In this paper we are going to study and compare the biographies and careers of three well-known black opera singers.
An American opera singer Mary Violet Leontyne Price was mostly known for the Verdi roles she played, the role of Aida was considered to belong to her for around 30 years.
Leontyne Price was born not far from Laurel, Mississippi. Her father was busy at a lumber mill and her mother was a midwife. Being a late child the girl was deeply loved and was the subject of parents’ pride. As soon as they noticed her musical talent they bought piano for her and she took up the piano lessons. Later on the girl was looking for teaching career and took up the education program in the Central State University, however ended with studies in voice. The well-known bass Paul Robeson helped her to become a student at the Julliard School in New York; her teacher there was Florence Page Kimball. For the first time she tried herself on the scene in the students’ performance – Falstaff.
The composer Virgin Thomson heard her voice and he invited Leontyne Price to take part in his all-black opera – Four Saints in Three Acts. After Broadway performance, when Saints went to Paris her life started to change tremendously. Producers Robert Breen and Blevins Davis offered her the role of Bess in Porgy and Bess, the performance made the tour through Chicago, Washington and Pittsburgh. Price’s singing and acting was of a great success. During the tour Price married William Warfield, who played the role of Porgy. Unfortunately their careers didn’t give them the chance for long life together and they were officially divorced in 1972.
In 1954 she had her debut at Town Hall, Barber accompanied her in “Hermit Songs”. In a year the concert performance Giulio Cesare with her participation took place there as well. Most critics acknowledged that Price’s voice was very good for opera singing on a big stage.
In 1955 Price was to sing for NBC-TV in the performance of Giacomo Puccini Tosca. “In the event, wrote Olin Downes of the Times, Price’s “voice was superbly equal to all demands made upon it, in the dramatic character of the upper register, the warmth and sensuousness of the tone throughout and the sincerity and feeling everywhere evident.” (Peter G. Davis, 12).
Opera house debut for Price took place in San Francisco in 1957 with the role of Madame Lidoine in Dialogues des Carmelites.
In 1958 on the 24 of May she sang Aida for the first time at the Vienna State Opera. In summer of the same year she again had a debut with Aida role, but this time in London’s Royal Opera House. Two years later she became the first black singer playing the leading part in Italian opera, again with Aida.
In 1961 Price started her work in Metropolitan Opera in New York (Met), where during 24 seasons she took part in 201 performances with 16 various roles.
Another important career period of the singer is connected with the role of Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra in 1966.
The decline of her career started probably after 1970s when she could not find new productions in Met, appropriate for her. For several times she revised her role of Aida in San Francisco and in Met. After 1985 she worked mostly on recitals and concerts. In 1997 she wrote the variant of Aida for children, which was later used as basis for musical by Elton John and Tim Rice in 2000. “In October of 2001, Price, at 74, came out of retirement to sing in Carnegie Hall at a memorial concert for victims of the September 11 attacks. She sang a favorite spiritual, “This Little Light of Mine,” with James Levine at the piano, followed by an unaccompanied “God Bless America,” capping the anthem with a perfectly placed high B-flat that “unfurled from the stage like Old Glory itself.” (Peter G. Davis, 22).
Marian Anderson was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1897 according to her birth certificate, however she considered her birth year as 1902. She had two younger sisters, her father worked as loader at the Reading Terminal Market and her mother was a teacher. Her life and thus her career was different in a way from Price – when her father died because of head wound, Anna Anderson had to take more additional jobs in order to raise her three daughters. The musical career of Marian started when she entered the Church choir at the age of 6 and where she got the nick name – The Baby Contralto. Marian’s farther managed to buy a piano for her, but there was no money for music lessons for the girl and thus she had to acquire it herself. When Marian was 13 she entered the senior choir at the church. Soon she became popular and other churches started to invite her and she started to gather money for her performances – around 5 dollar per each.
In 1919 she got the chance to sing at the National Baptist Convention. At the age of 15 Marian started to take lessons from famous black soprano – Mary Sanders Patterson. After the benefit concert she received from Philadelphia Choral Society $500 for learning by well known contralto Agnes Reifsnyder.
After her education she continued to sing at black colleges and churches, but earning about $ 100 for one concert.
In 1924 Marian made an attempt to sing in New York Town Hall, but not really many people came to the concert and critics didn’t like her voice. This was a serious misfortune for Marian and she decided to forget her music career. But in 1925 she managed to win the competition of the Philadelphia Philarmonic Society and later – Lewisohn Stadium contest.
In 1928 her solo recital was a success in Carnegie Hall, but however she still remained the singer for black audience mostly.
With the help of National Association of Negro Musicians Marian received a grant for studies in England. Between the years 1933 and 1934 she had the chance to take part in the concerts in Scandinavia, then a number of concerts in Europe followed, finally she participated in an international festival in Salzburg.
In 1935 Marian got the second chance to appear in Town Hall in New York, this time it was a success. “In July 1943, Marian married Orpheus H. Fisher, a Delaware architect she had known since childhood. They lived on her “Marianna Farm” in Connecticut. During World War II and the Korean War, Marian entertained troops in hospitals and bases” (Tedards, Anne, 48).
In 1957 Marian had a long jouney to the Far East, where she gave around 24 concerts.
Her final concert took place in 1965 in Carnegie Hall. During her career Marian received a lot of rewards and prizes, using one of them of $ 10 000 she created the Marian Anderson Scholarships. Thus the career of Marian didn’t develop so rapidly as that of Leontyne Price, but nevertheless, she didn’t stop on her way and managed to reach the highest peak of her fame.
Marian died in 1993, at the age of 96.
Kathleen Battle was born in 1948 in Portsmouth, Ohio, her family was rather big, she was the youngest of 7 children. From the very beginning she took up music education not performance. She was teaching music and taking private lessons of voice herself. The first performance, she was invited to, was Festival of Two Worlds in Italy in 1972. It was a real push for her music career, 1980s brought further development of her talent.
In 1987 Kathleen accepted the invitation of Karajan to sing for Vienna’s New Year’s Day concert. “Battle portrayed opera ingenues and heroines, such as Pamina in Mozart’s Die Zauberfloete, Zerlina in Don Giovanni, and Adina in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore” (Eva Abshe, 2). She could sing sacred and spiritual music along with jazz. She was singing the song Lovers for the movie House of Flying Daggers, she worked with many well known artists, in 1992 together with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis they produced the album Baroque Duet.
Kathleen all the time was looking for development of her skills and talent, together with some other musicians she created her first crossover album – So Many Stars – as a collection of folklor songs and spiritual music. For her numerous recordings of live concerts she received several Grammy Awards.
Battle was famous due to her contribution to classical music through a lot of concerts, operas, TV shows. Thus a person whose connection to the music at the beginning was just feeling, managed to receive Bachelor and Master degrees from the College Conservatory of Music, got 6 doctoral degrees from the University of Cincinatti, Ohio University and others.
Overall, the three life and career stories of black singers, we described above, have a lot of things in common and still these are three different destinies and personalities. No doubts, the three women were really talented and great singers. Their careers were all successful and their names occupy honorary places in the history of opera music. However due to different backgrounds, different financial conditions of their families – for example if Price was the only daughter and parents could afford to provide her with music education and could support from the very beginning her talent, Marian had to overcome financial difficulties herself and to fight for her fame and success starting from singing in the churches for free, the development of their careers took different directions. Kathleen started from teaching music and only later managed to develop her singing skills, besides, she was not simply an opera singer, she produced jazz albums and even lullabies. The three women, actrisses, singers and great musicians had to go through some difficulties in their lives and declines of their career, but still the names of Price, Anderson and Battle will be for a long time associated with great talents, enourmous love for music, strong will and personalities.
1. Anderson, Marian. My Lord, What a Morning: An Autobiography. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. 1992. ALSO: University of Illinois Press. 2002
2. Eva Abshe. Kathleen Battle. New York, 1998.
3. Peter G. Davis, The American Opera Singe. Doubleday, 1997
4. Peter G. Davis, The American Opera Singer: The Lives and Adventures of America’s Great Singers in Opera and Concert from 1825 to the Presentб Anchor. 1999
5. Tedards, Anne. Marian Anderson. New York: Chelsea House Publications, 1988.