Thanks to the latest picture book by acclaimed author Carole Boston Weatherford, you can bring in the sublime opera singer Leontyne Price to celebrate Black History Month. With poetic prose and vibrant illustrations, Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century delivers a lyrical, uplifting story children should hear, whatever the time of year.
With elegantly crafted poetic prose, Weatherford places the singer’s story in the context of the oppressive world in which she was born, in 1927. “All a black girl from the Cotton Belt could expect was a heap of hard work–as a maid, mill worker, or sharecropper. Her song, most surely the blues.”
Despite the miseries of rural Mississippi, Leontyne thrived, growing up with a loving family that encouraged her interest in music. One of the highlights of Raul Colon’s illustrations for me is the full-page portrait done in Prismacolor pencils of a dreamy young Leontyne, eyes closed as she revels in the Saturday-afternoon radio broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera. Leontyne’s parents sold their treasured phonograph to pay for a piano and lessons for their daughter.
The girl’s world expanded even more when, as a church choir member, she got to see the famous Marian Anderson sing at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. Soon, Leontyne was off, too, heading for college in Ohio, where she could become qualified to teach music, “the concert stage out of reach for a black singer then.”
Here, another of my favorite illustrations shows Leontyne with her white gloves and her be-ribboned hat, waiting to catch the bus to take her far from home. The double-spread, done in Colon’s characteristic swirls, evokes the energy and hope it must have taken to propel Leontyne toward a richer life.
Then Leontyne learned she, too, could hope to sing on stage; the college president heard her sing a solo and convinced her to focus on developing her voice. And so she made her way to Juilliard and found her true calling.
This daughter of a sawmill worker and a midwife became the first black opera singer to garner leading roles at the Met and at Italy’s famous opera house La Scala. She was the first black opera singer to perform on television in the U.S., as Weatherford relates in her concluding author’s note. Can you imagine how inspiring it must have been for so many to sit in their living rooms and watch the regal singer perform?
Pair this engaging story with one of Price’s recordings — or, better yet, use a YouTube video showing her astounding 1963 televised performance of “O patria mia” from Verdi’s Aida. Then teach children this simple Italian word: Bravissima!
See also …
my previous post on Carole Boston Weatherford, featuring Freedom on the Menu.