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Leontyne Price As 'Masterclasser'

August 18, 1986|ALLAN JALON | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — A Times photographer suggested Leontyne Price pose before a dressing-room mirror in San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House. Price, at the opera house to conduct a master class but not to sing, pivoted away from the large mirror and its frame of naked light bulbs.

"No, that will just look as if I'm making up for opera again," she said. "I've had that."

Turning from the mirror, Price insisted that she has no regrets about having taken the final bows of her 30-year operatic career in 1985. Price, 59, spoke excitedly of her "virgin voyage" as a teacher this month with the Merola program at San Francisco Opera, which trains singers starting their careers.

But she emphasized that as "a great singer, which is what I am," she still sings as well as ever and maintains a heavy schedule of concerts. "These two weeks I teach," she said, deliberately. "The next two weeks I sing."

On Sept. 3, Price will sing at the 75th anniversary concert of the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Hall here, followed by a recital on Sept. 7.

On Oct. 1, she will perform with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the first time in 10 years--Kurt Sanderling conducting--during a week of concerts inaugurating the new Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. A Price recital on the same stage is scheduled Oct. 4, and she plans to be at UCLA for another recital next May..

On her Los Angeles Philharmonic program is the last scene from Richard Strauss' "Salome," and his "Four Last Songs," one of the few non-operatic pieces about which Price has been giving advice since the classes here started in early August.

"These two weeks, I will share my expertise, experience and generosity, artistically, with a group of very talented young people," Price said, before a class last week. "Why not add the teaching dimension back to back with the active performing, to show whether I have it as a masterclasser?"

Price said although she taught a master class in Salzburg, Austria, in 1982, she accepted the invitation to teach at the Merola program to see how much she likes working with young singers--and how good she is at it. Asked how the classes were going so far, she declared, with customary modesty: "Brilliantly."

For the most part, these were highly polished singers, performing selections that demonstrated their strengths. Price usually reached past the well-rehearsed notes to aspects of operatic character the student singers had overlooked. She told Emily Manhart, a 26-year-old mezzo-soprano from Detroit, to light a fire under her Carmen. A certain passage should have "not just accents, but smoldering accents," Price said, before suggesting that the two sing it together.

After a few measures, Manhart fell silent and only the husky, hotly sensual voice of Price's Carmen remained. "Be sexy," Price said, when she stopped. "Seething sex!"

"Think of it as a voyage upward, vocally," Price told Donna Zapola, 28, from Queens, N.Y., trying to help Zapola give her performance of Strauss' "Four Last Songs" the ethereal, soaring quality for which Price's high register has been celebrated. "Like a bird. Think soaring like a bird . . . over the orchestra."

To a soprano who had sung an aria from Verdi's "La Forza del Destino" Price said: "You have this enormous instrument. You are more preoccupied with the enormity of it than with what you can do artistically. Be elastic. Intensity doesn't mean forte . "

While she is regarded by many as one of the great singers of her time, writers have frequently placed Price in a historical context as the first black American to become an operatic superstar.

The soprano, whose roots are in Laurel, Miss., gained nationwide recognition for the first time in the title role of "Tosca," an NBC broadcast in 1955. Price herself describes the telecast as "pioneering" and "controversial." But when a reporter attempted to elicit her views about opportunities for blacks generally in the 1980s, compared to the 1950s when she started her career, Price grew angry.

She resented any politically oriented questions, she said. Questions that tried to get at her feelings about being a black artist, as opposed to simply a great artist, have become "boring," and she chooses not to answer them.

"I prefer to be interviewed as an artist," she said. "I prefer to be interviewed as the best American artist that you are interviewing at this time. I am very proud. I am very proud of being a human being. I am very proud of being an American. And I am very proud of being black. They are all one and the same."

Another question brought peals of laughter. Did she have any regrets, looking back on her life, about having sacrificed the raising of a family to having a career? (Price was married shortly to Baritone William Warfield in the 1950s. She has no children, although she is known to be very close to the family of her brother, George Price, a retired U.S. Army general who is her personal manager.)

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