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Grace Bumbry

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Grace Bumbry
Bumbry at the White House for the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors
Grace Melzia Bumbry

(1937-01-04)January 4, 1937
St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.
DiedMay 7, 2023(2023-05-07) (aged 86)
Vienna, Austria
OccupationOpera singer
Years active1958–2023
Edwin Jaeckel
(m. 1963; div. 1972)

Grace Melzia Bumbry (January 4, 1937 – May 7, 2023) was an American opera singer, considered one of the leading mezzo-sopranos of her generation, who also ventured to soprano roles. She belonged to a pioneering generation of African-American classical singers, led by Marian Anderson. She was recognized internationally when Wieland Wagner cast her for the 1961 Bayreuth Festival as Venus in Tannhäuser, the first black singer to appear at the festival.

Bumbry's voice was rich and dynamic, possessing a wide range, and was capable of producing a very distinctive plangent tone. In her prime, she also possessed good agility and bel canto technique, as for example her rendition of Eboli in Verdi's Don Carlo in the 1970s and 1980s. She was particularly noted for her fiery temperament and dramatic intensity on stage. Later, she also became known as a recitalist and interpreter of lieder, and as a teacher. From the late 1980s on, she concentrated her career in Europe, rather than in the United States. A long-time resident of Switzerland, she spent her last years in Vienna.

Early life and education


Grace Ann Melzia Bumbry was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on January 4, 1937.[1][2] She was the third child of Benjamin Bumbry, a railroad freight handler, and Melzia Bumbry, a teacher.[2] They were a family of modest means, deeply religious and highly musical.[3] Bumbry trained in classical piano beginning at age 7, but determined she would become a singer after seeing Marian Anderson in concert.[4][5] She joined the local Methodist choir at age 12, and performed as a soloist in school production of Handels Messiah. She listened to Anderson on radio and in recordings "at every opportunity",[6] and was also inspired to become a singer listening to the St. Louis Symphony conducted by Vladimir Golschmann.[6]

Bumbry graduated from the prestigious Charles Sumner High School, the first black high school west of the Mississippi.[7] She later credited Kenneth Billups, her voice teacher at Sumner (together with a later teacher, Armand Tokatyan of Santa Barbara) for her "vocal prowess". At age 17, at the urging of Billups and Sara Hopes, her choir director, she entered and won a teen talent contest sponsored by St. Louis radio station KMOX. Prizes for first place included a $1,000 war bond, a trip to New York, and a scholarship to the St. Louis Institute of Music. However, the institution excluded African Americans, and her parents refused the offer of private lessons instead.[6]

Embarrassed, the contest promoters arranged for her to appear on Arthur Godfrey's national radio broadcast Talent Scouts program, singing Verdi's aria "O don fatale" from Don Carlos. It moved Godfrey to tears.[6] The success of that performance led to an opportunity to study at Boston University College of Fine Arts.[3] She later transferred to Northwestern University,[1] where she met Lotte Lehmann, a German dramatic soprano, especially for Wagner roles, who gave master classes there and was impressed.

Lehmann invited Bumbry to study with her in Santa Barbara, California. Initially planned for just the summer of 1955, Bumbry remained on a scholarship by Lehmann[6] for three and a half years. During this time, she studied piano and theory (with György Sándor),[4] and then studied further interpretation and languages, and attended the summer programm of the Music Academy of the West in Montecito in three consecutive years, 1956, 57 and 58.[8] Lehmann was also her mentor in her early career.[6][9] Bumbry also studied with renowned teachers Marinka Gurewich[10] and Armand Tokatyan.[11][12] She studied singing lieder with Pierre Bernac in Paris.[1]



In 1958, she was a joint winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions with soprano Martina Arroyo;[4][6] later that year, she made her recital debut in Paris. Bumbry made her operatic debut in 1960 when she sang Amneris in Verdi's Aida at the Paris Opéra;[1][4] that same year she joined the Basel Opera,[13] where she was based for four years.[1] Her roles there included Bizet's Carmen, Dalila in Samson et Dalila by Saint-Saëns, Orfeo in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, and Verdi's Lady Macbeth and Azucena.[6]

International popularity


Bumbry gained international renown when she was cast by Wieland Wagner, Wagner's grandson, as Venus in Tannhäuser at the 1961 Bayreuth Festival,[14] at age 24, the first black singer to appear there, which earned her the nickname "Black Venus".[4][6][15] The cast included Victoria de los Ángeles as Elisabeth, Wolfgang Windgassen in the title role,[16] Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Wolfram, and the opera was conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch.[6] She caused a sensation;[6] while conservative opera-goers were outraged at the idea, Bumbry's performance was so moving that by the end of the opera she had won the audience over and they applauded for 30 minutes, necessitating 42 curtain calls.[6][17]

The ensuing furor in the media made Bumbry an international cause célèbre. She was invited by Jacqueline Kennedy to sing at the White House in 1962.[6][18] She returned to the White House in 1981, singing at the Ronald Reagan inauguration.[19]

In November 1962, she starred in the title role of the musical Carmen Jones in a studio cast album recorded in London with British performers and an orchestra conducted by Kenneth Alwyn.[20]

Bumbry made her debut at the Royal Opera House in London in 1963 as Eboli, alongside Boris Christoff as the king and Tito Gobbi as Posa, in a 1958 production by Luchino Visconti. In 1964, she made her debut at the Vienna State Opera as Santuzza in Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana,[4] and at the Salzburg Festival as Verdi's Lady Macbeth, opposite Fischer-Dieskau's Macbeth.[6][21] She made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in 1965, again as Eboli.[1][6] A reviewer noted:

She sang the 'veil song' beautifully with a light coloration not easy for mezzos to come by, but she also had the full range of stops to make "O Don Fatale" an experience in musical drama rather than merely an exercise in vocal agility.[6]

In 1966 she appeared as Carmen opposite Jon Vickers's Don José in two different lauded productions, one with conductor Herbert von Karajan in Salzburg,[6] and the other for her debut with the San Francisco Opera.[22] She first appeared at La Scala in Milan as Azucena.[4] She returned to the San Francisco Opera in 1967 for her first performance of Laura Adorno in Ponchielli's La Gioconda alongside Leyla Gencer in the title role, Renato Cioni as Enzo Grimaldi, Maureen Forrester as La Cieca and Chester Ludgin as Barnaba.[23] Other major mezzo-soprano roles in her repertoire included the title role in Massenet's Hérodiade, Ulrica in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera, and the title role of Telemaco. In 1990, she appeared as both Cassandre and Didon in Les Troyens by Berlioz for the opening of the Opera Bastille in Paris.[1][6]

Soprano roles

As La Gioconda with Ino Savini at the Liceu in Barcelona in 1974

In the 1970s, Bumbry, having recorded many soprano arias, began taking on soprano roles on stage. The first official soprano role was Salome by Richard Strauss at the Royal Opera House in 1970.[1][4][6] She first appeared as Puccini's Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera in 1971, and then at La Scala in 1974.[1] Later roles at the Metropolitan Opera included Leonora in both Il trovatore and La forza del destino and Bess in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.[4][6]

She also took on more unusual roles, such as Janáček's Jenůfa (in Italian) at La Scala in 1974, with Magda Olivero as the Kostelnička, and Ariane in Ariane et Barbe-bleue by Paul Dukas in Paris in 1975. Bumbry first appeared as Norma in 1977 in Martina Franca, Italy.[24] The following year, she sang both Adalgisa and Norma in the same production at the Royal Opera House, first opposite Montserrat Caballé as Norma; later with Josephine Veasey as Adalgisa.[2] She first performed as Sélika in Meyerbeer's L'Africaine in London in 1978.[1]

She also assumed roles such as Abigaille in Verdi's Nabucco and La Gioconda.[1] Other noted soprano roles included Chimène in Le Cid, Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, and Elvira in Verdi's Ernani.[25][26]

Later career


In the 1990s, Bumbry founded the Grace Bumbry Black Musical Heritage Ensemble, a group devoted to preserving and performing traditional Negro spirituals;[1][27] she toured with the group.[27] She then devoted herself to teaching, judging international competitions, and to the concert stage, giving a series of recitals in 2001 and 2002 in honor of her teacher, Lotte Lehmann, including at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, London's Wigmore Hall and New York's Alice Tully Hall.[28] She was sometimes accompanied by pianist Sebastian Peschko.[29][30]

In 2010, after an absence of many years from the opera stage, she performed in Scott Joplin's Treemonisha at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris,[31] She appeared at the Deutsche Oper Berlin as the Old Lady in Bernstein's Candide in 2012,[6] and finally as the Countess in Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame at the Vienna State Opera on January 30, 2013,[32] conducted by Seiji Ozawa.[6]

Her advice to young singers was:[relevant?]

To strive for excellence, that's the answer. If you strive for excellence, that means that you are determined. You will find a way to get to your goal, even if it means having to turn down some really great offers. You have to live with that, as you have to live with yourself.[33][34]

Personal life and death


In 1963, Bumbry married the Polish-born tenor Erwin Jaeckel.[1][6] They divorced in 1972.[35] Jack V. Lunzer, her long-term partner, died in 2016.[6]

On October 20, 2022, Bumbry was on a flight from Vienna to New York when she had a stroke. Her health declined over the following months, and she died from related complications at a hospital in Vienna on May 7, 2023, at age 86.[6][32][35]

Vocal range


Bumbry's career in the world of opera was a remarkable and long one, if somewhat controversial. Initially, Bumbry began her career as a mezzo-soprano, but later expanded her repertoire to include many dramatic soprano roles. In the mid-1970s and 1980s she considered herself a soprano; but in the 1990s, as her career approached its twilight, she often returned to mezzo roles.[25]

She was one of the more successful singers who have made the transition from mezzo-soprano to soprano[36] (along with her compatriot and contemporary Shirley Verrett, as well as contemporary Welsh mezzo-sorano-turned-soprano Gwyneth Jones); however, audiences and critics were divided over whether she was a "true" soprano. Nonetheless, she sang major soprano roles at most major opera houses around the world up until the end of her operatic career in the 1990s—singing Puccini's Turandot at the Royal Opera House in 1993. Her main operatic career spanned from 1960, her debut in Paris as Amneris, to 1997 as Klytämnestra in Lyon.[1]



Bumbry's earliest recordings are of oratorios made in the late 1950s with the Utah Symphony conducted by Maurice Abravanel,[6] including Handel's Israel in Egypt and Judas Maccabeus.[29][37] She recorded Handel's Messiah[1] in London in 1961[29] conducted by Adrian Boult, alongside Joan Sutherland and Kenneth McKellar.[6]

In aria compilations, she included both mezzo and soprano repertoire early.[29] Much of her recorded legacy is from her mezzo period, including at least two recordings of Carmen[38][39] and recordings with her as Amneris,[1] Venus (with Anja Silja as Elisabeth, from the 1962 Bayreuth Festival), Eboli, Abigaille, Orfeo, Lady Macbeth (from the 1984 Salzburg Festival),[1] and in Verdi's Messa da Requiem at the Royal Festival Hall in April 1964.[40]

While there are no commercially released complete studio opera recordings with her in a soprano role, live performances were recorded of Le Cid (with the Opera Orchestra of New York),[1][41] Jenůfa at La Scala,[1] and Norma in Martina Franca.[29][42] She also recorded music for the musical Carmen Jones, based on the Bizet opera;[43] as well as operetta such as Der Zigeunerbaron by Johann Strauß.[37]





Among other honors, a UNESCO Award, five Distinguished Alumna Awards from the Music Academy of the West and Italy's Premio Giuseppe Verdi were bestowed on Bumbry and she was named Commandeur des Arts et Lettres by the French government.[25] She received a Grammy Award in 1972 for Best Opera Recording.[25][44] In 1992, Bumbry was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame.[45] In 2005, she was presented with The Arts for Life Lifetime Achievement Award by the Marian Anderson Award Foundation.[46] In December 2009, she was among those honored with the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors, for her contribution to the performing arts.[47]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s Kutsch, K.-J.; Riemens, Leo (2012). "Bumbry, Grace". Großes Sängerlexikon (in German) (4th ed.). De Gruyter. pp. 644–645. ISBN 978-3-59-844088-5.
  2. ^ a b c "Singer – Grace Bumbry". The Kennedy Center. Retrieved May 9, 2023.
  3. ^ a b Bailey, Peter (December 1973). "Grace Bumbry: Singing Is Terrific—But Living Is an Art". Ebony. 29 (2): 67–75.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i Kesting, Jürgen (May 8, 2023). "Die schwarze Venus". Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (in German). Retrieved May 10, 2023.
  5. ^ Gates, Brandon (May 8, 2023). "Grace Bumbry, a trailblazing Black opera singer, has died at age 86". NPR.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa Blyth, Alan (May 8, 2023). "Grace Bumbry obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved May 9, 2023.
  7. ^ "Black History in St. Louis", The New York Times, May 10, 1992. Accessed December 11, 2007. "Sumner High School, the first school west of the Mississippi for blacks, established in 1875 (among graduates are Grace Bumbry, Arthur Ashe and Tina Turner)..."
  8. ^ "Alumni Search – Music Academy". musicacademy.org. Retrieved May 17, 2023.
  9. ^ The Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music, edited by Don Michael Randel (Belknap Press, 1996), pp. 117–118.
  10. ^ "Marinka Gurewich, A Voice Teacher, 88". The New York Times. December 25, 1990. Retrieved May 9, 2023.
  11. ^ Movshon, George (January 2, 1977). "Grace Melzia Bumbry – From Playgirl to Soprano". The New York Times. Retrieved May 9, 2023.
  12. ^ Joy, Neemee (May 8, 2023). "Grace Bumbry, American opera singer has died at age 86". SNBC13.com. Retrieved May 9, 2023.
  13. ^ Shapiro, Yehuda (January 2007). "Amazing Grace". Opera. Vol. 58, no. 1. pp. 20–23.
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  19. ^ Rosenfeld, Megan; McLellan, Joseph (January 20, 1981). "Inaugural Gala". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 9, 2023.
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  21. ^ Brunner, Gerhard (November 1964). "Summer Festivals". Opera. Vol. 15, no. 11. p. 722.
  22. ^ Rosenthal, Harold (May 1966). "Coming Events". Opera. Vol. 17, no. 5. p. 373.
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  24. ^ Salazar, Francisco (July 27, 2022). "Grace Bumbry Receives Award in Martina Franca". OperaWire. Retrieved May 9, 2023.
  25. ^ a b c d Salazar, Francisco (May 8, 2023). "Obituary: Legendary & Trailblazing Mezzo-Soprano Grace Bumbry Dies at 86". OperaWire. Retrieved May 9, 2023.
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  27. ^ a b Strauss, Neil (February 15, 1996). "The Pop Life". The New York Times.
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  30. ^ Quasthoff, Thomas (June 17, 2008). The Voice. Pantheon Books. p. 78. ISBN 9780375424069. Before taking over for the NDR department of Chamber Music and Song he was a successful pianist and accompanied such greats as Grace Bumbry...
  31. ^ Uthmann, Jorg von (April 12, 2010). "A fairy tale with a message: Joplin's Treemonisha debuts in Paris". The Star.
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  44. ^ "Grammy Award Nominees 1972". Awards & Shows. Retrieved May 9, 2023.
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