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Operapedia- Grace Bumbry

Grace Melzia Bumbry was an exceptional American opera singer who graced the stage from January 4, 1937, to May 7, 2023. She was widely regarded as one of the most prominent mezzo-sopranos of her time and even explored soprano roles. Bumbry belonged to a groundbreaking generation of African-American classical singers, following in the footsteps of the renowned Marian Anderson.

Her international recognition came when Wieland Wagner selected her for the 1961 Bayreuth Festival, where she portrayed the character of Venus in Tannhäuser. This historic moment marked her as the first black singer to ever perform at the prestigious festival.

Bumbry possessed a remarkable voice that was both powerful and versatile, encompassing a wide vocal range. Her singing was characterized by a distinct and emotionally resonant tone. During her prime, she showcased excellent agility and mastered the bel canto technique, as exemplified by her rendition of Eboli in Verdi's Don Carlo during the 1970s and 1980s. Her stage presence was equally captivating, known for her fiery temperament and ability to convey dramatic intensity.

As her career progressed, Bumbry expanded her repertoire to include recitals and interpretations of lieder. Additionally, she embraced the role of a teacher, sharing her wealth of knowledge and experience with aspiring singers. From the late 1980s onward, she chose to focus primarily on Europe rather than the United States, making Switzerland her home for an extended period. In her final years, she resided in Vienna.

Grace Melzia Bumbry's contributions to the world of opera are immeasurable. Her talent, passion, and groundbreaking achievements have left an indelible mark on the history of classical music, ensuring her place among the greats.


Humble Beginnings

Grace Ann Melzia Bumbry, born on January 4, 1937, in St. Louis, Missouri, had a humble upbringing in a religious and musically inclined family. At a young age, Bumbry began training in classical piano, but her passion for singing was ignited after attending a concert by Marian Anderson and listening to the St. Louis Symphony conducted by Vladimir Golschmann. Inspired by Anderson, she joined the local Methodist choir and performed as a soloist in school productions.

Bumbry attended Charles Sumner High School, the first black high school in the western United States, where she received vocal training from Kenneth Billups. At 17 years old, she won a talent contest sponsored by a radio station, earning a trip to New York and a scholarship to the St. Louis Institute of Music. However, due to racial discrimination, the institute did not accept African American students, leading Bumbry's parents to decline the offer.

In a fortunate turn of events, Bumbry's talent caught the attention of contest promoters who arranged for her to appear on Arthur Godfrey's national radio program, where she moved the audience with her rendition of Verdi's aria "O don fatale" from Don Carlos. The success of her performance opened doors for her, and she was offered the opportunity to study at Boston University College of Fine Arts. Eventually, she transferred to Northwestern University, where she had the chance to meet Lotte Lehmann, a prominent German soprano known for her Wagner roles. Impressed by Bumbry's talent, Lehmann invited her to study in Santa Barbara, California, on a scholarship.

Under Lehmann's guidance, Bumbry studied piano, theory, interpretation, and languages. She also attended the summer program at the Music Academy of the West in Montecito for three consecutive years. Lehmann played a significant role as Bumbry's mentor during her early career. Additionally, Bumbry received instruction from esteemed teachers such as Marinka Gurewich, Armand Tokatyan, and Pierre Bernac, who taught her lieder singing in Paris.


Career Milestones

Grace Bumbry, born on January 4, 1937, is an American opera singer and mezzo-soprano. She had a highly successful career and is recognized as one of the leading mezzo-sopranos of her time. Here is a summary of her notable achievements and performances:

Early Career:

  • In 1958, Bumbry and soprano Martina Arroyo became joint winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

  • Later in 1958, Bumbry made her recital debut in Paris.

  • In 1960, she made her operatic debut at the Paris Opéra, performing the role of Amneris in Verdi's "Aida."

  • She joined the Basel Opera in Switzerland in the same year, where she performed various roles including Carmen, Dalila in "Samson et Dalila," Orfeo in "Orfeo ed Euridice," Lady Macbeth in Verdi's "Macbeth," and Azucena in Verdi's "Il Trovatore."

International Recognition:

  • Bumbry gained international fame when she was cast by Wieland Wagner, the grandson of composer Richard Wagner, as Venus in "Tannhäuser" at the 1961 Bayreuth Festival. She was the first black singer to appear at the festival, earning her the nickname "Black Venus."

  • Her performance at Bayreuth was highly acclaimed, despite initial controversy. She won over the conservative audience, receiving a 30-minute standing ovation and 42 curtain calls.

  • Bumbry's success at Bayreuth made her a media sensation and an international cause célèbre.

  • In 1962, she was invited by Jacqueline Kennedy to sing at the White House. She also performed at the Ronald Reagan inauguration in 1981.

Major Opera House Debuts:

  • In 1963, Bumbry made her debut at the Royal Opera House in London, portraying the role of Eboli in Verdi's "Don Carlos."

  • In 1964, she debuted at the Vienna State Opera as Santuzza in Mascagni's "Cavalleria rusticana" and at the Salzburg Festival as Lady Macbeth in Verdi's "Macbeth," alongside Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

  • Her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City took place in 1965, once again performing the role of Eboli.

Range of Roles and Repertoire:

  • Bumbry showcased her vocal versatility by performing a wide range of mezzo-soprano roles throughout her career.

  • She portrayed Carmen in several productions, including those conducted by Herbert von Karajan in Salzburg and her debut with the San Francisco Opera.

  • Other notable roles in her repertoire include Azucena in Verdi's "Il Trovatore," the title role in Massenet's "Hérodiade," Ulrica in Verdi's "Un ballo in maschera," Laura Adorno in Ponchielli's "La Gioconda," and Cassandre and Didon in Berlioz's "Les Troyens."

Later Career:

  • In 1990, Bumbry participated in the opening of the Opera Bastille in Paris, where she performed both Cassandre and Didon in Berlioz's "Les Troyens."

  • She continued to perform and make guest appearances in various opera houses and festivals throughout her career.


Later Career & Life

During the later years of her career, Grace Bumbry embarked on various endeavors. In the 1990s, she established the Grace Bumbry Black Musical Heritage Ensemble, a group dedicated to preserving and performing traditional Negro spirituals. She not only founded the ensemble but also toured with them, spreading awareness and appreciation for this musical genre. Bumbry also delved into teaching and judging international competitions, sharing her expertise and contributing to the development of aspiring singers.

On the concert stage, she delivered a series of recitals from 2001 to 2002, paying homage to her teacher, Lotte Lehmann. These recitals took place at esteemed venues such as the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, Wigmore Hall in London, and Alice Tully Hall in New York. Occasionally, Bumbry was accompanied by pianist Sebastian Peschko, enhancing her performances with their musical collaboration.

In 2010, after a substantial absence from opera performances, Bumbry made a notable comeback by appearing in Scott Joplin's Treemonisha at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris. Her return to the opera stage was met with enthusiasm and appreciation. Subsequently, she portrayed the role of the Old Lady in Bernstein's Candide at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in 2012. Finally, on January 30, 2013, under the baton of Seiji Ozawa, she captivated the audience with her portrayal of the Countess in Tchaikovsky's Pique dame at the Vienna State Opera.

Bumbry's advice to young singers was to strive for excellence. She emphasized the importance of determination and the willingness to turn down attractive offers in pursuit of one's goals. Bumbry believed that true fulfillment comes from living with the choices one makes in alignment with personal standards of excellence.

In terms of her personal life, Bumbry married tenor Erwin Jaeckel in 1963, but they divorced in 1972. Her partner, Jack Lunzer, passed away in 2016.

On October 20, 2022, during a flight from Vienna to New York, Bumbry experienced a stroke. Sadly, her health deteriorated over the subsequent months, leading to her passing on May 7, 2023, at the age of 86, due to complications related to the stroke. The hospital in Vienna was where she breathed her last.


Transition from Mezzo-Soprano to Dramatic Soprano

Grace Bumbry had a remarkable and enduring career in the world of opera, although it was not without controversy. Initially recognized as a mezzo-soprano, she later expanded her repertoire to include numerous dramatic soprano roles. In the mid-1970s and 1980s, she primarily considered herself a soprano, but as her career approached its later years in the 1990s, she often returned to mezzo roles.

Bumbry, along with her contemporary Shirley Verrett, was one of the successful singers who transitioned from mezzo-soprano to soprano. However, there were divided opinions among audiences and critics regarding whether she was a "true" soprano. Nevertheless, she performed major soprano roles at renowned opera houses worldwide throughout her operatic career until the 1990s. In 1993, she sang the role of Turandot at the Royal Opera House. Her main opera career spanned from 1960, making her debut in Paris as Amneris, to 1997, portraying Klytämnestra in Lyon.

Bumbry's earliest recordings include oratorios from the late 1950s with the Utah Symphony conducted by Maurice Abravanel. These recordings feature works such as Handel's Israel in Egypt and Judas Maccabeus. In 1961, she recorded Handel's Messiah in London, conducted by Adrian Boult, alongside Joan Sutherland and Kenneth McKellar.

Her recorded repertoire includes compilations of arias, featuring both mezzo and soprano repertoire in the early stages. The majority of her recorded legacy comes from her mezzo period, encompassing at least two recordings of Carmen and performances as Amneris, Venus (with Anja Silja as Elisabeth at the 1962 Bayreuth Festival), Eboli, Abigaille, Orfeo, and Lady Macbeth (from the 1984 Salzburg Festival). She also recorded Verdi's Messa da Requiem at the Royal Festival Hall in April 1964.

While there are no complete studio opera recordings commercially released featuring her in a soprano role, some live performances were recorded, including Le Cid (with the Opera Orchestra of New York), Jenůfa at La Scala, and Norma in Martina Franca. Bumbry also recorded music for the musical Carmen Jones, based on Bizet's opera, as well as operetta such as Johann Strauss's Der Zigeunerbaron.


Honors & Legacy

Grace Bumbry received numerous honors throughout her career. She was recognized with a UNESCO Award, five Distinguished Alumna Awards from the Music Academy of the West, and Italy's Premio Giuseppe Verdi. The French government named her Commandeur des Arts et Lettres, acknowledging her significant contributions to the arts. In 1972, Bumbry won a Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording.

In 1992, she was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame, commemorating her achievements and connection to her hometown. The Marian Anderson Award Foundation presented her with The Arts for Life Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005, acknowledging her lasting impact on the performing arts. Furthermore, in December 2009, she was one of the honorees of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors, recognizing her outstanding contribution to the performing arts.


Grace Bumbry made significant contributions to the opera industry and paved the way for BIPOC artists, breaking barriers and achieving success as a celebrated singer who expanded her repertoire, challenged norms, and became an inspiration for future generations.


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