From Diva to Movie Star at 90
Anthony Tommasini New York Times, December 22, 2017
accessed December 22, 2017
●美國著名黑人歌劇女高音Leontyne Price是Marian Anderson的傳人
●今年Leontyne Price在Metropolitan Opera House首演名作曲家Samuel Barber為他寫的歌劇“Antony and Cleopatra”(埃及豔后)
COLUMBIA, Md. — The soprano Leontyne Price, who retired from singing 20 years ago, assumed that the triumphs of her illustrious career were behind her. Not so. At 90, Ms. Price has become an unlikely movie star.
She may not quite be in line for a spot on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But again and again, Ms. Price steals Susan Froemke’s new documentary, “The Opera House,” which tells the complex, tense saga of the building and inauguration, in 1966, of the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center.
The “New Met” opened with the lavish premiere of Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” tailored to Ms. Price’s radiant voice and prima donna grandeur. And she dominates the documentary, both in footage from the ’60s and in interview segments filmed just before her 90th birthday, in which Ms. Price recounts the opening night with impressive detail and droll humor, along with charming (and amply justified) self-regard.
“I really sang like an angel,” she recalls at one point. “You just want to kiss yourself, you sound so great.”
These delightful sequences make the movie: In an interview earlier this year about her documentary, Ms. Froemke said that when her interview with Ms. Price ended, she was so elated that she texted her colleagues: “We have a film now.”
But does Ms. Price like the results?
“Are you kidding?” Ms. Price said during a December interview in the homey apartment here, where she has lived for several years. “I’m having it put in my casket. It was so exciting for me to go back and remember all the things that happened that night.”
She said she considers the Met “the temple of grand opera,” so “to be there from the very beginning was a very great honor.”
On opening night, Ms. Price recalled in the interview, she was swept up in thoughts about the unlikely path she had traveled, from her birth to humble parents in a small Mississippi town in the segregated South — her mother was a midwife and her father worked in a sawmill — to her momentous Met debut in 1961 singing Leonora in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore,” to the 1966 theater opening in a made-to-order grand opera.
“It left me speechless,” she said.
Actually, in the film — which will be screened next month across Canada and the United States, including at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center and several others in New York on Jan. 13 and 17 — Ms. Price hardly comes across as speechless. She volubly recounts the mishaps that plagued Franco Zeffirelli’s monumental staging. And she was anything but searching for words during our recent interview, greeting me at the door with a diva-style vocal flourish.
She sings every day, she said proudly. “It’s practically the only thing in me that still works,” she added — at least without Bengay, athletic creams or Emu oil.
Ms. Price moved from New York to Maryland at the urging of her younger brother, George B. Price, a retired Army general whose large family lives mostly in the region. Mr. Price became his sister’s manager after she retired from opera in 1985, singing a final Met performance of Verdi’s “Aida,” and began a final phase of concert work, which lasted 12 years.
“I’m doing so good here, thanks to my brother and the kids,” she said. “I didn’t think I could be this happy without singing, without being center stage.”
She certainly relished her time in the spotlight. On opening night in 1966, Rudolf Bing, the Met’s general manager, came backstage to wish her good luck.
“I told him, ‘I’m about to scream — not sing — to scream with happiness,’” Ms. Price recalled. That afternoon, she had learned that radio stations in and around her hometown, Laurel, Miss., had been linked into the Met’s radio network and would carry “Antony and Cleopatra” live.
This represented a titanic shift from a painful event a decade earlier. NBC Opera Theater, a TV series that broadcast live opera stagings, had chosen Ms. Price to sing the title role of Puccini’s “Tosca” in 1955. This was “a breakthrough for me,” she said, before adding, almost as an aside, “My state didn’t carry it.” Indeed, many NBC affiliates in the South refused to show a program featuring a black Tosca and her white lover.
But racism was a reality for her from birth. When she was 9, her mother, celebrated for her singing in church, took the young Leontyne on a bus trip to Jackson, Miss., to hear the great contralto Marian Anderson in recital.
“She came out in a white satin gown, so majestic,” Ms. Price said. “And opened her mouth, and I thought, ‘This is it, mama. This is what I’m going to be.’”
Even though it was a concert by a distinguished black artist, the hall was segregated; Ms. Price and her mother sat in the “colored” section. Though just a child, she said she put this irony out of her mind. But even as Ms. Price argued that art “has no color,” she acknowledged that artists, of course, have origins and identities.
“One of the things about this extraordinary instrument that I have is the blackness in it, the natural flavor,” Ms. Price said. “It’s something extra.”
And something particularly appropriate, she added, when singing spirituals, which she called “black heartbeat music.” She speaks and sings with a Southern accent, she said, which gave her spirituals “even more of me.”
Barber, like so many, was captivated by her. At the recommendation of Florence Page Kimball, Ms. Price’s beloved voice teacher at the Juilliard School, he chose the young soprano, then 26, to give the premiere of his “Hermit Songs” in 1953. He wrote Cleopatra “for the timbre, the shadings — everything about my voice, which is not too shabby, actually,” Ms. Price said.
She still won’t hear a word against “Antony and Cleopatra,” though she knows how tough the initial reviews were. Most critics acknowledged the score’s beautiful moments, especially Cleopatra’s death scene, in which the character’s plaintive lyrical lines are capped by a chilling choral threnody. Still, whole stretches of the opera came across as splashy and grandiose, an impression reinforced by Mr. Zeffirelli’s overblown production. Barber revised the score significantly for a 1975 revival at Juilliard and that version has been slowly gaining attention.
He also adapted a concert suite of Cleopatra’s arias for Ms. Price. “I sang it all over the world, and I sang the hell out of it,” Ms. Price said. “I don’t think the opera was a failure. Finally — not totally — in time, Sam accepted that it’s great music.”
She hopes the film will call attention to the Met and Barber’s opera, and to his works more generally.
She spoke at length about his “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” for voice and orchestra, a wistfully beautiful musical setting of a James Agee text, with its description of a child’s memories of an evening at home. (“On the rough wet grass of the backyard my father and mother have spread quilts.”)
That poem “is like painting a picture of my hometown,” Ms. Price said, “and that’s the way I sang it.”
She recorded it in the summer of 1968, after the death of her father. While she performed the music in the studio, she “could see the lawn chairs made by my daddy,” she recalled. “He never finished the ninth grade, and he could fix anything, which was fabulous.”
Then she started singing the pensive child’s final line about the parents who provide so much love, “but will not ever tell me who I am.”
At first Ms. Price faltered. Then she shifted to a higher key and sang the phrase tenderly, right to me.