African-American singer Grace Bumbry, born on January 4, 1937, in St. Louis, Missouri, is one of the leading opera voices of her generation. After studying in Boston, Chicago, and Santa Barbara, California, Bumbry made her opera debut at the age of 23. She performed around the world and mastered the great mezzo-soprano and soprano roles in the classical opera repertoire in a career that spanned nearly 40 years.
Early Life and Education
Grace Melzia Ann Bumbry was born on January 4, 1937, in St. Louis, Missouri. She was the youngest child of James Bumbry, a freight worker, and Melzia (née Walker) Bumbry, a homemaker. Bumbry, her parents and her two brothers all sang in the choir at their church.
When Bumbry attended Sumner High School in St. Louis, she was mentored by Kenneth Brown Billups, a well-known African-American choir director and musician. In 1954, at the age of 17, she won a teenage talent contest on a St. Louis radio station. Her prize included a scholarship to a local conservatory; however, the school was unwilling to admit a black student.
Bumbry enrolled at Boston University, where she studied for two years before transferring to Northwestern University in Chicago. At Northwestern she met the opera star and concert soloist Lotte Lehmann, who would teach her there and at the Music Academy of the West. She also studied under the famous tenor Armand Tokatyan.
Opera Debut and Career
Bumbry made her concert debut in London in 1959 and her opera debut at the Paris Opéra in 1960, at the age of 23. For her first Paris appearance, she sang the mezzo-soprano part of Amneris in Giuseppe Verdi’s Aïda.
Bumbry performed with the Basel Opera from 1960 to 1962. In 1961 she was the first black woman to sing the role of Venus in Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the Wagner Bayreuth Festival. In November 1962 she appeared in concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City. She played Wagner’s Venus again for her United States operatic debut at the Chicago Lyric Opera in 1963 and went on to sing at London’s Royal Opera, the Vienna State Opera in Salzburg, Milan’s La Scala, and New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
Through the 1960s, Bumbry continued to perform as a mezzo-soprano, mastering additional roles in classic operas such as George Bizet’s Carmen and Verdi’s Don Carlo. She made a transition to performing as a soprano in the 1970s, adding the lead female roles in Richard Strauss’ Salome, Verdi’s Macbeth, Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma and George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, among many others, to her repertoire.
Bumbry sang professionally through the 1980s and 1990s. In 1982 she was featured in a tribute to legendary contralto Marian Anderson at Carnegie Hall. In 1990 she played Cassandra in Les Troyens at the opening of the Opéra Bastille, and in 1995 she performed the lead in Luigi Cherubini’s Médée. She gave her final opera performance as Clytemnestra in Strauss’s Elektra in Lyon, France, in 1997.
Honors and Awards
In 1962 Bumbry was invited to sing at a state dinner at the White House, where she met President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. She returned to the White House in 2009 to receive the Kennedy Center Honors for achievement in the performing arts, receiving her award alongside fellow honorees Bruce Springsteen, Mel Brooks, Dave Brubeck and Robert De Niro.
Bumbry has received a Grammy Award (in 1972), among many other honors.
In recent years Bumbry has been active as a teacher and competition judge for young singers. In the 1990s she formed the Grace Bumbry Black Musical Heritage Ensemble, a touring ensemble of singers, dancers and musicians.
Bumbry was married to opera singer Erwin Andreas Jaeckel from 1963 through 1972; the marriage ended in divorce. She lives in Salzburg, Austria.
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