Leontyne Price, RCA Records
Dominique-René de Lerma:
On his seventh venture, Bill McLaughlin began the huge world of the Black singer, and we know that the remaining three programs in this most welcome series will not be enough even to do more than touch on all this monumental talent, but the inception was right on the mark with Leontyne Price who glistened in Vissi d'arte and Pace, pace. (Her 1977 performance of La forza del destino, with the latter aria and Plácido Domingo, is scheduled for broadcast, 23 March at 1 PM, Eastern time zone). Does anyone know of a totally respectable biography on this prima donna di tutte le prime donne, or even a serious effort to complete a discography? She had proven herself before her Met debut in 1961, when her performance in Il trovatore elicited a record 45 minutes of cheers and yells from the hall. She had previously joined William Warfield and others (yes, even Maya Angelou!) in a tour abroad of Porgy and Bess (Gloria Davy, who died last November, was Price's replacement). During this time, Warfield had secured management, while she was yet left on her own, fearing she would never have a career. Our dear Mama Price turned 86 this month, three decades after her farewell to the opera stage.
I knew Warfield, who had come to Appleton on the Holt Series to narrate Peter and the wolf. In his autobiography (My music and my life, Sagamore, 1991) he admits what had been evident to all of us, that his vocal problems had appeared by the early 1960s, but he continued to charm the public and coached many young singers into major careers. Anyone who knew him was showered with his infectious good spirits and boundless good humor. One item that is socially acceptable came straight from the laughing barrel, the Harlem Cheer: Watermelon, barbeque, Cadillac car, We're not as dumb as you think we is. I have no idea how Leontyne Price put up with his endless repertoire of stories during their marriage and I was discreet enough during our four days together not to ask. I was in Vienna in 2002 when news reached me that Uncle Bill had died. His last recording was as narrator on Darryl Taylor's Naxos CD of Langston Hughes settings.
Price and Warfield are both heard in Porgy and Bess, along with McHenry Boatwright and John Bubbles with Skitch Henderson conducting in a recording that, alas, is limited to chunks of selections, but has been reissued in 1999 by RCA on CD.
The inclusion of Ellington's Black, Brown, and Beige gave us the third singer: Mahalia Jackson, whose magnificent contralto never veered to the secular. Here we heard her in Come Sunday, one of the most touching and beautiful of all melodies.
With so little time left, we know there will be composers, instrumentalists, and singers who cannot be included. One who will not appear is Dr. Blanche Foreman, another member of the "Michigan Mafia". Blanche, a student of Eileen Farrell, completed her Indiana dissertation at my home in Baltimore when she and pianist-composer Charles Lloyd recorded a series of spirituals. Blanche, whose ambition did include the doctorate, did not follow the career her talent demanded. She called me one time: "You know Marilyn Horne? Well, honey, I can sing anything that White b... sings!" She could, too. I know it. But she never did. Blanche died in 2007.
Dominique-René de Lerma