James Bennett II is a staff writer for WQXR.
Celebrating Mezzo-Soprano Grace Bumbry on Her 80th Birthday
Wednesday, January 04, 2017 - 04:37 PM
At a young age, mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry heard Marian Anderson in concert and began her lifelong love of classical music and opera. Bumbry was born on Jan. 4, 1937, and we celebrate her birthday with a review of her accomplishments.
When she was 17, Bumbry appeared on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout Show, where she sang “Oh Don Fatale” from Verdi’s Don Carlo. Her standout performance earned her the top prize: a scholarship to the nearby conservatory at the St. Louis School of Music. However, the school refused to accept her and her talents, solely because of her African-American heritage.
Bumbry attended college at Boston University and later transferred to Northwestern. There, she met Lotte Lehmann, who invited Bumbry to study at the Music Academy of Santa Barbara. Upon completion of her studies, she was selected as a winner the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. She later auditioned for and earned a spot with the Paris Opera; her debut came in 1960, with the role of Amneris in Aida.
Bumbry’s most notable moment may have come the following year, when she was slated to appear at the annual Bayreuth Festival as Venus in Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser. The casting decision came from Wieland Wagner, Richard’s own grandson, to the shock and displeasure of many a loyal Bayreuth festival-goers. The old-guard seethed at the thought of a black woman appearing on the Bayreuth stage and made no effort to hide their contempt from Wieland. Undeterred, Wieland called for a news conference and demanded that the harsh critics find a white woman who could sing Venus better than Bumbry. They couldn’t.
Bumbry appeared in Tannhäuser on opening night, July 24, 1961. Audiences were awed by her performance and delivered a 30-minute ovation that accompanied 42 curtain calls. The press dubbed her “Black Venus” and her magnificent turn catapulted her into the international opera spotlight.
The years that followed saw her debuts at the Royal Opera House, La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera. By the 1970s, her versatile voice allowed her to take on an increasing number of soprano roles, including the title roles in both Salome and Tosca.
A UNESCO Award recipient, Bumbry has also been honored by the French and Italian governments. In 2009, her exceptional musical career was recognized at the Kennedy Center Honors.
Here’s to the newly minted octogenarian with a truly inspiring story and career. Happy birthday, Grace!