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“A voice of spun gold”: Leontyne Price at the May Festival

The legendary American soprano Leontyne Price (b. 1927; Laurel, Mississippi) appeared at the May Festival in 1956 and 1971. Price was no stranger to Ohio, however; she spent her college years at Central State University (then called College of Educational and Industrial Arts) in Wilberforce, Ohio, before pursuing advanced studies at the Juilliard School in New York City. By 1956, she had accumulated an impressive list of accomplishments, including an acclaimed portrayal of the title character in Puccini’s Tosca for NBC Opera Theater, and the world premiere of Samuel Barber’s song cycle Hermit Songs at the Library of Congress with the composer at the piano.

The appearance at the 1956 May Festival was but one of several notable Festival highlights, including the U. S. premiere of Benjamin Britten’s coronation opera Gloriana and the only May Festival performance to date of Anton Bruckner’s Mass in F Minor. The appearance of Ms. Price on closing night, however, garnered significant media attention. The program included Wallace Berry’s Spoon River, a song cycle for baritone and soprano, as well as excerpts from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. In both works, Price was joined by her husband, acclaimed baritone William Warfield, and a review in the Cincinnati Enquirer noted that the combination of the two was “irresistible.” After intermission, Price and Warfield were joined by contralto Carol Brice and tenor Luther Saxon in a performance of R. Nathaniel Dett’s oratorio The Ordering of Moses.

In 1971, she returned to the May Festival for opening night – by then universally acclaimed as one of the finest singers in the world. May Festival music director Julius Rudel’s program was an ample vehicle for Price’s abilities. Excerpts from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino constituted the first half; Price was joined by mezzo-soprano Susan Marsee, tenor John Alexander, and baritone Robert Hale. After intermission, the quartet returned and joined a large chorus (four hundred strong, according to the Enquirer) in a performance of Rossini’s Stabat Mater. In reviewing Price’s performance, Enquirer music critic Gail Stockholm wrote,

Leontyne Price joined [Hale] with a voice of spun gold...

Surely the audience could not doubt for a moment that it was listening to the greatest soprano of our age. She has the lightness when she wants it for lyricism and the other extreme of strength in projected vocal line for drama and majestic effect. The combination simply cannot be matched anywhere.