“An aria is a weather event” (an excerpt)

A painting of opera singer Leontyne Price
Bradley Phillips, Leontyne Price (1963), oil on canvas, 127.6 x 92.1 cm, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Ms. Sayre Sheldon, npg.si.edu

Weather Event: Leontyne Price, a life in verse is a biography of the legendary African American soprano who turned ninety-one in February. The collection details her childhood in Mississippi during Jim Crow, her early studies at the famed Juilliard School, and features the voices of some of her lifelong champions and collaborators such as composer Samuel Barber, conductor Herbert von Karajan, and soprano Grace Bumbry. The protégée of the great Marian Anderson, the first African American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera House, Price is considered one of the most revered sopranos of the twentieth century.

 

Spin

America,

I couldn’t have sounded like this
anywhere else

Grooves cut down to bone
A terror

                     A reprieve

I constitute an order
through sound men imagine
but could never make

What you hear
is an other matter yes

              technique as ladder

but already the summit
of my sound

 

Salome

with soprano Ljuba Welitsch
The Metropolitan Opera House, 1949

Her seduction reaches standing room
Nothing lost in the velocity of her tide
& I want to do that but
like this

I will undress them

 

Note

An aria is a weather event

My voice both creates the conditions
& withstands
its forces

 

Samuel Barber

I’ve never been to Laurel
& likely never will
I only know Leontyne
& the scythe of her sound

Have you heard her

Even on radio
her decibels    my god!

Mississippi banned her Tosca
1955 not long ago
& such crimes continue

But she is their Movement
a credit to Negroes everywhere
a diplomat to the whole
white world

My muse my
Cleopatra 

~

Men like me wish
we had her sound
the clearing it makes
to be whole
or eunuch

unhidden

possessed by sound that began before a mother
made it
hanging laundry
             even before then
before the cushion of amniotic fluid
the congregation of a girl raptured by sound
she too would make
for men who scratch out notes
first
to build a throat & then
to hold its breath
when this soprano sings 

~

a singular steel
whose modesty belies
its range
such surefooted mettle
such joy
in its atomic number
its silvery gray

 

Porgy and Bess

1952 tour 

Catfish Row is home for now
Halfway right about the Negro situation
& every night I play midwife until it bears
more of a family resemblance
It’s all we’ve got & not
all bad

But easy?
Never easy

 

Raced

other people’s problems

token. black.

achievement has no color

that space given to me

by my country

the Man Upstairs

I don’t mean en couleur

it was broader than that

always was

 

now get on with it

 


Photo: Bob Hsiang

Kevin Simmonds is a poet and musician originally from New Orleans. His full-length collections include Mad for Meat and Bend to It, the edited anthology Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion & Spirituality, and, most recently, the chapbook The Noh of Dorian Corey. He lives in San Francisco.

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