ST. LOUIS — Grace Bumbry, the St. Louis-born mezzo-soprano who rocked the operatic world as the rich-voiced “Black Venus” of Bayreuth in 1961, died May 7, 2023, at age 86 in Vienna. She had been hospitalized following a stroke. One of the great voices of the 20th century, she had a wide vocal range, dramatic conviction, and the determination to work and succeed in a difficult field, despite the barriers she faced.
That Grace Melzia Ann Bumbry had a notable voice was evident early. Born Jan. 4, 1937, to Melzia and Benjamin Bumbry, a housewife and railroad porter, she began singing in the choir at Union Memorial United Methodist Church at age 11 and at Sumner High School a few years later. But Grace Bumbry, who grew up at 1703 Goode Avenue (now Annie Malone Drive), encountered too much racism in St. Louis to linger here for long. As an adult, she made her home in Europe.
As a teenager, she won a scholarship to the now-defunct St. Louis Institute of Music, only to be turned away because she was Black. But after a notable appearance on Arthur Godfrey’s TV talent show in 1954, she won a scholarship to Boston University. From there she went to Northwestern University, then became a protege of the legendary German dramatic soprano Lotte Lehmann at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
She was a joint winner of the Metropolitan Opera auditions in 1958, made her recital debut in London a year later and her operatic debut at the Paris Opera in the role of Amneris in Verdi’s “Aida” in 1960.
In 1961, Bumbry became the first African American singer to perform at Germany’s Bayreuth Festival, where she won the Wagner Medal. She became an instant international sensation as “die schwartze Venus” in Wagner’s “Tannhauser,” in performances remarkable for the warmth and sensuality of her voice and her dramatic presence.
In the 1960s, Bumbry made debuts at most of the world’s greatest opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Vienna Staatsoper and La Scala. She never did small roles or bit parts. Bumbry started out in major dramatic mezzo-soprano roles: Along with Amneris and Venus, she made her name in challenging roles, such as Verdi’s Eboli, Azucena and Ulrica; Bizet’s Carmen and Saint-Saens’ Dalila.
Particularly in the 1970s and ’80s, Bumbry took on dramatic soprano roles, including Puccini’s Tosca and Strauss’ Salome, with great success.
“I consider myself a singer who uses all of her voice,” she told Joel Kasow of Operanet in 1997. “Too many singers stay within one certain boundary. Instead of using all their instrument, they just use that portion that is required at that particular time, instead of trying to do whatever they can with their entire voice.”
She took heat in the closed-in world of opera for stepping out of the mezzo roles that made her famous.
“It wasn’t enough for me just to do Carmen and Santuzza,” she told playwright and opera fan Albert Innaurato for Opera News in 2001. “I had those other qualities in me, and I knew I could realize them. But sometimes you are lucky, and then sometimes it doesn’t work. So, as my mother would say, ‘Pick yourself up, never let them see you cry, and know how to get out of there fast.'”
Her final operatic performance was in 1997 as Klytamnestra in Strauss’ “Elektra” in Lyon, France. Bumbry continued singing as a recitalist but concentrated most of her considerable energies on teaching after her retirement from opera. Based in Lugano, Italy, for 40 years, she moved in 2002 to Salzburg, Austria.
At age 23, Bumbry sang at the Kiel Opera House with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, for a mostly white audience. She won a Grammy in 1972 for best opera recording. In 1992, she was awarded a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame, at 6319 Delmar Boulevard. In 2002, she performed here for the final time at the St. Louis Art Museum, for an audience of devoted listeners.
In 2009 she founded the Grace Bumbry Vocal and Opera Academy in Berlin, at the Hochschule für Musik, overseeing journeyman singers in their preparation for roles, auditions and general preparation for performance. Bumbry focused on interpretation and vocal technique with students from around the world. That same year, she was given Kennedy Center Honors by President Barack Obama.
She returned from time to time to St. Louis to lend assistance to charitable works, including a concert for Kingdom House, and gave master classes for the singers of the Gerdine Young Artists program at Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 2006 and again in 2016. Bumbry also was an ambassador at large for UNESCO.
She sometimes was criticized as “difficult,” which, in opera, can be another way of saying that she had her own clear vision of how a role should be sung and portrayed. Bumbry was an operatic diva in the grand manner, but some of the hauteur was a protection against society’s expectations of Black women. She was also generous and kind to younger singers coming up.
“I think that everything that has happened to me was meant to be,” she told Post-Dispatch writer Cleora Hughes in 1996. “God has given me this wonderful talent, and why should I not enjoy it? Not to do so would be a sin, actually. Being given a talent is a great responsibility. It’s not just about making beautiful noises. It is also a duty.”
According to a statement by Bumbry’s adoptive son, David Lee Brewer, her remains will be buried in St. Louis.
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