By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
Leontyne Price, being interviewed this year. She steals the show in the new documentary “The Opera House,” about the building of the “New Met” at Lincoln Center. Credit Roger Phenix/Metropolitan Opera
COLUMBIA, Md. — The soprano Leontyne Price, who retired from singing 20 years ago, assumed that the triumphs of her illustrious career were behind her. Not so. At 90, Ms. Price has become an unlikely movie star.
She may not quite be in line for a spot on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But again and again, Ms. Price steals Susan Froemke’s new documentary, “The Opera House,” which tells the complex, tense saga of the building and inauguration, in 1966, of the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center.
The “New Met” opened with the lavish premiere of Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” tailored to Ms. Price’s radiant voice and prima donna grandeur. And she dominates the documentary, both in footage from the ’60s and in interview segments filmed just before her 90th birthday, in which Ms. Price recounts the opening night with impressive detail and droll humor, along with charming (and amply justified) self-regard.
“I really sang like an angel,” she recalls at one point. “You just want to kiss yourself, you sound so great.”
Leontyne Price "Give me my robe" Antony & Cleopatra Live 68 Video by Onegin65
These delightful sequences make the movie: In an interview earlier this year about her documentary, Ms. Froemke said that when her interview with Ms. Price ended, she was so elated that she texted her colleagues: “We have a film now.”
But does Ms. Price like the results?
“Are you kidding?” Ms. Price said during a December interview in the homey apartment here, where she has lived for several years. “I’m having it put in my casket. It was so exciting for me to go back and remember all the things that happened that night.”
On opening night, Ms. Price recalled in the interview, she was swept up in thoughts about the unlikely path she had traveled, from her birth to humble parents in a small Mississippi town in the segregated South — her mother was a midwife and her father worked in a sawmill — to her momentous Met debut in 1961 singing Leonora in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore,” to the 1966 theater opening in a made-to-order grand opera.
“It left me speechless,” she said.
Actually, in the film — which will be screened next month across Canada and the United States, including at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center and several others in New York on Jan. 13 and 17 — Ms. Price hardly comes across as speechless. She volubly recounts the mishaps that plagued Franco Zeffirelli’s monumental staging. And she was anything but searching for words during our recent interview, greeting me at the door with a diva-style vocal flourish.
She sings every day, she said proudly. “It’s practically the only thing in me that still works,” she added — at least without Bengay, athletic creams or Emu oil.
Ms. Price moved from New York to Maryland at the urging of her younger brother, George B. Price, a retired Army general whose large family lives mostly in the region. Mr. Price became his sister’s manager after she retired from opera in 1985, singing a final Met performance of Verdi’s “Aida,” and began a final phase of concert work, which lasted 12 years……………