Grace Bumbry, a pioneering mezzo-soprano who became the first black singer to perform at Germany’s Bayreuth Festival during a career spanning more than three decades on the world’s greatest stages, has died. She was 86 years old.
Bumbry died Sunday at Evangelisches Krankenhaus, a hospital in Vienna, according to his publicist, David Lee Brewer.
He had a stroke on October 20 while on a flight from Vienna to New York to attend his induction into Opera America’s Opera Hall of Fame. She was struck by the plane 15 minutes before landing, she received treatment at NYC Health + Hospitals / Queens and returned to Vienna on December 8. She has been in and out of the facility ever since, Brewer said Monday.
Bumbry was born on January 4, 1937 in St. Louis. His father, Benjamin, was a railroad porter and his mother, the former Melzia Walker, a schoolteacher.
She sang in the Sumner de Ville High School choir and won a talent show sponsored by radio station KMOX that included a scholarship to the St. Louis Institute of Music, but was denied admission because she was black. She sang on CBS’s «Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts,» then attended Boston University and Northwestern College of Fine Arts, where she met soprano Lotte Lehmann, who became her teacher at the Western Academy of Music in Santa Barbara, California, and mentor.
Bumbry, known primarily as a mezzo but who also played a few soprano roles, was inspired when her mother took her to a recital by Marian Anderson, the American contralto who in 1955 became the first black singer at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Bumbry became part of a generation of acclaimed black opera singers that included Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett, George Shirley, Reri Grist, and Martina Arroyo.
Bumbry was among the winners of the 1958 Met National Council auditions. She made her recital debut in Paris that same year and made her Paris Opera debut in 1960 as Amneris in «Aida».
The following year, Wieland Wagner, the composer’s grandson, chose her to sing Venus in a new production of «Tannhäuser» at the Richard Wagner Festival in Bayreuth. Bumbry’s casting in a staging that included stars Wolfang Windgassen, Victoria de los Ángeles and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau resulted in 200 letters of protest to the festival.
“I remember being discriminated against in the United States, so why should it be any different in Germany?” Bumbry told St. Louis magazine in 2021. “I knew I had to go up there and show them what it’s all about. When we were in high school, our teachers, and my parents of course, taught us that you are no different from everyone else. You are not better than anyone, and you are not less than anyone. You have to do your best all the time.”
Reviews of his Bayreuth debut on July 23, 1961 were mostly positive.
“A very large voice, if a little lacking in color. It is a voice that has not yet been ‘established,’ as the teachers say,” Harold C. Schonberg wrote in The New York Times. «She’s obviously a singer with a great career ahead of her.»
As a result of the attention, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy invited Bumbry to sing at a White House state dinner the following February. Debuts followed at Carnegie Hall in November 1962, the Royal Opera in London in 1963, and the Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1964.
She appeared at the Met on October 7, 1965, as Princess Eboli in Verdi’s «Don Carlo,» the first of 216 performances with the company.
“His confidence, poise and projection of character are the kind from which a substantial career can be made,” wrote Irving Kolodin in the Saturday Review.
Bumbry’s last complete opera at the Met was at Amneris in Verdi’s «Aida» on November 3, 1986, though he returned a decade later for James Levine’s 25th anniversary gala to sing «Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta». voix». my heart)” from “Samson et Dalila” by Saint-Saëns.
Met General Manager Peter Gelb said, “Opera will forever be in her debt for the pioneering role she played as one of the first great African-American stars. “
“Grace Bumbry was the first opera star I ever heard in person in 1967 when she was singing the role of Carmen at the Met and I was 13 years old and I was sitting with my parents in Rudolf Bing’s box,” Gelb said. “Hearing her and seeing her give a spectacular performance left a deep impression on my teenage soul and was an early influence on my decision to pursue a career in the arts, just as she influenced generations of younger singers of all ethnicities to embrace her. they would continue in the formidable footsteps of it.»
In 1989, he sang in the first fully stage performance of a work at the Bastille Opera in Paris in Berlioz’s «Les Troyens (The Trojans).» In 2009, she was celebrated in the Kennedy Center Honors.
Bumbry’s 1963 marriage to Polish tenor Erwin Jaeckel ended in divorce in 1972. Bumbry predeceased brothers Charles and Benjamin.
Brewer said memorials are being planned for Vienna and New York.