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Leontyne Price electrifies NEA Opera Awards event

"You've stopped hearts in this room," mezzo Susan Graham said to the beyond-legendary soprano Leontyne Price Friday night, and that wasn't an exaggeration.

Price, the last of the four winners of the inaugural NEA Opera Honors to step up to the stage for the presentation at the Harmon Center in Washington, didn't just give a gracious and affecting speech. The 81-year-old, Mississippi-born singer, whose lustrous voice and incredibly communicative styling made her a favorite of the opera and concert worlds for decades, closed her remarks by saying, "I can't express to you my gratitude in any other way except the way I know." Price then proceeded to sing "America the Beautiful," a cappella and with an astounding amount of her vintage, thrilling tone, capped by a high note that went on and on, right through the roar from an audience of musical and political dignitaries and just plain fans. It was, indeed, a heart-stopping, breath-taking moment.

The soprano, resplendent in a glittering black/silver gown and turban, looked a little frail as she first walked to the stage on the arm of her brother, Brigadier General (Ret.) George Price, to be presented with the award. Her voice cracked with emotion as she spoke of being "a proud American" who was "truly overwhelmed" to receive a "great honor from my country." She mentioned "Mamma and Daddy up there" and how proud they would have been. And then she sang, thrillingly, and seemed to get younger and stronger as she did. Her obvious delight in the applause that followed and the wonderful series of bows -- no one takes a bow as magnificently as Leontyne Price -- only added fuel to the ovation. The phrase "American treasure" doesn't do justice to the artistry, eloquence and dignity of this great woman.

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One recipient of the NEA Opera Honors, the first federal award for lifetime achievement in opera, was a no-show -- conductor James Levine, who pleaded under-the-weather-ness after leading rehearsals that day at the Metropolitan Opera. The other two were in attendance: Richard Gaddes, founder of the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and pivotal administrator of the Santa Fe Opera; and Carlisle Floyd, the quintessential American opera composer, whose Susannah and Of Mice and Men will endure as long as opera itself. Both delivered finely-honed acceptance speeches. Each honoree was the subject of a brief, telling video tribute.

Placido Domingo, eminent tenor and general director of Washington National Opera, was on hand to offer words of praise and do some of the conducting during the scheduled music-making on the program (WNO's orchestra and several of its young artists participated quite effectively). A highlight was Song to the Moon from Dvorak's Rusalka, vividly sung by Sondra Radvanovsky, who is alternating with Renee Fleming in WNO's production of Lucrezia Borgia, which opened Saturday. Graham, alas, didn't sing, but she proved an amiable and charming host throughout the evening.

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The audience included Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who appeared at the start of the evening "to call into session" the ceremony to honor "four of the brightest lights in the world of opera." Also in the hall were such vocal notables as soprano Kathleen Battle and baritone Sherrill Milnes.

When all was said, sung and done, it was the sight and sound of Leontyne Price that will linger long in the memory.

PHOTO COURTESY OF WASHINGTON NATIONAL OPERA: National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia, Washington National Opera General Director Placido Domingo, Leontyne Price, Richard Gaddes and Carlisle Floyd

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