As one of opera’s most controversial artists, Grace-Melzia Bumbry continues to make headlines. With a 50-plus year career she is phenomenally preserved. Critics and audiences around the world continue to cheer this celebrated artist, who garners remarkable coverage and incredible ovations with reviews praising her as a national treasure, spectacular, spiritual and magnificent.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri she became interested in music when, as a little girl, she was taken to concerts of Marian Anderson. Her life was altered forever after this experience and she absorbed every recording of classical music she could get her hands on. She even listened to it on radio when her two brothers, Charles and Benjamin, were not monopolizing it to hear Jazz and Pop. Encouraged by all who knew her singing, Grace, age 16, won first prize in a local radio contest, which awarded her the opportunity to appear on the then famous “Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout Show”, where she sang “O Don Fatale” from Verdi’s Don Carlo. Incredible.
Grace then began her studies at Boston University and then Northwestern University where she met the lady who would change her life forever. Lotte Lehmann, while giving a Master Class, heard her and invited her to Santa Barbara, California to study at the “Music Academy of the West”, where she was carved into one of the music world’s rare jewels.
Through the influence of Jacqueline Kennedy and the American Embassy in Paris, Bumbry was granted an audition at the Paris Opera, where she was immediately engaged. She made her operatic debut as Amneris in “Aida”. Grace Bumbry was the first person of colour to sing at the house.
The extraordinary success of these performances, by the then 23 year old Bumbry, created such a stir in the opera world that she was immediately invited to audition in Bayreuth for Wieland Wagner, grandson of the composer Richard Wagner, where he would be producing a new production of “Tannhaeuser”. She was immediately cast in the role of Venus. Now, at age 24 Bumbry was on her way to having a great career. When the press discovered that the new Venus would be “eine Schwarze”, a black singer, they began immediate protests in several publications. Wieland Wagner remained steadfast in his decision, stating that his grandfather would want the best voice for the part. Her colour did not matter to him, and Ms. Bumbry, unmoved by the negative press, went on stage that special evening and changed history by becoming the first person of colour ever to be cast in a major role at the prestigious Bayreuth Festspielhaus. The next day, the critics heralded her “Die Schwarze Venus” (The Black Venus), Wagner’s new shining star, which propelled her into international stardom. In 1962, one year later, she sang a recital at the White House under the Kennedy Administration, and this event marked the first time an African American opera singer had ever performed in the White House.
Unlike the many singers that came before her, Bumbry coped with international success and stardom very well. Because of her innate musical abilities, Bumbry was able to develop into a singing actress under the very watchful eye of Lotte Lehmann, who would be preparing her for the roles she would later sing. Her physical appearance and stage presence earned her the name, “Sex Goddess”. She sang Amneris in “Aida”, Eboli in “Don Carlo”, Azucena in “Il Trovatore”, Ulrica in “Un Ballo in Maschera”, Lady Macbeth in “Macbeth”, Carmen in “Carmen”, Dalila in “Samson et Dalilia”, Orfeo in “Orfeo et Eurydice”, Adalgisa in “Norma”, Selika in “L’Africaine”, Herodiade in “Herodiade” and Didon in “Les Troyens”, to name a few.
Accustomed to making headlines wherever her travels took her, she shocked the opera world once again by changing not only her repertoire but her voice category as well... the Mezzo Soprano had transitioned to Soprano, and the opera world was in an uproar. All hearing this news deemed her an instant failure. There was speculation as to how she could be so daring, and anger that the opera world was losing a great mezzo soprano. Not forgetting the infamous black list!! Bumbry once again collected herself and conquered.
As a dramatic soprano she sang Salome in “Salome”, Santuzza in “Cavalleria Rusticana”, Abigaille in “Nabucco”, Medea in “Medea”, La Vestale in “La Vestale”, Jenufa in “Jenufa”, Giocando in “La Gioconda”, Ariane in “Ariane et Barbe-bleu”, Leonora in “Il Trovatore” and “La Forza del Destino”, Tosca in “Tosca”, Turandot in “Turandot” and Cassandra in “Les Troyens” with the Paris Opera in its full 5 and ½ hour presentation. She gave another tour de force performance at Covent Garden when she sang Norma and Adalgisa in the same production of Norma within a period of two weeks.
From the beginning, Grace Bumbry was an acclaimed recitalist. Her recitals merited the exclamation “authentic and keeping with tradition”, a standard and style of singing she learned from her famous teacher, Lotte Lehmann, a great Lieder exponent. As one critic wrote, “hearing Bumbry sing the most intimate songs in major recital halls and then on another evening, hearing the “Bumbry thrust”, in her operatic roles, as only she could do, kept this very important artist on the lips of all who witnessed her.”
After Bumbry gave up mezzo soprano roles, with the exception of Princess Eboli, she was often asked how she reconciles mixing the repertoire of the two vocal categories.
Her answer, “As long as I have the ability from nature, I simply do what many others in the 19th century did before me. I don’t think singers like Grisi, Pasta, Malibran and some others ever worried about belonging to a specific category”, has not changed. Ms. Bumbry has been the subject of so many debates in the opera world that there are clubs of opera lovers all over that emulate her very essence with their praise, honour and sometimes funny reports of ‘Bumbry moments’.
Grace-Melzia is especially proud of being named a Goodwill Ambassador to “UNESCO”, the recipient of The American Guild of Musical Artists´ first “Lawrence Tibbett Award”, France’s “L’Officier des Arts et Lettres”, as well as the “Commandeur des Arts et Lettres” and Italy’s “Premio Giuseppe Verdi” for her performances and contribution to Italian opera. She went on to receive the “Bellini Award” for her “Norma” and the “Puccini Award” for her “Tosca”. She is recipient of 4 Honorary Doctorates as well as the Austrian Kammersänger title.
Making headlines all over the world, she helped to define the word DIVA with her art and style. Of course, let us not forget the international jetsetter, Grace, who became the owner of the second ever made Lamborghini, furs, designer gowns made by Yves Saint Laurent, Heinz Riva and Bill Blass, and jewels of the most exquisite quality.
Bumbry became a favourite collaborator of the world’s greatest and foremost conductors, such as Claudio Abbado, Leonard Bernstein, Karl Böhm, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Herbert von Karajan, James Levine, Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta, Seiji Ozawa, Giuseppe Patane, Wolfgang Sawallisch and Sir Georg Solti, to name a few.
In 2007-08 Ms. Bumbry embarked upon her farewell concert tour. The tour began in Hamburg, Germany and ended in Tokyo, Japan to SOLD OUT audiences at every venue... Remarkable! Critics the world over were amazed, and suggested that “for many, this marked the end of a tradition and era where opera was great and brought forth great fruit, and which some feel will never be great again.” Elegant in her delivery and poignant in her intent, Bumbry is the quintessential star!
Not every DIVA gives back to the music community, but Bumbry believes that it is necessary to pass on tradition, style and the insatiable love for opera and music to all who want to obtain it. She is invited as master teacher in universities and colleges all over the world. In 2009 she founded The Grace Bumbry Vocal and Opera Academy in Berlin, where she collaborates with the University of Arts, in a master class atmosphere for voice and role study preparation designed for the ‘big voice’. These classes are given twice a year in Berlin at the Universität der Künste.
At age 75, Bumbry is still on the trailblazing move. She is also a much sought-after jury member of international vocal competitions.
In December 2009 Grace Melzia Bumbry received the most prestigious and coveted award in America for one’s contribution to the arts, The Kennedy Center Honors: a landmark moment that once again epitomizes Bumbry’s tradition for firsts. She received this honour and celebration at the hands of President Barack Obama, America’s first African American president, at the first Kennedy Center Honors award ceremony that he officiated.
In 2010 she celebrated a further triumph as “Monisha” in Scott Joplin’s “Treemonisha” at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris. In March 2012 she sang the “Old Lady” in Bernstein’s “Candide” at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, and in January 2013 she takes on the title role of “Pique Dame” at the Vienna State Opera.
Ms Bumbry recorded for Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, EMI, Philips and Sony Classical, RCA.
Biography prepared by David Lee Brewer BREWER INTERNATIONAL, BERLIN