Published by

Happy Birthday, Grace Bumbry

Email a Friend

Today is the 73rd birthday of opera singer Grace Bumbry.

Bumbry has played a wide range of soprano and mezzo-soprano roles in her 73 years, but her career began in 1960 at age 23, the year she sang Amneris in Aïda at the Paris Opera. That's according to the Kennedy Center who gave her a Kennedy Center award for her contribution to American music last year. 

At age 25, Bumbry broke race barriers when she was cast as Venus in a production of Wagner's Tannhauser. She was the first African-American opera singer to appear at Germany's Bayreuth, a shrine to Wagner's work. The move reportedly infuriated many conservative opera-goers. Wieland Wagner, grandson of Richard Wagner, shot back: "When I heard Grace Bumbry, I knew she was the perfect Venus. Grandfather would have been delighted." Jacqueline Kennedy subsequently invited her to sing at the White House.

She sang Salome at Covent Garden in 1970, then her first Tosca at the Met in 1971, and Jenůfa at La Scala in 1974. By 1977, she was ready for her first Norma and in 1978 sang both Norma and Adalgisa in the same production at Covent Garden, opposite Montserrat Caballé and Josephine Veasey. At the opening of the new Opéra Bastille in Paris, she appeared in Berlioz' Les Troyens as Cassandre with Shirley Verrett as Dido for most of the run, but at the final performance Bumbry sang both the soprano and mezzo roles. Her operatic farewell came in Lyon in 1997 as Klytämnestra in Elektra, but her performances continue on the concert stage, according to the Kennedy Center website.

Born Grace Ann Bumbry in St. Louis, Missouri on January 4, 1937, Bumbry's parents were a railroad company freight handler and a school teacher. She learned to sing around the family piano and then in the church youth choir. She studied music at Boston University, Northwestern and the Music Academy of the West. She still teaches opera and music.