When he was 12 years old, living in New Orleans with a mother who didn’t pay him much attention and a stepfather who paid him the wrong kind, poet and musician Kevin Simmonds first saw Leontyne Price. The revered opera singer, who got a 42-minute ovation in 1961 when she debuted at the Metropolitan Opera as Leonora in Verdi’s Il trovatore (“The troubadour”), showed up on the TV in his kitchen in a commercial for the United Negro College Fund, letting him know a mind was a terrible thing to waste, and asking for a hand, not a handout.
Simmonds, the author of books including the system must be tried, and Bend to it, went on the study music at Vanderbilt and in South Carolina and now lives in San Francisco. His new book, The Monster I Am Today: Leontyne Price and A Life in Verse, explores Price and his relationship to her in a combination of memoir, poetry, and prose, divided into three parts: Overture, Performance, and Postlude.
In a conversation with San Francisco Classical Voice, Simmonds talked about the joy of writing poems about Price, how he hears how people sound more than what they say, and why he made up an FBI file report on Price.
When did you first think of writing this book?
I’ve got to be 100 percent honest — an editor approached me to write an article about a community opera in New York, and I thought it was a terrible idea for me to write the article about that. I ended up writing about something completely different, and I thought this is an opening for me to pitch some of my poetry, not just essays.
So I said, “You know what, I’m writing a book on Leontyne Price,” which I was not. I said, “I have some poems, and I’d love to send some of the poems in the book,” and the editor said, “Oh, this is fabulous, please do.” I was in New York at the time, and I was staying near Lincoln Center, and I had just watched The Opera House documentary about the opening of the Met, and Price is featured in that documentary, and she is holding forth as she always does, and I thought, “You know what, I have always loved this woman, I have always admired this woman. She bent my ear when I was so young and it stayed bent to her sound, and I should write about her.”
I wrote several poems, and they just came out of me, and if you ever talk to poets, you know that never happens. I wrote poems in her voice, and poems in other people’s voices and thought this could be a book.
How did you choose the form of the book? Do you think of it as a memoir? Poetry?
I thought it would be a book of poems — I consider myself to be a poet. I rarely share my work with other people as I’m developing it, but a friend of mine in San Francisco, Daniel Handler, read it and he said it would be a great opportunity to talk about myself and my personal relationship with Price. He’s also one of a few friends who has a little bit of a fascination with how sensitive I am to vocal sounds, meaning when people speak, I listen more to how they sound than what they say. That just comes from my training as a singer and a voice teacher. So if the voice is nasally or not very resonant, these things bother me and I guess I make offhanded comments about this.
Daniel said, “You’ve got to talk about this idea of sound and Black sound,” so I thought, “Oh, OK.” It’s not a fascinating topic for me, but apparently other people find it interesting. He pushed me for other possibilities about the book, and I’m really grateful to Daniel for that.
The poetry came first and then the prose came to contextualize myself in relationship to Price. Writing the prose was very, very difficult for me. And writing about myself was difficult because usually I do that through poetry, and you can do it in a way that’s slant and that was difficult to be explicit in writing about myself. I prefer poetry to express myself. In prose you have to explain things, and in poetry you don’t have to explain anything. I’m glad I sat for these years in deep doubt with this manuscript. It was very rewarding — not on the back end — that was torture.
Why did Price make such a huge impression on you? You write about how your mom would sometimes listen to music and dance with you on Sunday afternoons. Why didn’t some of those singers affect you the same way?
Well, I had never seen or heard anything like her. My mother was listening to Patti LaBelle and Al Green and she was listening to a lot of Motown and jazz and a lot of rhythm and blues. I loved listening to that music. My mother struggled with depression and was obsessed with television. She was always watching it and didn’t spend a lot of time with me and didn’t give me a lot of attention. I think it was out of a kind of desperation and a sense of not feeling a lot of attachment to my mother or to a lot of people. Seeing Price, I can only express it, it’s difficult to explain it, her sound and her face and the way she carried herself on that commercial did something. There was a recognition, there was an admiration, there was a longing — all of that at once.
Did writing poetry about her allow you to understand her in a different way?
Oh, definitely. She never responded, but I sent a letter to her as I was writing the book because I thought it would be great if I could interview her. And I knew it was a longshot and my agent told me not to do it, but I did it anyway. And in the letter, I say exactly that. I say, “A lot of people have written about you, but none has written about you in the way a poet can witness your life because poems can do things prose cannot do.”
The poems, oh, they were so fun. They were a joy to write. They allow me to imagine things and to think about the constellation of things and people in her life. It was just a joy. I loved it.
How did you choose the title?
Well, that’s easy. In The Opera House documentary, Price said something about the monster that I am today and immediately that was a poem or something, and it became the title of book.
You have a couple quotes of hers in the book where she says she doesn’t want to talk about her difficulties because that would be boring. What did you think of those?
Before I fibbed and said I had a book on her, I wrote an essay titled “Ovation,” about the ovation after “O Patria mia” [in Aida]. And it has the time stamp that I included in the book [Simmonds describes Price’s reactions throughout the three-minute ovation, such as “She extinguishes the high A to ovation, 0:16 Furrows brow, 0:19 Steadies composure.”]
In that I use the same quote about difficulties, and I shared that with a friend who was a writer, and he said, “This is a great essay, but it’s too bad you don’t interrogate her [about] not wanting to talk more about her life.” I hadn’t thought that much about it. I knew she was private, but I hadn’t thought much about why. So now these years later, I wanted to think more about that. I think Price is, like many people of her generation, very careful in what she gave over for public consumption. I know that she experienced unspeakable slights and racism.
For the essay in World Lit Today, I interviewed Jake Heggie and let him know that the book was out. He asked if he ever told me the story about how he was a page turner for either the USC or UCLA concert series. Price coming to do a recital, and Heggie got to meet her and to sit and talk and spend time with David Garvey, her long-time pianist. Garvey was talking to Heggie about how difficult it had been traveling in the south and how he could stay in certain places and she couldn’t, he could eat in certain places and she couldn’t, and how she just dealt with it.
I know she faced horrible things, and she just didn’t want to countenance it. She did not want to sully her achievements with the ignorance of other people. There’s also the Black respectability thing where we will not talk about the difficulties, we just won’t. We will achieve regardless. I recognize that so clearly because I grew up with older Black people who were that way.
You made up some FBI reports about her in the book. Why did you want to do that?
Aren’t those fun? Those came really late. They came way after my editor said, “OK, we’re done.” I wanted to — I’m going to use the word “interrogate” again — I wanted to in a way interrogate why she wasn’t considered more dangerous. You had people like Amiri Baraka, her contemporaries who were surveilled. But she was not. She wasn’t surveilled. And what does that mean that she wasn’t surveilled? Other than Paul Robeson, I can’t think of anyone who sings that repertoire who has ever stirred any shit politically. I’ve said this before — they’re not a terribly adventurous group, people in the classical music world. I wanted to kind of look at that.
None of these files exist, but there are facts within those files. There are true things. She did she did go see Baraka’s The Dutchman, and she was sitting in the audience saying, “Right on.” And in the course of doing research for something else I saw that and thought, “Oh my goodness, that’s a poem.” And I always want to think about the state and how the state surveils and pressures us, so I wanted to include that politic in the book.
CORRECTION: Jake Heggie's last name was misspelled in the article as originally published.