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Leontyne Price’s Canadian connections

Robert Rowat

American soprano Leontyne Price, one of the greatest singers of the 20th century, turns 90 on Feb. 10. While she hasn’t performed in public for 20 years, her amazing voice lives on in the memories of fans and colleagues and through her many recordings.

Her accomplishments have been well documented. The first conductor to champion her was Herbert von Karajan, who enabled many European debuts for Price in the late 1950s. She sang at Covent Garden, the Vienna Staatsoper, La Scala and the Salzburg Festival.

When she made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore in January 1961, Price received a 40-minute ovation at the end of the opera. And what’s even more impressive is that she sang four more roles there within the following weeks: Aïda, Cio Cio San in Madama Butterfly, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni and Liu in Turandot.

To top it off, she was a black woman taking the opera world by storm at the height of the civil rights movement in the United States. If you're looking for greatness, this is it.

While Price did not perform often in Canada, her fans here are legion. Her 90th birthday is the perfect occasion to recall some of her Canadian connections.

Price and Vickers

In 1962, Price recorded her first Aïda. (She would make her second studio recording of the role in 1971.) Her Radamès was Canadian tenor Jon Vickers. It’s the only recording these two stars made together, both at the summit of their powers. It’s hard to imagine the anticipation surrounding its release.

With the Amneris of mezzo Rita Gorr, the Amonasro of baritone Robert Merrill and Georg Solti conducting the Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus, this recording of Aïda is still a reference. Some people say it has yet to be surpassed. Here’s an excerpt from Act 1.

It’s worth mentioning that Canadian bass-baritone Joseph Rouleau sang with Price and Vickers in a few runs of Aïda at Covent Garden in the late ‘50s.

Price in Montreal

Price was the guest of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Charles Dutoit for a Christmas concert at Notre-Dame Basilica in 1982. It was broadcast on Radio-Canada TV and has been released on DVD.

In this unusual excerpt, she sings both the alto and soprano parts of the duet “He Shall Feed His Flock” from Part 1 of Handel’s Messiah. It’s a thoroughly unidiomatic rendition, probably only to be appreciated by diehard fans.

Price in Toronto

Price gave a recital with pianist David Garvey at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall in 1992. For somebody who was slowing down, and who hadn’t sung in an opera since her Met farewell in 1985, she showed herself to be still in full command of her instrument.

The crowd went wild after her performance of “Pace, pace mio Dio” from Verdi’s La forza del destino.

On Feb. 10, on SiriusXM's Met Opera Radio channel, there'll be a 90th birthday tribute to Price from 12 to 3 p.m. Also, Gramophone magazine's website is celebrating Price all week.

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