Leontyne Price, “Turbaned goddess of my Zenith” – A conversation with author Kevin Simmonds

Ever since we completed research—-our archive activism— at the Leontyne Price Library at HBCU Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi, we longed to read something about the great Leontyne Price that would place her in a contemporary and queer context.

In the Rust College library, we learned about Price’s (b. 1927) upbringing in Laurel, Mississippi and that her mother Kate had attended Rust. In later years as an international opera star, Price would even travel with the Rust College Choir singing such spirituals as, “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free.”

Now 95, Price has withdrawn from the world.  Could we find someone with a living passion for Price who could explain both the music, the grandeur of the woman and her significance, today?  At last, we discovered Kevin Simmonds, passionate about opera, a gay black man raised in New Orleans, a musician and poet now living in San Francisco.  Author of The Monster I Am Today, Leontyne Price and a Life in Verse,” (2021, Northwestern University Press), Simmonds kindly agreed to talk with us about himself and the artist he adores, “Turbaned goddess of my Zenith!”, Leontyne Price.


The Poet and Diva: Kevin Simmonds and Leontyne Price, photograph by Jack Mitchell

MSW:  What do you mean by the word “Monster” in the title?  You write it is from the Latin word for “recollect, warn, instruct or teach.”  Might it also play on the word monster, as a frightening creature?

In the 2017 documentary The Opera House, Price refers to herself as “the monster that I am today” and, come on, you know that went right through me! What did she mean by that? It is tongue in cheek and profound existential declaration. The book considers the monstrousness of opera as an art form and a business, and my own story of how classical vocal training deformed my voice as well as my understanding of what it could and should sound like.

MSW:  The book is an adoration of Leontyne Price and also a deeply introspective reflection on your life as a gay black man. How did you conceive of this project?

I was in New York a few years ago, staying at a hotel right around the corner from Lincoln Center, as I’d done many times before, and thought, “Why haven’t I written about this woman I’ve loved all my life?” I’d written an odd little essay about an ovation she received during her final Aida. And there was also a poem about the very first time I encountered her (on a 1984 United Negro College Fund commercial). It had never dawned on me to write an entire book inspired by her. It’s a hybrid work because one genre would be insufficient to express the complexity of how I see and hear her in relation to me and the world.

MSW:  You write, “I discovered in her whirling howl, my human noise, my instrument eye….My 12 year old body can hardly bear the recognition.”  Is she still and always “the turbaned goddess of my (your) Zenith?”

Cliche as it sounds, her apparition on our kitchen tv is seared into memory. I’m queer, so of course it’s become more epic over the years!

MSW:  What do you believe is Price’s connection to adoring fans, gay fans in particular?  Did she ever recognize this?   I suppose her “con bravura” rendition of “Somewhere” conducted by Leonard Bernstein in the “Music for Life” Carnegie Hall benefit concert (1987) was one intensely powerful moment for the gay community.

The noted composer Jake Heggie shared a story with me that confirmed what I’d hoped was true about Price’s humanity as it relates to us queer folk. Once when he was the on-call page turner at UCLA in the 80s, he assisted in her recital at Royce Hall with her longtime collaborator, pianist David Garvey. As Jake put it to me in an email earlier this year: “At the end of the recital, she started her magnificent encores. After the first one, she came offstage and broke into sobs. There was a young man in the front row in a wheelchair with IV drip, etc. She grabbed hold of her brother’s arms (General George Price) and said, ‘That young man is dying of AIDS, George … and he forced himself to stand and applaud for me’…She was so overwhelmed. All of us were thinking she might not be able to regain herself. But then she went out again and sang “Vissi d’arte” directly to that young man. It was a great moment I will never forget.”

MSW:  Do you still adore “La Davina Pre-chay” (your friends say in Italian) with the same intensity of your youth?  How has that changed or deepened as she has withdrawn from the world and you have become an openly gay poet? 

At the Rumpus Book Club a few months ago, I said “Her voice interrogates you, takes you to the edge, suspends you. Days later, you still feel her ethereal menace.” So there’s thatintensifying my admiration, wonder and awe for her over the years. Then there’s an ever-deepening respect for her ability to remain so dignified in the face of racist discrimination. Take what Jake said in the same email, “David Garvey shared a few stories with me backstage that evening, horrible stories about recitals in the 60s in the South, when he would be put up at a gorgeous hotel in town–but she would have to stay at the ‘Colored’ hotel on the outskirts … he said she was always gracious, but knew how it angered and frustrated her.” You know David knew only a fraction of what Price endured. Imagine what else she put up with, the experiences she would never speak about?    

MSW:  As an “archive activist” I love what you wrote me about libraries and archives.

You should know that librarians/archivists have been VERY important to me since I was a kid. I was a library helper in elementary school, and that experience shaped my whole relationship to books.

MSW:  That love of librarians and archivists shines through “The Monster” with your inserts of three FBI Memoranda on Leontyne Price, each one fusing racism, anti-communism and homophobia into a disgusting whole. How do you see these documents fitting into your poem?  How did you obtain them?

I can’t emphasize enough how fun those were to write. I’d searched the FBI database for her and came up with nothing, so created these based on actual files about Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) and others. I meant these to critique the State and its impoverished principles and morality, its depravity. But I also wanted to critique Price because she didn’t warrant surveillance, wasn’t enough of a threat. I adore her but not blindly. I wonder how she might’ve used her voice more to address white supremacy and get on Hoover’s radar.   

MSW:  Do you believe we have a long way to go in terms of researching the role of queer black men and women in the Civil Rights Movement…..moving beyond Bayard Rustin?

Absolutely. Our contributions to human flourishing are boundless—no aspect of human achievement is untouched by queers. Yet not even we fully comprehend this, so you know the wider world has no sense. I’m unconcerned with them, really. We’re the ones who need to know our history and draw strength from our ingenuity and resilience.

MSW:  In conclusion, you write “I saw in Price how to abdicate the burden of my own life, to correct my misalignment, to evacuate my childhood self…”, “My adoration of her exceeded its cause.” Her great art saved you, in a manner of speaking?

Price gave me something to worship that wouldn’t require shame or fear, wouldn’t mock my attraction to men, wouldn’t require me to lie about who I was, wouldn’t damn me. I didn’t apprehend this when I first encountered her. I thought she demanded me to become broken, to be born again, tithe, pledge my undying allegiance to her before I could abide in her glory. I’d been conditioned that way by Christianity. Price didn’t want or need my sacrifices—quite the opposite. She wanted me to hear what her sacrifices sounded like.

***

“I ignored the boys who called me sissy

 sang loudly in an operatic voice all the commercials

 the theme from Good Times

 Donna Summer too

 But my spine lengthened the night I heard you open

 the black fan of your voice

 on prime time

 Turbaned goddess of my Zenith

 The way God struck your soprano

 how you rang

 We’re not asking for a handout, just a hand!

“Upon Hearing Leontyne Price on The United Negro College Fund Commercial”

  By Kevin Simmonds