This week in history: Leontyne Price brings the Lyric Opera down as ‘Aida’

The acclaimed singer, who was born Feb. 10, nearly missed her cue in the Lyric Opera’s 1960 production of “Aida,” but her performance in the title role brought the house down.

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Leontyne Price, the world-renowned American soprano star, arrived at O’Hare Field

Leontyne Price, the world-renowned American soprano star, arrived at O’Hare Field, via United Airlines, to prepare for her Wednesday evening, November 24, 1965 appearance in the title role of Lyric Opera’s production of Verdi’s “Aida.” Five years earlier, she performed the title role for the first time at the Lyric Opera.

Chicago Sun-Times

As reported in the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Daily News, the Sun-Times sister publication:

In 1961, opera singer Leontyne Price broke barriers when she became the first Black singer to headline at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Her standing ovation went on for 35 minutes.

A year earlier, the famed singer, who was born Feb. 10, stepped onto the stage of the Lyric Opera in Chicago and — unsurprisingly — brought the house down in the title role of “Aida,” but she nearly missed her cue.

According to an Oct. 13, 1960 article in the Chicago Daily News, Price underwent an emergency appendectomy while in Vienna, and “and has not recovered as rapidly as had been hoped.” Margherita Roberti took on the title role in her absence for the first two performances, but neither critic at both the Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times were impressed with her performance, and anxiously awaited Price’s return. 

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Their wishes came true. Price rejoined the cast and performed to a sold-out audience on Oct. 22, 1960, according to the Sun-Times.

Both the Daily News and the Sun-Times ran reviews of the Oct. 22 show the following day; neither could find fault in Price’s singing.

Price sang “with great vocal beauty, intensity and intelligence,” reviewer Don Henahan at the Daily News wrote, but some of her movements felt awkward.

“She still chooses to move about in an unlovely crouch at times, and has no idea what to do with her hands or arms except when singing,” he continued. “Then problems seem to disappear for her.”

As this was the Lyric’s third production of “Aida” in its history, Henahan noted that the company had “finally produced a good one.”

Over at the Sun-Times, reviewer R.M.C. called Price’s voice “the perfect Aida voice, powerful in moments when power is essential, silken when called upon to purr, and filled with the dark intensity of passion.”

Despite her surgery, the acclaimed singer “was tremendous,” R.M.C. wrote. “Miss Price, a veritable lioness who asks no quarter and gives none, will upstage or outmaneuver any singer who falls into her trap.”

Decades later, Price wrote and published a storybook version of “Aida” for children. Her book inspired Elton John and Tim Rice’s updated take on the musical, and it nearly became a Disney movie.

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