Grace Bumbry

Mezzo-Soprano

Biography

Grace Bumbry’s obsession with singing began when she was still a child. That obsession – together with a ravishing natural voice, an extraordinary talent, and unwavering determination – led to one of the most illustrious operatic careers of the 20th century. What’s more, when most eras can boast four or perhaps five superstar sopranos and even fewer superstar mezzo-sopranos, for more than three decades and for millions of opera lovers in the United States and around the world, Grace Bumbry was both. Her unique sound and her gripping stage presence, once experienced, simply cannot be forgotten.

Moving from one range to the other with breathtaking ease gave her a singular spectrum of roles from Santuzza (Cavalleria rusticana), Ortrud (Lohengrin), Dalila (Samson et Dalila), Adalgisa (Norma), Kundry (Parsifal), Eboli (Don Carlo), Orfeo and Carmen to Salome, Elisabeth (Tannhäuser), Norma, Gioconda, Aïda, Tosca, Medea, Elvira (Ernani), Leonora (Il trovatore and La forza del destino), Bess (Porgy and Bess), and Turandot.

Her international career began in 1960. She sang Amneris in Aïda–an epic challenge even for the most seasoned mezzos. She was just 23 years old and this was her operatic debut. And that debut wasn’t in some backwater town where a few slip-ups would go unnoticed. It was at the Paris Opera, a performance that would be covered by the international press and analyzed note for note by one of the most sophisticated audiences in the world. It was an unconditional triumph that led to another major career milestone the following year and a performance that would change the face of opera forever.

In 1961, Wieland Wagner, grandson of Richard Wagner, cast Bumbry as Venus in a new production of Tannhäuser. As the Goddess of Love that seduces Wagner’s noble hero, Bumbry would be the first black opera singer to appear at Bayreuth, the world’s most revered shrine to the great composer and his art. It was a move that infuriated a good many conservative opera-goers, many calling it a cultural disgrace. Wieland Wagner shot back: “When I heard Grace Bumbry, I knew she was the perfect Venus. Grandfather would have been delighted.” The media frenzy that ensued was global. The performance became one of the most celebrated in history. Thunderous applause rocked the theater for 30 minutes as the cast was brought back to the stage for 42 curtain calls. Jacqueline Kennedy subsequently invited her to sing at the White House. She won the public’s adoration and along the way smashed a racial barrier that would no longer stand in the way of future generations of opera and classical singers.

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