Poetry

I Love Leontyne Price, and This Book Is Dedicated To Her

In “The Monster I am Today: Leontyne Price and a Life in Verse,” Author Kevin Simmonds pens an ode of poetry and prose to the operatic grand dame.

Soprano Leontyne Price as Cleopatra in “Antony and Cleopatra” at the Met in New York City. September 1966. (Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

“What struck me most was her fleeting comment about ‘the monster that I am today.’”

I first saw her in a 1984 United Negro College Fund commercial. Instead of Black educational promise portrayed through the familiar visuals of a young Black actor and his respectable, hard-working parents―reliably fortified by the voiceovers of James Earl Jones, Adolph Caesar or Ossie Davis―there she was

her face & chest / low-lit / black gown /

square-necked & sequined / sleeves / of beaded fringe

I just about burst when her 60-second apparition materialized on our kitchen TV and she sang

We’re not asking for a handout, just a hand(high C!)

~

Over dinner or drinks after a performance, people discuss the high. They’d all cheered and applauded. Some post their rapture from their phones. Others tarry over what just happened — to them — in the audience.

Something Owed

Soon as Ella

began beading

the pearl-perfect tune

white woman knew for sure

what she could do

Soon as Ella spun

her slender-waisted tone

white woman knew why

she’d sought the voice

Her powdered face

her lonely table

A battered wife returned home

to the husband she’d kill

Summer, 1952

While witnessing Ella Fitzgerald perform, the subject in my poem knew not only why / she’d sought the voice but what she could do: go home and murder her abusive husband.

For a long time I thought my first-ever piece about Fitzgerald was the praise poem and this one something else altogether. But now I see them twinned in praise.

Miracle

Ella always gave a little leg, hiked up the notes like a dress she couldn’t help playing with. But she was a lady. Didn’t matter what striptease was going on in the piano or the garter easing down the sax, she stuck with scripture: Open your bibles to St. Gershwin, Chapter Five. Our reading begins at the chorus.

In a poem about Rachelle Ferrell, I accept that my attempt to write a praise poem was inadequate, verbose.

Transubstantiation

Nothing composed except the song

your mouth

stays sieged

Never afraid to rummage

the plain thing

until it surfaces ascends is called out

sung

I need three stanzas

you a note

~

That the voices of these exceptional Black women singers exceed the singers themselves only intensifies my need to register praise. Incapable of restraining it, yet raised Catholic and clenched, this former altar boy isn’t churched to shout or fall out, but he is reactive.

~

Why Price?

Leontyne Price in Aida, 1960. Saengerin- als Aida- 1960 (Photo by Fayer/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

There are ample logical reasons, foremost that I encountered her voice and her physical bearing — indivisible — when I was highly impressionable, a 12-year-old gay boy desperate for someone to praise and sing back to. And there she was: a Black woman who publicly vocalized self-possession, flaunted it, commanded us to hear. A Negress god whose succor I was convinced could feed me enough [ ] to bring forth my own [ ].

~

Decades later, as homage, I planned on the poem as form to create an abbreviated biography —

her upbringing in a small Mississippi town the euphemistic other side of the tracks the survivable indignities when she crossed those tracks the Black church that tended her faith of rule-following, subtlety and pageantry the Black college that promoted the burgeoning immensity of her gift the patronage of her Aunt Everlina’s white employers to study in New York and then to sing for the world.

I expected the poem would do the same for the voice — the wing that lifted her from a lethally quaint life and landed her on the world stage. After all, it’d given me access to the voices of other singers whose lives and artistry I wanted to encounter and engage with beyond mere personal adoration.

I never suspected the swarm of prose inside — restlessly caged, decades of flight denied because my compulsion had always been a dreamy waywardness, the conditioned non-Black archetype of the nomadic poet wanderer and wonderer. I should’ve laid to rest those parts of me walking unburied for years.

I’d worked so hard at appearing vertical when I what I needed most was to lay myself down and look up, like the true griots (the still-living and those gone), the ones whose work feed me: Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Essex Hemphill, Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, Wanda Coleman, Sonia Sanchez.

~

Singer Leontyne Price and brother George Price at the 27th Annual Kennedy Center Honors in 2004 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images)

Just shy of 90 years old in the 2018 documentary The Opera House, Price reminisced about what it took to pull off the momentous 1966 premiere of Anthony and Cleopatra which opened the new Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. The year of living “like a nun” leading up to it; sitting next to composer Samuel Barber at her home piano as he taught her the part of Cleopatra; getting stuck inside Franco Zeffirelli’s opulent electronic pyramid during dress rehearsal. Yet what struck me most was her fleeting comment about “the monster that I am today.” What did that mean? The creature formed, deformed as she took her place as the first Black singer to have such a lauded and undeniable impact on the world of opera? Thinking about her as a monstre sacré was kindling, this woman who has always burned

Seldom do people ask how it feels

to be on fire and feed it

Stand there a valve

a filter a veil

and contain what should bust me

wide open

as I swim the depths

breath imperceptible

The Monster I am Today: Leontyne Price and a Life in Verse is a collection of snapshots, fragments, digressions, certainties, coverups and exposures, contradictions, diversions, inaccuracies, refrains, ecstasies, overshares, omissions, failures, representations and misrepresentations. It’s my family, my upbringing, my rebellion, my formal education. My voice(s) and voicelessness. Recitatives without their accompanying arias, calls without responses, assertions without proof.

A [non]fiction praise release corroborating itself.

San Francisco-based writer originally from New Orleans. kevinsimmonds.com