Grace Bumbry, opera singer of lustrous power, dies at 86

Grace Bumbry, a singer of radiant charisma, expansive range and superstar glamour who became one of the first African Americans to conquer the international opera stage, died May 7 at a hospital in Vienna, Austria. She was 86.

Her death was confirmed by her publicist, David Lee Brewer. Ms. Bumbry had suffered a stroke in October.

Few audiences had ever heard a Black singer perform in an opera house when Ms. Bumbry was growing up in St. Louis in the 1930s and ’40s, the daughter of a railway clerk and a schoolteacher. Segregation dominated American institutions, including the local music conservatory, where Ms. Bumbry was denied entrance despite the talent she had shown from her earliest days singing in the choir of her family’s Methodist church.

Championed by contralto Marian Anderson, she launched her career in Europe in the years after Anderson, Leontyne Price and other Black singers had begun to break down opera’s color barrier. Ms. Bumbry made international headlines in 1961 when she became the first African American to perform at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany, a storied cultural institution dedicated to the works of Richard Wagner.

Wagner is a revered but also deeply problematic figure in classical music, a brilliant composer but an avowed antisemite who espoused notions of German and racial superiority. When some Wagnerites protested the appearance of a Black singer at Bayreuth, Wieland Wagner, a grandson of the composer who as co-director of the festival sought to expunge its long-standing Nazi associations, responded that his grandfather “wrote for vocal color, not skin color.”

“I require no ideal Nordic specimens,” Wieland Wagner declared.

Cast in the opera “Tannhäuser” as the Roman goddess of love, Ms. Bumbry received 42 curtain calls lasting 30 minutes and became known admiringly as the “Black Venus.” She soon signed a five-year, $250,000 contract with Sol Hurok, the impresario who shepherded Anderson’s career as well as those of the pianist Arthur Rubinstein and the violinist Isaac Stern, and who arranged a North American tour that helped make Ms. Bumbry a star on both sides of the Atlantic.

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Ms. Bumbry pursued a remarkable range of roles in a stage career that lasted nearly 40 years. Her performance at Bayreuth notwithstanding, she did not consider herself a Wagnerian signer and said that the works of the 19th-century Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi were her “heart and soul.”

She debuted at the Paris Opera in 1960 as Amneris, the jilted Egyptian princess in Verdi’s opera “Aida,” reportedly after the intercession of first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Two years later, the Kennedy White House invited Ms. Bumbry to perform at a state dinner that served as another high-profile showcase of her talent.

Amneris is a canonical role in the dusky mezzo-soprano repertoire, which Ms. Bumbry mastered in her early years onstage. She sang mezzo parts including the title role of Bizet’s “Carmen,” Dalila of Saint-Saëns’s “Samson et Dalila” and Princess Eboli of Verdi’s “Don Carlo” — Eboli’s aria “O don fatale” was one of her signature arias — before scaling the soprano range beginning in 1970. The higher register opened to her more of the great female protagonists of opera, among them Richard Strauss’s Salome, Bellini’s Norma, Puccini’s Tosca and Cherubini’s Medea — as well as Aida, Amneris’s Ethiopian rival.

With her designer gowns, Saluki show dogs and a fleet of cars that included a Rolls-Royce and an orange Lamborghini, Ms. Bumbry was a lustrous presence onstage as well as off. When she sang “Salome” at London’s Royal Opera House at Covent Garden in 1970, she stoked anticipation by leaking to the press that in the sensual “Dance of the Seven Veils” she would disrobe down to her “jewels and perfume.” Strategically arrayed gems served as a sparkling bikini.

“Covent Garden had never before rented so many opera glasses,” Ms. Bumbry told Ebony magazine in 1973. “When I started dancing everything else on stage stopped and I could see the glasses going up en masse.”

Ms. Bumbry’s roles over the years included Azucena in “Il Trovatore” and Leonora in “La Forza del Destino,” both by Verdi; Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s adaptation of the Shakespearean tragedy; Santuzza in Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana”; and Orfeo in Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice.” She “circumvented” the matter of race, she told The Washington Post in 2009, by using makeup to change her skin tone when necessary for a particular role.

“For me it was about credibility,” Ms. Bumbry said. “I thought a Black face singing Lady Macbeth or Salome was not credible.”

She and Simon Estes, the African American bass-baritone, sang the title roles in “Porgy and Bess” in 1985 when the Gershwin folk opera had its Metropolitan Opera premiere, five decades after it was first presented on Broadway. The opera is set in a Black tenement neighborhood of Charleston, S.C., called Catfish Row. Ms. Bumbry said she found the work “beneath” her, although she recognized its historic importance.

“I felt I had worked far too hard, that we had come far too far, to have to retrogress to 1935,” she told an interviewer. “My way of dealing with it was to see that it was really a piece of Americana, of American history, whether we liked it or not. Whether I sing it or not, it was still going to be there.”

Grace Melzia Bumbry was born in St. Louis on Jan. 4, 1937. Both her parents were from Mississippi.

She and her two brothers grew up with “the necessities of life but no luxuries,” Ms. Bumbry said. Her mother fashioned clothes from fabric remnants purchased for 25 cents a piece, ensuring that her children always had something new to wear. Confidence, her parents taught her, was everything.

The entire family was musical, but her mother displayed particular talent and could have been a great singer, Ms. Bumbry said, had the circumstances of her life been different.

“My mother transferred the repressed energy of her artistic talent into me,” she told the Boston Globe. “She wore huge hats and big, swirling capes around the house. You saw this bizarre person marching around, someone bigger than life, someone living out her fantasies. Outside the house, she was the picture of reserve and propriety.”

Ms. Bumbry attended choir practice with her brothers and parents before she was old enough to officially join the group and was 7 when she began studying piano. She later sang in a high school a cappella group and took voice lessons from the school’s music instructor.

Following her graduation in 1954, Ms. Bumbry entered a local radio teen talent competition whose prize included a scholarship to attend the now-defunct St. Louis Institute of Music. When she won, the conservatory declined to admit her because of her race.

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“The reality was wounding,” Ms. Bumbry told the Globe. “But when it happened, I also thought, ‘I’m the winner. Nothing can change that. My talent is superior.’ All the contestants, 500 of us, performed behind a screen. The judges did not want to be swayed by looks or style. In the end, however, there was prejudice.”

The conservatory offered Ms. Bumbry private lessons instead of classes with other students, an offer her mother rejected. Believing strongly in Ms. Bumbry’s talent, radio station executives helped place her later that year on Arthur Godfrey’s radio-television show “Talent Scouts,” where she sang “O don fatale,” bringing Godfrey to tears. By then Ms. Bumbry had also performed in a private recital for Anderson, who reportedly lauded her as having a “magnificent voice of great beauty.”

Ms. Bumbry received scholarships to study at Boston University and Northwestern University, where she attended master classes taught by the German-born soprano Lotte Lehmann. She followed Lehmann to the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, Calif., where Ms. Bumbry remained for more than three years, immersing herself in the study of music, drama and languages including Italian, German and French.

She won a series of scholarships and competitions including, in 1958, the Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air. A fellow winner in that competition was the Black soprano Martina Arroyo.

“I don’t think any of us were walking around with a flag or a banner,” Arroyo told The Post in 2009. “I don’t think we were out there politicizing. But by being what she was, she was saying it can be done. With the talent. No matter what the color, you should start with the talent.”

Ms. Bumbry debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1962 with a performance ranging from Italian songs to German lieder to African American spirituals. Reviewing her performance earlier that year at the White House, music critic Irving Lowens wrote in the Washington Evening Star that her voice was “astonishingly rich, flexible and powerful. The sumptuous low register is a shade reminiscent of Marian Anderson; the dramatic high register calls to mind the fabled Conchita Supervia; the complete self-involvement with the music brings to mind Lotte Lehmann. But to my ear, the combination of qualities is uniquely Grace Bumbry.”

Guided by Hurok, Ms. Bumbry embarked on an extensive American tour. She debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 1965 as Eboli and sang hundreds of times there before giving her final performance on the Met stage as Amneris in 1986.

Ms. Bumbry performed over the years at the leading opera houses of Europe, among them Milan’s La Scala and the Vienna State Opera. She and Shirley Verrett, another mezzo turned soprano who helped broaden opportunities for African Americans in opera, opened Paris’s Opéra Bastille in 1990 with a performance of Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” in which Ms. Bumbry played Cassandra and Verrett was Didon.

Ms. Verrett’s discography included a recording of Handel’s “Messiah” with soprano Joan Sutherland; a recording of “Aida” with Price and Carlo Bergonzi and another with Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli; “Carmen” opposite tenor Jon Vickers; “Tannhäuser” under the baton of conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch; and numerous aria collections.

Her marriage to Erwin Andreas Jaeckel, a German tenor who also promoted her career, ended in divorce. Her longtime companion, Jack Lunzer, a diamond merchant, died in 2016. She had no immediate survivors.

Ms. Bumbry lived for years in Switzerland in a villa near Lake Lugano. After her retirement from the opera stage in 1997, she remained active as a concert performer and teacher. She founded the Grace Bumbry Black Musical Heritage Ensemble, which specialized in spirituals and gospel music, and received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2009. In 2010, she returned to the stage at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris to sing the title role in “Treemonisha,” a folk opera by the African American ragtime composer Scott Joplin.

“God has given me this wonderful talent, and why should I not enjoy it?” she told the Post-Dispatch. “Not to do so would be a sin, actually. Being given a talent is a great responsibility. It’s not just about making beautiful noises, it is also a duty.”

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