The Art of the Prima Donna: Grace Bumbry

Email a Friend

This is the first of what will be an occasional series about prima donnas, those irresistible sopranos (and occasional mezzos) whose talents and larger-than-life personalities never fail to fascinate and inspire opera fans.

I have not, I believe, yet used the word "fans" in my articles for WQXR, but here the word obtains. While a diva (“goddess,” in Italian) casts a spell on us thanks to her astonishing ability to sing difficult music in a way that brings us to places we cannot otherwise reach, the prima donna captivates us not only with her rare gifts and sublime talents but with the tacit message that she knows at least as well as we do how special she is. Loving a prima donna is a guilty pleasure because she gives at least as good as she gets. There is more natural distance between the diva and us mere mortals than between the prima donna and her adoring fans.

In recital, we quietly appreciate or disdain the gown the diva has selected. By contrast, the prima donna makes her entrance expecting that her attire will provoke great cheers of approval not only of her sartorial choice but the gorgeous assurance with which she wears it. As often as not, this will be the first of at least two dresses. I have seen some singers wear a different “costume” for every song group and yet another for the encores. But, being a prima donna, the dress is only the beginning of what is inevitably an unforgettable evening of music-making and performing.

Let me first specify two things. First, the intemperate behavior that is ascribed to being a diva is a mistake. This is prima donna behavior. Those of us with longer memories recall that a difficult child was admonished “don’t be such a prima donna,” with those words pronounced incorrectly. The second point, as important as it is obvious, is that is possible to be both a diva and a prima donna. The most famous examples are Maria Callas and Montserrat Caballé. Tatiana Troyanos certainly was in that select group. I think Karita Mattila is part of it too. I am sure you can think of others.

The title for this series is inspired by one of the most famous opera recordings of all time, "The Art of the Prima Donna," from the early 1960s. It was meant to be a calling card to show off the incomparable gifts of Joan Sutherland who, in my experience, was 100 percent diva and a prima donna assoluta, a different designation that means that she had no rivals. But, in terms of so-called prima donna behavior, I never encountered a moment of it in the 15 wonderful years that I had the pleasure to be in the orbit of Miss Sutherland and her husband, the conductor Richard Bonynge.

I did not have to think too long to come up with the first prima donna for my series. Grace Bumbry is not only a great artist but is always exciting on the stage. She is not a ham, but often stole scenes simply through the force of her character and presence. Several of my earliest experiences in which opera “took” with me were thanks to Miss Bumbry. Hers was the Carmen that made me realize that opera is almost always about sex, whether we admit that or not. I was deeply moved, as an 11 year old, by her interpretation of Gluck’s Orfeo despite a silver costume, boots and cape that made her look, in her words, "like Muhammed Ali before a fight."

I have seen at least 60 different women sing Tosca but none could eradicate the memorable thrills that Bumbry, Plácido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes provided me as a 19-year old on his first visit to the Vienna State Opera. I would come to learn that the Viennese audience, when pleased, erupts in lengthy ovations. That night, in April 1976, they simply would not allow the singers to go home after their amazing performance.

Even if you do not speak German, I invite you to watch this lengthy conversation with the late, great August Everding, an outstanding stage director. This video is full of wonderful performance footage that will give you a sense of Bumbry in much of her diversity. But also note her well-schooled way of sitting, engaging and speaking. Her excellent German has just a touch of her native St. Louis, which she knows is charming. In performance, that accent was not there.

Bumbry studied at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara with the great Lotte Lehmann, planning to be a recitalist and saying that Lehmann nudged her toward opera as well. I think that one of Bumbry’s talents is her way with text, surely nourished by the great Lehmann in the study of Lieder. Listen to her in this brief Schumann song, which is sung and recited without being enacted, as so many recitalists attempt to do.

Here is a short interview that presents her as many people think of her: vivid, forthright, a bit grand (as when she refers to herself as “one”) but very compelling as she explains what her work is about. A diva does not often go to these places where prima donnas reside. We certainly want to know the details about the tantalizing aside that her marriage broke up because her husband insisted she remain a mezzo while she said she could also sing soprano roles such as Tosca, Aïda and Salome. Her interpretation of Strauss’s heroine was a sensation for her singing and acting. Listen to the closing scene.

Bumbry, like her colleague Shirley Verrett, with whom she often performed, is one of those rare singers who successfully tackled iconic soprano and mezzo-soprano roles. She could be Tosca and Salome, but also Carmen and Eboli. She gloried in the fact that she was able to perform both roles in Verdi’s Aïda. But, being a prima donna, only she would think to sing both Amneris and Aïda at the same time!

Let me tell you a story from the late 1970s when I worked at La Scala. The opera was Aïda and it was to have Caballé in the title role and Bumbry as Amneris. As often happened, Caballé cancelled and there was a legitimate discussion backstage as to which role Bumbry would perform. She remained as Amneris; Aïda would be sung by Elena Mauti-Nunziata. One could only feel compassion for the young soprano being thrown to the lions in the local audience. Bumbry set the tone by behaving with extreme deference and sisterly supportiveness toward Mauti-Nunziata for three acts. She then unleashed an absolutely sensational Judgment Scene in the last act that had the audience stamping and cheering so long and loud that the final Aïda/Radames duet almost went unheard. Of course, Miss Bumbry ruled.

Here are Caballé and Bumbry in the scene in Don Carlo in when Eboli confesses that it was she who conspired against the Queen because she too loves Carlo. This is normally a big showy moment for the mezzo that leads into the showstopping “O Don Fatale,” but notice the detailed and, let’s face it, prima donna acting that keeps her very much in the picture. When we see two artists in scenes like this or Aïda who are not at the top of their game, it seems like a catfight and audience members who don’t know better drool over this. But when two real prima donnas lock horns, vocally and dramatically, this is one of the greatest thrills opera can provide.

There are many opera singers who “cross over” by bringing a certain hauteur to a popular song, seeking our gratitude for deigning to perform popular music. Others (Eileen Farrell, Deborah Voigt) fully engage with the lyric and the idiom. And then there is Grace Bumbry, one part Patti Labelle, two parts Nancy Wilson and remarkably without the sense of the opera singer on a night off.

Anyone who saw the Met’s 1985 premiere of Porgy and Bess won’t forget her sexy Bess in a red dress and the sound of her cooing as she was swept up in the strong arms of Gregg Baker’s Crown. A true prima donna moment. But another one came a few years later when she did a recital at Carnegie Hall. She swept onstage, gorgeous as ever (and knowing it) and then recoiled in mock horror at the sight of the grand piano with the lid almost closed. With great deliberateness she lifted the lid to its full height, stuck the pole into it to keep it aloft and then turned to the audience with an amazed expression on her face. No words were required as she told us, in effect, “I don’t need a muted piano in order to be heard in Carnegie Hall!” Indeed.