Grace Bumbry, 1st Black singer at Bayreuth, dies at 86

Streaming HUBMay 8, 2023

NEW YORK (AP) – 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 top stages, has died. She was 86 years old.

He died on Sunday at Evangelisches Krankenhaus, a hospital in Vienna, according to Bumbry’s publicist David Lee Brewer.

She suffered a stroke on October 20 while on a flight from Vienna to New York for her induction into Opera America’s Opera Hall of Fame. She was hit by the plane 15 minutes before landing, was treated at NYC Health + Hospitals/Queens and returned to Vienna on 8 December. Brewer said Monday that she had been in and out of facilities since then.

Bumbry was born on January 4, 1937, in St. Louis. His father, Benjamin, was a railway porter and his mother, the former Melzia Walker, was a school teacher.

She sang in the choir at Sumner High School in Wiley and won a talent contest sponsored by radio station KMOX that included a scholarship to the St. Louis Institute of Music, but she was denied admission because she was black. She sang on CBS’s “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts”, then attended Boston University College of Fine Arts. and Northwestern, where she met soprano Lotte Lehmann, who became her teacher and a mentor at West’s Academy of Music in Santa Barbara, California.

Bumbury, known mostly as a mezzo, but who also played some soprano roles. Inspiration came when his mother took him to the recital of American contralto Marian Anderson, who in 1955 became the first black singer at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Bumbury became part of a generation of acclaimed black opera singers that included Leontine Price, Shirley Verrett, George Shirley, Riri Grist and Martina Arroyo.

Bumbury was among the winners of the 1958 Met National Council auditions. She made a recital debut in Paris that same year and made her Paris Opéra debut in 1960 as Amneris in “Aida”.

The following year, she was cast by Wieland Wagner, the composer’s grandson, 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 Wolfgang Windgsen, Victoria de Los Angeles and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau resulted in 200 protest letters being received at 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 get up there and show them what I was about. When we were in high school, our teachers — and my parents, of course — taught us that you’re no different than anyone else. You are no better than anyone, and you are no less than anyone. You have to give your best all the time.”

Reviews of Bayreuth’s debut on July 23, 1961 were mostly positive.

“A voice of great size, though a little lacking in colour. It is a voice that has not yet ‘set’, as the teachers say,” Harold C. Schoenberg wrote in The New York Times. “She is clearly a singer with a huge career ahead of her.”

As a result of the attention it attracted, Bumbry was invited by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy to sing at a White House state dinner the following February. It debuted 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 as Princess Eboli in Verdi’s “Don Carlo” on October 7, 1965, the first of 216 performances with the company.

Irving Kolodin wrote in the Saturday Review, “His assurance, self-possession and character projection are the kind of things from which a fine career could be made.”

Bumbry’s last completed opera at the Met was in Amneris in Verdi’s “Aida” on 3 November 1986, although she returned a decade later to sing “Mon cour souver à ta voix” for James Levine’s 25th anniversary gala. My heart)” from Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila”.

Met general manager Peter Gelb said, “The opera will forever be in debt to her for the pioneering role she played as one of the first great African American stars.”

“Grace Bumbry was the first opera star I heard in person in 1967 when she sang Carmen at the Met and I was 13 years old sitting with my parents in Rudolf Bing’s box,” Gelb said. And watching her give a tour-de-force performance had a major impact on my teenage soul and a formative influence on my decision to pursue a career in the arts, just as she has influenced generations of young singers of all races. formidable step.

In 1989, he performed Berlioz’s “Les Troyens (The Trojans)” in a work at the Bastille Opéra in Paris, staged for the first time in its entirety. In 2009, he was celebrated at the Kennedy Center Honors.

Bumbry’s 1963 marriage to Polish tenor Erwin Jekyll ended in divorce in 1972. Bumbury was predeceased by the brothers Charles and Benjamin.

Brewer said memorials are being planned for Vienna and New York.

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