two-CD set of excerpts from her live performances there. Our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has the review.


LEONTYNE PRICE: (Singing in Italian).

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: That was the sublime voice of soprano Leontyne Price in Verdi's "Il Trovatore," recorded in February 1961, just a few days after her Metropolitan Opera debut. In those days, when I was still a student in New York, a friend and I would meet in the city to take in a movie or a Broadway play. One day later that year, we were passing the old Metropolitan Opera House on 39th Street. The opera was Verdi's "Aida," with Leontyne Price singing the title role. It was sold out, but there was a long line of people waiting for standing room tickets. We got in, and it was one of the great musical experiences of my life.

We were standing so far to the side, we couldn't see half the stage, but for "Aida's" big arias, Price would come down to the footlights to be in full view of the nearly 4,000 people in the audience, wherever they were sitting or standing. She was in ravishing voice, effortlessly pouring out Verdi's soaring melodies with exquisite high notes and real trills. She wasn't an especially nuanced actress, but her emotions were always honest, especially in a role like Aida, who is an Ethiopian princess who becomes an Egyptian slave.

Price was the first Black artist to have a major career at the Metropolitan Opera. In her first Met season, she sang leading roles in five different operas. When the Met moved to Lincoln Center in 1966, the new Met opened not with an old warhorse, but with a new American opera composed especially for her, Samuel Barber's "Antony And Cleopatra" with Price as Cleopatra. Unfortunately, it wasn't the landmark work everyone had hoped for. After that first season, the Met never scheduled it again. Here's Price in Cleopatra's death scene. Give me my robe. Put on my crown. I have immortal longings in me. The words are by Shakespeare.


PRICE: (As Cleopatra, singing) Give me my robe. Put on my crown. I have immortal longings in me, now no more. The juice of Egypt's grape shall moist this lip.

SCHWARTZ: I really miss live performances. No reproduction can match the sound of a living singer right there in the theater with you. But this new double-CD set of live Leontyne Price performances is a treasure. She sings Puccini's "Tosca," one of her most popular roles, though, not one of my own favorites, along with some Mozart and the composer her voice was most ideally suited for, Verdi. This set includes excerpts from Verdi's "Requiem" and five Verdi operas, with, of course, "Aida." We even get to hear the applause. The very last selection on this album is Aida's best-known aria, "O Patria Mia," from Price's very last performance at the Met in 1985 after singing there for nearly 20 years.

I'd like you to hear a part of that same performance that's included in a fascinating documentary called "The Opera House," which is about the creation of Lincoln Center and pulls no punches about the cost of the whole project, not only in dollars, but also to the people who were forced to lose their homes when the city demolished their neighborhood. At the beginning of the film, the nearly 90-year-old Leontyne Price talks about the home she found at the Met. And there's a video clip from that farewell performance. In the aria, she repeats the words, oh, my homeland, I'll never see you again. Each time with more longing, more desolation and more beauty.


PRICE: (Singing in Italian).

It's the temple of opera where I sang my last performance.


PRICE: (Singing in Italian).

It was not too shabby, those good old days, you know? And I'm not the only person who had this wild a song. I mean, my colleagues, you know, we just love singing. That's the first thing on your list is to sing and enjoy, because that is what makes the audience love the whole human experience.


PRICE: (Singing in Italian).

SCHWARTZ: Rice's performance of that aria from "Aida" is a thrilling example of why people who love opera love it so much. One of the ideas underlying all grand opera is the possibility that great beauty can triumph over great loss. Leontyne Price was a master of conveying that idea.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is the Frederick S. Troy professor of English emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and the poet laureate of the city of Somerville, Mass. He reviewed a two-CD set called "Leontyne Price At The Met." After we take a short break, John Powers will review the new Netflix series "The Queen's Gambit." This is FRESH AIR.


Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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