Grace Bumbry

Grace Bumbry

Grace Bumbry (born 4 January 1937), an American opera singer, was considered one of the leading mezzo-sopranos of her generation, as well as a major soprano for many years. She was a member of an extraordinary and pioneering generation of singers who followed Marian Anderson (including Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo, Shirley Verrett and Reri Grist) in the world of classical music and paved the way for future African-American opera and classical singers.

Mezzo to soprano to mezzo

Initially, Bumbry began her career as a mezzo, but later expanded her repertoire to include many dramatic soprano roles. In the 1970s and 1980s she considered herself a soprano; but in the 1990s, as her career approached its twilight, she often returned to mezzo roles. She was one of the more successful among those singers making the transition from mezzo-soprano to high soprano (along with her compatriot and contemporary Verrett); 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 "Turandot" at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden (London) in 1993, for example. Bumbry's voice was rich and sizable, possessing a wide range, and was capable of producing a plangent, bronze-hued, very distinctive tone. In her prime, she also possessed quite good agility and bel canto technique (see for example her renditions of the 'Veil Song' from Verdi's "Don Carlo" in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as her "Ernani" from the Chicago Lyric Opera in 1984).

She was particularly noted for her fiery temperament and dramatic intensity on stage. More recently, she has also become known as a recitalist and interpreter of lieder, and as a teacher. From the late 1980s on, she seemed to concentrate her career in Europe, rather than in the US. A long-time resident of Switzerland, she now makes her home in Salzburg, Austria.

Early life and career

Grace Bumbry was born in St Louis, Missouri, to a family of modest means. In a BBC radio interview she recalled that her father was a railroad porter and her mother a housewife. She graduated from the prestigious Charles Sumner High School, the first black high school west of the Mississippi. [ [ "TRAVEL ADVISORY; 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)..."] She first won a radio competition at age 17, singing Verdi's demanding aria "O don fatale" (from "Don Carlo"). One of the prizes for first place was a scholarship to the local music conservatory; however, as the institution was segregated, it would not accept a black student. Embarrassed, the contest promoters arranged for her to study at Boston University instead. She later transferred to Northwestern University, where she met the German dramatic soprano and noted Wagnerian singer Lotte Lehmann, with whom she later studied at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California, and who became her mentor in her early career. In 1958, she was a joint winner of the Metropolitan Opera auditions with soprano Martina Arroyo; later that year, she made her recital debut in Paris. Bumbry made her operatic debut in 1960 when she sang Amneris at the Paris Opéra; that same year she joined the Basel Opera.

She gained international renown when she was cast by Wieland Wagner (Richard Wagner's grandson) as Venus at Bayreuth in 1961, at age 24, the first black singer to appear there. The cast also included Victoria de los Ángeles as Elisabeth and Wolfgang Windgassen as Tannhäuser. Conservative Germans were appalled, and the ensuing furore in the media made her a cause célèbre internationally. She was subsequently invited by Jacqueline Kennedy to sing at the White House. (She returned to the White House in 1981, singing at the Ronald Reagan inauguration.) Having begun her operatic career on such a high note, hers was a rare one in which she never sang small or comprimario roles.

Bumbry made her Royal Opera House, Covent Garden debut in 1963; her La Scala debut in 1964; and her Metropolitan Opera debut as Princess Eboli in Verdi's "Don Carlo" in 1965. In 1964, Bumbry appeared for the first time as a soprano, singing Verdi's Lady Macbeth in her debut at the Vienna State Opera. In 1966 she appeared as Carmen in a celebrated production by Herbert von Karajan in Salzburg, opposite Jon Vickers.

In 1963, she married Polish-born tenor, Erwin Jaeckel. They divorced in 1972.

Later career

In the 1970s, Bumbry courted controversy when she began taking on more soprano roles, including "Tosca" at the Met in 1971 (a performance that also marked James Levine's house debut as conductor), Richard Strauss's "Salome" at Covent Garden; and more unusual roles, such as Janáček's "Jenůfa" (in Italian) at La Scala in 1974 (with Magda Olivero as the Kostelnička), Dukas's "Ariane et Barbe-bleue" in Paris in 1975, and Sélika in Meyerbeer's "L'Africaine" at Covent Garden in 1978 (opposite Plácido Domingo as Vasco da Gama). Because of her full, dramatic soprano sound, she took such roles as Norma, Medea, Abigaille and Gioconda. She first sang Norma in 1977 in Martina Franca, Italy; the following year, she sang both Norma and Adalgisa in the same production at Covent Garden: first as the younger priestess opposite Montserrat Caballé as Norma; later, as Norma, with Josephine Veasey as Adalgisa.

Other noted soprano roles in her career have included: Santuzza, Cassandre, Chimène (in "Le Cid"), Elisabeth (in "Tannhäuser"), Elvira (in "Ernani"), Leonora (both "Il trovatore" and "La forza del destino"), Aida, Turandot and Bess. Other major mezzo-soprano roles in her repertory included: Dalila, Didon (in "Les Troyens"), Massenet's Hérodiade, Laura, Adalgisa, Ulrica, Azucena, Orfeo, Poppea and Baba the Turk. In 1991, at the opening of the new Opéra Bastille, she appeared as Cassandre, with Shirley Verrett as Didon. Due to a strike at the opera, Verrett was unable to perform at the re-scheduled last performance (this incident is recounted in Verrett's autobiography), and Bumbry sang both Cassandre and Didon in the same evening.

In the 1990s, she also founded and toured with her Grace Bumbry Black Musical Heritage Ensemble, a group devoted to preserving and performing traditional Negro spirituals. Her last operatic appearance was as Klytämnestra in Richard Strauss's "Elektra" in Lyon in 1997. She has since devoted herself to teaching and 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 in Paris (Théâtre du Châtelet), London (Wigmore Hall) and New York (Alice Tully Hall). A DVD of the Paris recital was later issued by TDK.

Recordings and honors

Of her recorded legacy, there's much from her mezzo period, including at least two Carmens and three Amnerises (possibly her most frequently performed role onstage and most frequently recorded), Venus (with Anja Silja as Elisabeth, at the 1962 Bayreuth Festival), Eboli and Orfeo. There are no commercially released complete studio opera recordings with her in a soprano role, but there are recordings of live performances of "Le Cid" (with the Opera Orchestra of New York), "Jenůfa" (at La Scala) and "Norma" (Martina Franca), in addition to some commercial compilations that include arias in the soprano repertoire. Interestingly enough, many of these were recorded in her "mezzo period," in the 1960s (including excerpts of "La forza del destino" in German, with Bumbry as Leonora and Nicolai Gedda as Alvaro). She also recorded music for the musical "Carmen Jones", based on the Bizet opera; as well as operetta (Johan Strauss II's "Der Zigeunerbaron"), oratorio (Handel's "Israel in Egypt" and "Judas Maccabeus"), and an album of pop songs.

Bumbry has been inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame; among other honors, she was bestowed the UNESCO Award, the Distinguished Alumna Award from the Academy of Music of the West, Italy's Premio Giuseppe Verdi, and was named Commandeur des Arts et Lettres by the French government.


* Hamilton, David. (1987). " [ The Metropolitan Opera Encyclopedia: A Comprehensive Guide to the World of Opera] ". New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Tokyo: Simon and Schuster. p. 58-9. ISBN 0-671-61732-X.
* Hamilton, Mary. (1990). " [ A-Z of Opera] ". New York, Oxford, Sydney: Facts On File. p. 38. ISBN 0-8160-2340-9.
* Rosenthal, Harold and John Warrack. (1979, 2nd ed.). " [ The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera] ". London, New York and Melbourne: Oxford University Press. p. 70. ISBN 0-19-311318-X.
* Sadie, Stanley and Christina Bashford. (1992). " [ The New Grove Dictionary of Opera] ". London: Macmillan Publishers Ltd. Vol. 1, p. 639. ISBN 0-935859-92-6.
* Sadie, Stanley and John Tyrrell. (2001). " [ The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians] ". London: Macmillan Publishers Ltd. Vol. 4, p. 601-2. ISBN 0-333-60800-3.
* Warrack, John and Ewan West. (1996 3rd ed.). " [ The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera] ". New York: Oxford University Press. p. 69. ISBN 0-19-280028-0.

External links

* [ biography]
* [ Opera News story on Grace Bumbry]
* [ St. Louis Walk of Fame page for Grace Bumbry]
* Interviews with Grace Bumbry at [ Culturekiosque operanet] , [ Trubadur] and [ Online Musik Magazin (in German)]
* [,9171,829420,00.html "Time" magazine review, 16 November 1962]
* [,9171,939900,00.html "Time" magazine review on recital at White House 1962]
* [ review of recital in New York, February 2002]
* [ Music Academy of the West faculty profile]
* [ listing of recordings]
* [ Discography] (Capon's Lists of Opera Recordings)
* [ MetOpera Database]

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