"I'm not an angry person," Leontyne Price says, "but I do have a lot of truths to tell." Price, the most important operatic prima donna America has produced since Rosa Ponselle in the 1930s, is talking about her autobiography, on which she works whenever a busy career allows her a little time.

The assigned subject for this interview was a new children's book, "Aida as Told by Leontyne Price," but the conversation keeps drifting to her next book, and the eventful life in which it is rooted. "When I map out some of the things I have learned," she continues, "I think they will be much more helpful {for young singers} than any vocal lesson I could ever give."

The book (publication date uncertain) might be titled "How to Beat the Odds." Price has been doing that for most of her life. Born in 1927 into a poor but proud and hard-working family, she reached the highest ranks of operatic stardom with top billing in such companies as the Metropolitan Opera, the Vienna Staatsoper and La Scala, several invitations to sing at the White House, the coveted Kennedy Center Honors (of which she was one of the youngest recipients) and honorary degrees and citations too numerous to count.

It helped that she had a dramatic soprano voice of extraordinary power, clarity and tonal richness -- the kind of voice that is needed and seldom available for the big Verdi roles in "Aida," "Il trovatore," "La forza del destino," "Ernani" and "Un ballo in maschera," as well as some Richard Strauss roles and Donna Anna in Mozart's "Don Giovanni."

Aida, like Bess in "Porgy and Bess," is part of the birthright of African American sopranos. In most of the other roles, Price broke through the color barrier in some of the world's greatest opera houses, paving the way for the present, when non-traditional casting is the rule almost everywhere.

Price's acquaintance with Aida dates back almost as far as she can remember. "I first encountered her in the library when I was a child," she says. "I think 'Aida' is the first opera I ever heard of as an opera, and she has always been very special to me. Now, with the help of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, I have been able to give a very personal, treasured gift from myself to me with great love and affection. The feeling that I have for the role has just, in the vernacular, blown my mind." The book's illustrations, by Leo and Diane Dillon, in which Aida looks remarkably like Leontyne Price, are "beyond my wildest dreams," she says. "It's a source of great happiness to me. I wanted to share the story of this black princess who has such dignity and courage, who loves her father the king so deeply and struggles with such strength."

In building one of the century's most solid and well-managed artistic careers, Price had to struggle against what she calls the "three whammies: I'm from Mississippi, I'm Afro American, I'm an artist who aspires to perform in the most grandiose of the creative art forms. This is a little daring, but it didn't seem daring to me because of the way my parents taught us. You only know how daring it was after it's done. Then you can say, 'Whew! I climbed that mountain? Are you serious?' I am so proud to have been something of a barrier-breaker and a pioneer."

With her parents' advice and example and the special clarity of vision that comes from growing up poor, Price says, "I understood the system very early. You must know who you are. As an artist, particularly as an Afro American artist born in Mississippi, you must learn to say no when something is not right for you. But the system works in every walk of life, and what does it matter if there are lots of great costumes; I'm still James Anthony and Catherine Baker Price's daughter. I'm an oak, and you will not make a willow out of an oak... .

"Once your talent becomes negotiable, you are treated like a commodity, and you should keep control of that commodity; you have to realize that being wined and dined has no meaning if you don't sing well that night. That's why I don't have an entourage; I do not waste my time socially. I will always be invited socially as long as I sing well; the phone rings when you win, not when you lose. It's very basic. I look on it as a business. The buck stops with you as soon as you get to center stage. If you don't deliver, forget it."

What Leontyne Price has these days, instead of an entourage, is her brother George, a brigadier general retired from the U.S. Army who shares with her the special Price heritage and mystique. "He was very much involved in establishing the Vietnam Memorial, and with veterans," she says, "but aside from that and his own family he has focused on managing my career since my original manager retired six years ago. He gives me the feeling I used to have when I was a child on Saturday nights when I could see my father coming home from the sawmill. You could see him from the back porch in our house, first his head, then his overalls as he came over the hill.

"He had gone and gotten his check; we were lucky if it was $35 a week, and then he'd go to the store. In his arms he always had these two big bags, and when we could see him coming over the railroad tracks there was this feeling that everything was going to be all right; happiness was in the two bags that man was carrying across the railroad tracks, and when he came into the house it was total joy. He just fixed everything, and that's what my brother has done. It's like being with my father again, who was my very first hero. He takes care of me with tender loving care. I totally trust him."

There was another major change in Leontyne Price's life six years ago when her brother became her manager: She retired from the operatic stage at the height of her career. Not from singing and not really from the operatic world; she is gradually negotiating her transformation from performer to teacher. She interrupts her concert and recital schedule occasionally to give master classes at her alma mater, the Juilliard School, and when she stops singing in public, she plans to "become a mother hen" and take some young singers under her wing -- full time.

Price talks about her personal life reluctantly and briefly. Of her marriage to baritone William Warfield, who sang Porgy to her Bess in the 1950s, she says simply, "That didn't work." Otherwise, she says, "I find I don't have a bit of nostalgia for all those things they list that you have to give up -- like personal life and blah, blah, blah. I'm a mother hen when it comes to my brother's children; they admire my singing, but they are very moved by my spaghetti sauce as well as my performances. I think that I can enjoy the present because I have a feeling that I will be happy in the future, and my own mother-henning comes in my master classes with young artists. I'm very tough, but I tend to empathize and get the best out of them, and some of them are doing extremely well, I must say. Fortunately, I'm still very active, still performing well, and mixing my activities so that when it comes time to shift gears I will be ready for the next adventure. Then I will start a very private technical approach to the youngsters I choose, and then I will really be disgustingly mother-hennish because I will be, as my teacher was to me, on call to them 24 hours a day."

As for her retirement from opera, she relates it to the old show business axiom: "Always leave them wanting more." She also relates it to what she calls "making the whole life a work of art ... and having fun while you do it."

"Do I sit around crying that I'm not in opera any more?" she asks rhetorically. "No!" she answers with an operatic flair. "I left my operatic career at a time of my own choosing; it did not leave me. It is totally different. I chose to leave an area of my life, an area of my career, on the crest of the wave. No one can ever say they discarded me; I don't want to live with that, and it's in no one's control but mine. A career needs tender loving care. I want to leave only memories that are totally positive.

"I truly believe I left a standard that possibly may be inspirational; at least, I have been told that by younger artists -- of all hues, I'm proud to say. That makes me feel really terrific. It's my duty to inspire my own, but when I have a galaxy of youngsters of every color who sit out in the auditorium with their scores and say I inspire them, it just turns me on. It also makes me proud to know that I can still meet my own standards, which are the most critical of all. You can do that in opera, but you are not in control of the whole operation; you have to fit into a whole, grandiose setting.

"I didn't want to take the chance of one bad vibration. If you do stay too long, no one will remember any of the standing ovations you brought in. People tend to remember anything negative; they zoom in on it and it's there."

Meanwhile, six years after closing her career at the Metropolitan Opera, she still has to postpone her mother-hen phase into the indefinite future. "I am so busy," she says, "on the concert and recital stage. I have been busier in the last six seasons than I was before. If you are involved in opera and have committed a great deal of your time to important opera houses, you cannot do anything else. Initially, I was trained to be a recitalist, and I am happy to be so deeply involved in it again. ... The luxury of my success these days is to be able to do exactly what I wish to do when I wish to do it. Why not? At the same time, it promotes my vocal longevity, because I'm always eager to perform; I'm not struggling to perform; I'm enjoying the fruits of my own pioneering."

In opera, singers accept roles that are offered to them and that they have prepared very carefully in advance, and they sing the music written for that role and nothing else. A recital singer can choose from an enormous array of composers, languages and styles and present them in all sorts of mixtures. This choice, like the choice to leave opera while audiences were still clamoring for more, embodies one of the messages Price wants to give to young singers in her teaching and her autobiography: "Take control of your own destiny." Another is to aim high; hold yourself to tough standards and let your ambition soar.

Underlying everything else, she has what she calls "a very pristine belief in God -- untampered with ... as fresh as it was when I was in Sunday school in Laurel, Mississippi. I don't intellectualize about it; I know it's there -- I am part of a plan, and I go with it."

Looking back, Price believes that "overachievement must have been in the blood anyway" with the kind of training and attitude she received from her parents. "My parents told my brother and me that there is nothing that you cannot achieve if you aim high enough," she recalls. "I don't remember them ever asserting that being me, being black, being Afro American, was anything but positive. ... It was always approached as aiming high -- climbing a mountain with your head held high, because you can't climb a mountain looking down; you're bound to fall. Some of that is my message to the kids -- not just my own, but to every young artist, to every youngster, period. If that gets through, it will make me very happy.

"I know that's what my brother and my sister-in-law are telling their kids. I have a beautiful young niece who is a speech therapist and a wonderful mother, and three young nephews who are all captains in the Army. It's passed on."