My Weekend with Leontyne Price
The great American soprano Leontyne Price was among the recipients of the Kennedy Center Honor in 1980, the third annual Kennedy Center Honors presentation and gala. Her fellow recipients were Leonard Bernstein, James Cagney, Agnes DeMille and Lynn Fontanne. While most of the honorees come with a personal guest, the Kennedy Center provides an escort for each recipient for the weekend, from pickup at the airport to the return. This person is normally a Kennedy Center employee, preferably one with a knowledge and appreciation of the artist in his or her charge. It was my good fortune to be that person for Leontyne Price, a singer I had long admired. At the very least, I considered her one of the two greatest Verdi sopranos of the Twentieth Century, alongside the long retired Rosa Ponselle, who had walked away from her career at forty in the mid 1930’s.
The weekend began inauspiciously. The first duty of the official Kennedy Center escort is to be at the airport with a chauffeured limousine to pick up the artist and take him/her to the hotel. I had arranged with Watergate Limousine, then the regular Kennedy Center limousine supplier, to have my favorite driver, Samson, for the weekend. I was informed that Ms. Price would not require this first service, so my duties didn’t actually begin until Saturday, the day before the White House presentation of the awards by the President of The United States and the televised gala. My first duty would be to meet Ms. Price at her hotel and get her to the Watergate Hotel next door to the Kennedy Center, where she would be interviewed for the video archives of the honorees.
I spent an almost sleepless Friday night anticipating spending time with a soprano who, while long historical, was also still very much active and who had sung the title role on the first record of opera highlights I had ever bought, quickly becoming a great personal favorite of mine. While still a teenager, I purchased highlights from the first von Karajan Carmen, with a magnificent performance by Price in a role she never sang on stage. Subsequently, I had added most of Price’s recordings of complete operas and not a few of her solo records to my ever-growing collection. I was also aware that her sociological significance was on a par with her talent. While many believe Leontyne Price to have been the first artist to have broken the color barrier at the Metropolitan Opera, that was not not quite the case, as dancer Janet Collins, baritone Robert McFerrin, contralto Marian Anderson and soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs all preceded her there. However, Price was unquestionably of greater artistic importance, not to mention vocal magnificence and star power, than her predecessors, as well as the staying power which kept her at the Met from 1961 to 1985. This is not to slight her predecessors, particularly the great artistry of Ms. Anderson, but that wonderful singer was well past her prime when she sang the one-scene role of Ulrica in Un Ballo In Maschera in the mid-50’s. What is indisputable is that Price was the first great black star at the Met, and her vocal and artistic greatness transcended any other considerations anyway. It is to Rudolf Bing’s eternal credit that he had the vision and the courage to hire all the aforementioned black artists and to continue to hire talent without consideration of race beginning at a time, the 1950’s, when it was unfortunately still most uncommon to do so.
Though I had long been accustomed to meeting very famous people and not behaving like a fan, I still felt the adrenalin in my stomach as Samson drove me to pick up Ms. Price at her hotel. She appeared accompanied by her manager Hubert Dilworth, who was a constant presence during the entire weekend. The great diva proved to be most friendly, relaxed and down to Earth, despite her dignified bearing. Samson drove the three of us to the Watergate for the video interview. Approaching the suite where it was to take place, we were greeted by the famed soprano Beverly Sills, as cheerful as her reputation and her nickname “Bubbles” suggested. The two sopranos clearly knew each other well and after some pleasant chatting, the interview was recorded and we returned to Ms. Price’s hotel. By then, she had told me to call her Leontyne. That I could not bring myself to do, so from that point on, I simply didn’t call her anything; Ms. Price no longer seemed appropriate and speaking to her on a first name basis violated what a mentor of mine had once called my “innate sense of formality”. However, it delighted me that “Leontyne” had begun calling me “Greg, Darlin'” and continued to do so throughout the weekend.
That same evening, Samson took me to pick up Ms. Price and Mr. Dilworth. Our destination was the State Department, where the Secretary Of State would host a dinner for the honorees. The Kennedy Center escorts were not included in the dinner plans, and we were advised to wait while the dinner took place. I asked how long the dinner would take; after hearing the answer, I went outside and asked Samson if he would enjoy a couple of hours of free time. He readily assented and whisked me back to my Georgetown apartment and dropped me off. At the appointed time, he returned and we made the short trip back to the State Department, a bit in advance of the exit of the honorees and the various guests, awaited by a crowd of onlookers. Quite an amazing succession of the great and famous filed out. James Cagney seemed to excite the most interest, as he was by then rarely seen in public. In robust health until recent years, this most energetic of dancers and film greats now took only baby steps. When Cagney appeared, he was greeted by a wave of spontaneous applause. It was touching to see the legendary movie tough guy’s emotional response to the warm greeting. Ms. Price followed him out, and it was back to the hotel, joined by conductor Zubin Mehta and his wife. I mentioned how much I had enjoyed my recording of Price’s famous 1962 Salzburg performance of Il Trovatore, with von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic and singers Giulietta Simionato, Franco Corelli and Ettore Bastianini, as well as the studio recording of Carmen with the same conductor, orchestra and tenor. Ms. Price said that that was her own favorite performance of her Trovatore Leonora and that the Carmen was her favorite of all her studio recordings of complete operas. Concerning Corelli, she said, “I just love Franco. He’s got such gorgeous legs! When we were making that Carmen, he was acting up, so I threw a chair at him and told him to behave himself. He was as good as gold after that.” In January, 1961, Price and Corelli both made their Met debuts together in a performance of Trovatore which quickly became a Met legend. They sang together often after that in Verdi’s Ernani, Il Trovatore, La Forza Del Destino and Aida, as well as in Puccini’s Tosca and, on one memorable night when the Met performed at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, in Turandot alongside Birgit Nilsson, with Leoplold Stokowski conducting. After dropping our distinguished passengers off, Samson took me back to Georgetown for a peaceful night.
The next evening, Sunday, began with the presentation of the Kennedy Center Honor to the five honorees, followed by the televised gala at the Kennedy Center Opera House and a supper afterwards in the Center’s Grand Foyer. As usual the President Of The United States, in this case Jimmy Carter, presented the medal to the honorees at the White House, then attended the gala with the First Lady. When we picked them up, Ms. Price and Mr. Dilworth were now joined by Ms. Price’s brother, Brigadier General George Price. Off we went to the White House and pulled up to the front entrance. The presentation of the medals was a rather brief ceremony, soon followed by the succession of limousines headed for the Kennedy Center. It was during that ride that my favorite single moment with Leontyne Price occurred. Filled with the excitement of the occasion, she suddenly started singing “Summertime” from Gershwin’s Porgy And Bess, a work which had played a vital part in her early success. The sound of that wondrous voice in a closed limousine was one of the most thrilling moments of my life and her joy was contagious.
The arrival of the honorees and of so many famous guests caused the usual stir at the annual occasion, with a large crowd of spectators observing the proceedings and cheering one celebrity after another. The program honoring the recipients of the prestigious award for lifetime achievement followed the established pattern, with a film presentation summarizing each honoree’s career followed by speeches and performances by celebrities associated in some way with each honoree. For example, Placido Domingo, a frequent colleague, sang in Price’s honor, though the aria he chose was from Pagliacci, an opera Price never sang. The program is always carefully prepared and rehearsed, and proceeded with its usual smoothness.
The final part of the evening immediately followed the gala. Circular tables had been set up in the Grand Foyer. Each honoree had his or her own table and guests and there were many other tables for celebrities and VIP’s. I simple stayed in the general vicinity of Ms. Price’s table during most of the supper, chatting with various Kennedy Center employees, as well as with several other people I happened to know until Ms. Price spotted me milling about. “Greg, Darlin’, you come over here and sit with us”, she said, indicating an empty chair at the table. I obeyed, and before sitting, Ms. Price introduced me to the guests I hadn’t met previously. The first of these was pianist Van Cliburn. She then gestured toward a gentleman slightly behind me to my left, saying “This is my friend Tom Williams”. Turning, I found myself looking into the eyes of Tennessee Williams, who extended his hand saying, “My name’s Tennessee Williams, but my friends call me Tom”. His gentle, courtly manners would have seemed surprising to people knowing only about the wilder side of his reputation. I don’t think he had ever published anything I hadn’t read, including his frank autobiography, and I had seen many of his plays and the films based on them. It’s an odd feeling to speak to a stranger you know so much about (from that autobiography, as well as the multiple autobiographical references in his work) . To me, Williams was the greatest living playwright and one of the two best the U.S.A. has ever had. I told him of having acted in several of his plays during my university days and of having met his brother Dakin after one of them.
Much pleasant chat followed until we at last departed. On the way back to her hotel, Leontyne (may I?) said the limo again wouldn’t be needed to go to the airport. Before we parted, she signed the beautiful photo in the program for the evening’s gala for me, inscribing it “To Greg, A Perfect Gentleman, Love, Leontyne P.” A goodbye kiss on the cheek and she was gone.