Dame Margaret Price, Welsh leading opera soprano of the late 20th century, dies at 69

By Anne Midgette
Monday, January 31, 2011; 10:31 PM

Margaret Price, an operatic soprano whose radiant voice made her among the finest singers of her generation, died Jan. 28 of a heart ailment in her native Wales. She was 69.

Ms. Price had a soaring, pure lyric voice that made her ideally suited to the operas of Mozart and some Strauss and Verdi roles. She made a particular impression for her fine performance of Desdemona in "Otello," Verdi's setting of Shakespeare's opera, which she sang in Paris in 1976 and that became the vehicle of her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1985.

Her phlegmatic stage presence could make her seem slightly pale in some dramatic roles, but she was able to beautifully animate the sweet innocence of a part that for many sopranos would be something of a snooze. The character is not, Ms. Price once told an interviewer, "one of those soppy blondes."

She did not originally aspire to an opera career. Her predilection was for recitals and concerts, and she excelled in the German Lieder or art-song repertory - for example, the songs of Schubert, Schumann and Strauss. She was also a sought-after concert singer, appearing with most of the world's leading orchestras in everything from Bach's St. Matthew Passion to Strauss's "Four Last Songs."

She lived for many years in Munich, where in 1979 the Bavarian State Opera made her a Kammersangerin, the highest honor for a singer at a German house; she held the same title at the Vienna State Opera. She was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1982, and elevated to "Dame" status a decade later.

Margaret Berenice Price was born in Blackwood, South Wales, on April 13, 1941, the daughter of a teacher, Thomas, who had trained as a musician, and Lilian, a nurse. She had an operation on her legs at 4; she also helped care for her mentally disabled younger brother.

Nonetheless, she began studying voice at 9 - at that age "a singing lesson is only singing, not training a voice," she later said. She won a scholarship to London's Trinity College of Music at 15, young enough that her teacher, Charles Kennedy Scott, had her focus on learning scores rather than technique.

Ms. Price's early teachers initially pegged her as a contralto. After two years singing with the Ambrosian Singers, a professional chorus, she auditioned with the Welsh National Opera and got the mezzo-soprano role of Cherubino in Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro" - even before she had mastered Italian.

Cherubino subsequently became her first role at the Royal Opera House in London's Covent Garden, where she was engaged as Teresa Berganza's cover, or understudy, and ended up being a huge success when her older colleague had to cancel.

Intensive work with the conductor and coach James Lockhart fueled this success and subsequent appearances as Ms. Price moved up the vocal hierarchy - and literally up the scale.

Lockhart, a personal and professional associate of Ms. Price's, played a role akin to conductor Richard Bonynge's in the development of opera star Joan Sutherland. Lockhart, who was her frequent accompanist, pointed out to the singer that she sounded more like a soprano than a mezzo.

That observation initially caused the singer to burst into tears. But she went on to conquer soprano territory, singing Mozart's Pamina in "The Magic Flute" (the role of her American debut at the San Francisco Opera in 1969) and Fiordiligi ("Cosi Fan Tutte"), the Countess ("Figaro") and Donna Anna ("Don Giovanni"), as well as Strauss's Ariadne and even Verdi's Aida.

Much was made in early reviews of Ms. Price's physical size, perhaps unfairly; she was not a svelte woman, but she was able to move onstage, and any lack of dramatic luster was due more to temperament than to girth. She did refrain from trying Verdi's Violetta, the heroine of "La Traviata," because she said she would not be credible as a consumptive.

Ms. Price was not always an easy person. She was known to many behind the scenes as a difficult colleague. A certain amount of anxiety accompanied her performances, particularly in her later years as the vocal bloom began to fade. One anecdote had her once falling asleep onstage after Placido Domingo's Otello strangled her.

But there was no debating the beauty of her voice in its prime. "Voluptuous"; "pears and cream"; "an extraordinary instrument" were some of the descriptions. One critic wrote in the New York Daily News that she was "as perfect in vocalism and interpretation as the human throat, mind, and heart could conceivably allow."

If she was not more widely recognized in the United States, it was because of a reluctance to travel. Unlike many jet-setting superstars, Ms. Price was content to remain close to home, singing mainly in continental Europe, and did not appear often in America or Great Britain.

Offstage, she devoted herself to her dogs, who often traveled with her. She never married and had no immediate survivors.

She retired in 1998 and returned, the next year, to a 160-year-old farmhouse in Wales. There, she put singing behind her, and devoted herself full time to breeding golden retrievers.

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