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From the Vaults: George Jellinek in Conversation with Grace Bumbry

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Throughout the month of February, we're honoring Black History Month with selections from the WQXR archives that recognize African American artists.

In this 2002 interview, The Vocal Scene host George Jellinek sits down with star mezzo-soprano (and sometimes soprano) Grace Bumbry.

"It all has to do with being prepared, with being seriously prepared, and taking the profession as something special," Ms. Bumbry says of her operatic approach, in this rare interview. Bumbry, who lives in Europe, does not often dawdle in Manhattan and this encore program makes note of catching her on "one of her all too rare visits to New York."

In a conversation that spans the specifics of Bumbry's career, with closer looks at how she balances the demands of the femme fatale against the thrill of a trouser, or male, role, Brumbry speaks of technique, style and approach. She's a rare mezzo-soprano who veered into soprano territory later in her career, explaining, "I did what the voice wants to do."

But the talk also covers broader issues that have undoubtedly affected Bumbry's career, including gender and race in America. "Now we've gotten past this thing of gender," Brumbry says of her early trouser work. "But back in those days, in the 60s and early 70s, we had to be careful."

Bumbry makes particular note of the historical dearth of singers of color at the Met. "You cannot tell me that there's only one black singer in all of the United States who is worthy of singing at the Metropolitan," Bumbry said, speaking in reference to Denyce Graves, who made her Met debut in 1995 in the role of Carmen. "I mean, I can't believe that. I know too many singers, fine black singers, who really deserve to have that chance. So what's the reason?"

Grace Bumbry was born on January 4, 1937, in St. Louis Missouri. She graduated from Northwestern University and studied closely with celebrated Wagnerian Lotte Lehmann. Bumbry made her debut in Paris in 1960, and went on to perform Venus at Wagner's home in Bayreuth. While outrage ensued, Wieland Wagner, grandson of composer Richard Wagner and the man behind the casting of that season's Tannhäuser, famously stated, "When I heard Grace Bumbry, I knew she was the perfect Venus. Grandfather would have been delighted."

Bumbry was the first black singer to appear at the landmark venue. She has since performed at all the major opera houses in the world, and in 2009 was honored by the Kennedy Center Honors for her contribution to the performing arts.