Grace Bumbry, a barrier-shattering mezzo-soprano whose huge vocal vary and transcendent stage presence made her a towering determine in opera and one in every of its first, and largest, Black stars, died on Sunday in Vienna. She was 86.
Her dying, following a stroke in October, was confirmed in a press release by the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the place she was lengthy a mainstay, performing greater than 200 instances over twenty years.
Rising up in St. Louis in an period of segregation, Ms. Bumbry got here of age at a time when African American singers have been a uncommon sight on the opera stage, regardless of breakthroughs by luminaries like Leontyne Worth and Marian Anderson.
However with a fierce drive and an outsize charisma, Ms. Bumbry broke out internationally in 1960, at 23, when she sang Amneris in Verdi’s “Aida” on the Paris Opera.
The next 12 months, she landed in one thing of a nationwide scandal in West Germany when Wieland Wagner, a grandson of Richard Wagner, forged her as Venus, the Roman goddess of affection, in a modernized model of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” on the storied Bayreuth Competition.
She was the primary Black girl to carry out on the competition, forged as a personality usually portrayed as a Nordic ultimate in an opera written by a composer identified for his antisemitism and German nationalism. The competition — and newspapers — have been flooded with letters asserting that the composer would “flip in his grave.”
Ms. Bumbry was undeterred. Certainly, she was effectively ready.
“The whole lot that I had discovered from my childhood was now being examined,” she recalled in an interview with St. Louis Journal in 2021. “As a result of I bear in mind being discriminated in opposition to in the USA, so why ought to or not it’s any totally different in Germany?”
The viewers didn’t share such misgivings: Ms. Bumbry was showered with half-hour of applause. German critics have been equally enchanted, christening her “the Black Venus.” The Cologne-area newspaper Kölnische Rundschau credited her with an “creative triumph,” and Die Welt referred to as her a “massive discovery.”
Her landmark efficiency helped earn her a $250,000 contract (the equal of greater than $2.5 million now) with the opera impresario Sol Hurok.
It additionally gained her one other honor: a efficiency on the White Home, in February 1962. On the recommendation of European mates who had seen Ms. Bumbry at Bayreuth, Jacqueline Kennedy, the primary girl, invited her to sing at a state dinner attended by President John F. Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, Chief Justice Earl Warren and different Washington energy brokers.
Immediately, she was a star.
“If there’s a extra thrilling new voice than Grace Bumbry’s skyrocketing over the horizon I’ve not heard it,” Claudia Cassidy wrote in The Chicago Tribune in a evaluation of a recording of her arias the identical 12 months. “This can be a superb voice, by grace of the gods given its likelihood to be heard in its fullest magnificence.”
Of her Carnegie Corridor debut in November 1962, Alan Wealthy of The New York Instances gave a professional evaluation, however allowed that “Miss Bumbry has a stunning, clear, ringing voice and an excessive amount of management over it.”
“She will be able to swoop with out the slightest effort from an excellent excessive to a good looking resonant chest tone,” he wrote.
Ms. Bumbry transcended not solely racial perceptions however vocal categorizations as effectively. Initially a mezzo-soprano, she made a placing departure by taking up soprano elements, too, which gave her entry to marquee roles in operas corresponding to Richard Strauss’s “Salome” and Puccini’s “Tosca.”
“She gloried in the truth that she was in a position to carry out each roles in Verdi’s ‘Aïda,’” Fred Plotkin wrote in a 2013 appreciation for the web site for WXQR, the New York public radio station. “She could possibly be Tosca and Salome, but additionally Carmen and Eboli.”
Ms. Bumbry displayed a broad vary in her selection of roles. In 1985, she obtained raves for her efficiency as Bess within the Metropolitan Opera’s fiftieth anniversary efficiency of George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” regardless of her conflicted emotions a couple of people opera set among the many tenements of Charleston, S.C., and rife with unflattering Black stereotypes.
“I believed it beneath me,” she stated in an interview with Life journal. “I felt I had labored far too arduous, that we had come far too far to need to retrogress to 1935. My manner of coping with it was to see that it was actually a chunk of Americana, of American historical past, whether or not we preferred it or not. Whether or not I sing it or not, it was nonetheless going to be there.”
Grace Melzia Bumbry was born on Jan. 4, 1937, in St. Louis, the youngest of three kids of Benjamin Bumbry, a railroad freight handler, and Melzia Bumbry, a schoolteacher.
A musical prodigy as a youth, she honed her expertise within the choir at St. Louis Union Memorial Church and by performing Chopin on the piano at girls’ tea events. At 16, she noticed a efficiency by Ms. Anderson, who would develop into a mentor, and was impressed to enter a singing contest on a neighborhood radio station. She took prime prize, which included a $1,000 battle bond and a scholarship to the St. Louis Institute of Music. She was nonetheless denied admission due to her race.
“The fact was wounding,” Ms. Bumbry stated in an interview with The Boston Globe. “However when it occurred, I additionally thought, I’m the winner. Nothing can change that. My expertise is superior.”
Embarrassed, the radio contest organizers organized for her to look on “Expertise Scouts,” a nationwide radio and tv program hosted by Arthur Godfrey. After listening to her heart-rending efficiency of “O Don Fatale,” from Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” the avuncular Mr. Godfrey knowledgeable the viewers, “Her title will likely be probably the most well-known names in music someday.”
The publicity helped put her on a path to Boston College, and later, Northwestern College, the place she fell beneath the tutelage of the German opera luminary Lotte Lehmann, who turned one other useful mentor as Ms. Bumbry moved towards her debut in Paris.
As her star continued to rise through the years, Ms. Bumbry was by no means afraid to inhabit the prima donna function offstage in addition to on, outfitting herself in Yves Saint Laurent and Oscar de la Renta and tooling round in a Lamborghini.
After marrying the tenor Erwin Jaeckel in 1963, she settled in a villa in Lugano, Switzerland. The couple divorced in 1972. Ms. Bumbry left no rapid survivors.
Past her prodigious vocal expertise, Ms. Bumbry introduced a well-known sultriness to her roles, a status she put to good use for a 1970 efficiency of “Salome” on the Royal Opera Home in London.
She leaked phrase to the press that for the racy “Dance of the Seven Veils,” she would strip off all seven veils, right down to her “jewels and fragrance,” as she put it — though the jewels, it turned out, have been adequate sufficient to function a “modest bikini,” as The New York Instances famous.
It hardly mattered. “Within the historical past of Covent Backyard,” Ms. Bumbry stated in a 1985 interview with Folks journal, “they by no means bought so many binoculars.”