A native of Laurel, Mississippi, Mary Violet Leontyne Price decided on a singing career after graduation from the College of Education and Industrial Arts, Wilberforce, Ohio, in 1948. Four years at the Juillard School of Music, with Florence Page Kimball guiding her as she would continue to do, led to her 1952 debut on Broadway. Ira Gershwin, based on that performance, chose Price as Bess in a revival of Porgy and Bess that played New York City 1952-54 and then toured both nationally and internationally.
In 1955, Price was chosen to sing the title role in a television production of Tosca, becoming the first black singer on a television opera production.
In 1957, she debuted in her first stage opera, the American premier of Dialogues of the Carmelites by Poulenc. She performed in San Francisco until 1960, appearing in Vienna in 1959 and Milan in 1960.
Her debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1961 was as Leonora in Il Trovatore. Quickly becoming a leading soprano there, she made the Met her primary base until her retirement in 1985. After her retirement she continued to give recitals.
Associated especially with Verdi and Barber, she sang the role of Cleopatra, which Barber created for her, at the opening of the new Lincoln Center home for the Met. She also performed at recitals, especially in the 1970s, and was prolific in her recordings.