Grace Bumbry was one of the most successful opera singers of the late 20th century. She had a long career as a performer, spanning over four decades. A Grammy-award-winning mezzo-soprano and the first Black singer to perform at the Bayreuth festival in Germany. Bumbry, along with Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo, Shirley Verrett, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, and Reri Grist, were part of a cadre of Black women singers of the twentieth century who took advantage of the opportunities to further their careers that Europe offered, and America denied them.
Born January 4, 1937, in St. Louis, Missouri, to a railroad porter and a housewife, Bumbry won a local radio singing competition in 1954 called the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts, for which the prize was a scholarship to a local music conservatory. The school refused to accept her because of her color, so she went to study at Boston University (Massachusetts), Northwestern University (Illinois), and the Music Academy of the West (California), where she worked with famed German soprano Lotte Lehmann. The New York Post declared Bumbry to have “a glorious voice of creamy quality,” adding, “without a doubt, she is born to sing.”
Bumbry began her career as a mezzo-soprano but later expanded her repertoire to include many dramatic soprano roles, appearing with several prominent opera companies. In 1970 she debuted as a soprano singing the title role “Salome” at Covent Garden. The following year she debuted the title role of “Tosca” at the Metropolitan Opera, a role she would reprise at La Scala in 1974.
She made her operatic debut as Amneris in Verdi’s Aida at the Paris Opéra in 1960. During the next two years, she performed in Basel (Switzerland), Milan (Italy), Paris (France), and Bayreuth (Germany). Then at the age of 24, she gained international recognition when she sang the part of Venus in “Tannhäuser” at the Bayreuth Festival and became the first Black singer to appear at the famous event. She received a 30-minute ovation for her performance, including 42 curtain calls, and was awarded the Wagner Medal for her performance. In 1962, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy invited her to sing at the White House. Nineteen years later, she performed at President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration.
Bumbry retired from opera in 1997 and devoted her time to teaching and promoting opera; she founded a group dedicated to preserving and performing traditional Negro spirituals, and they toured as the Grace Bumbry Black Musical Heritage Ensemble. During her career, Bumbry performed some of the most iconic roles in opera, including Lady Macbeth and Princess Eboli of Don Carlo at the Metropolitan Opera House. She won a Best Opera Recording Grammy in 1972. In 1992, she was honored with a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame, and in 2009 she was honored at the Kennedy Center Honors for her contribution to the performing arts. The following year she performed in Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris and two years later at the Deutsche Oper Berlin as the Old Lady in Bernstein’s Candide in 2012. Her final performance was as the Countess in Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame at the Vienna State Opera on January 30, 2013.
Grace Melzia Bumbry died in Vienna, Austria, on May 7, 2023, at 86 years old.