Members of the Bethel AME Church Choir in Eastville, Virginia, 1982
© Nathan Benn/CORBIS 2010
[Leontyne Price: The Prima Donna Collection;
RCA Victor Gold Seal (1992)]
Rosalyn M. Story
Not all great opera divas take root in such hothouses of high culture as New York, Vienna or Rome. Some take another path to success, coming from the smallest American towns buried deep in the piney woods of the South, where sawmills outnumber concert halls. In the town of Laurel, Mississippi, in the 1930s and '40s, a voice that would later prompt choruses of "Brava!" from the gilt-trimmed balconies of Europe's opera houses first brought forth shouts of "Amen!" from the hardwood benches of the black church. It was in St. Paul Methodist Church, on Jefferson Street in the heart of Laurel's black community, that a young midwife's daughter first sat at a piano to accompany the congregation's anthems and hymns, sang in the young people's choir and found a voice that would make history.
If Leontyne Price was not the first of a long tradition of extraordinary singers to ascend from the choir loft of a southern black church to the European opera stage, she is, arguably, the most outstanding. It was a tradition whose origins lay in the bittersweet history of black life in the American South, where Christianity, taught to Africans by their white masters, inspired hopes for a better life beyond bondage, "in the sweet bye and bye." Black churches became a refuge of hope, emerging from the camp meetings and prayer circles of sprawling southern plantations. After Emancipation, in hardscrabble freedmen's towns, clapboard churches were erected with hands blistered by the plow and the cotton plant. And even without the benefit of piano or hymnal (or the ability either to play or to read), voices were lifted in worship and song.
By the time of Price's arrival at St. Paul's, several generations after Emancipation, great singing had become a hallmark of the African-American church, and Price's rise from choir stand to concert hall became legend. Born to Katherine Baker and James Anthony Price in 1927, Leontyne's earliest musical memories were of her mother's high, silvery soprano filling up St. Paul's, where worship services were musical celebrations, and everyone, blessed with talent or not, sang in the choir. "The church was the cornerstone of our community, and everyone was involved in spirituality," recalls the soprano's younger brother Brigadier General George Price, U.S. Army (Ret.). Devoutly religious, the family maintained a closeness to the church that was more than figurative; "Öur church," as George Price recalls with modest exaggeration, "was about a hundred feet from our front door."
It was in the church that Price's voice, perhaps divinely destined for greatness, caught the attention of a visiting minister, who, after hearing her sing, suggested she apply to Wilberforce University in Ohio. At the nation's first historically black college owned by the African Methodist church, Price excelled as a star pupil before going on to the Juilliard School.