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Trailblazing opera star Grace Bumbry dies at age 86

Grace Bumbry, in a 1963 portrait.
Erich Auerbach
Getty Images
Grace Bumbry, in a 1963 portrait.

Opera star Grace Bumbry has died at the age of 86. The celebrated singer, who led an illustrious, jet-setting career, broke the color barrier as the first Black artist to perform at Germany's Bayreuth Festival.

Bumbry died May 7 in a Vienna hospital, according to her publicist. She suffered an ischemic stroke last year and never fully recovered.

Bumbry was part of a pioneering generation of Black women opera stars that included Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett and Jessye Norman, all of whom followed the path blazed by Marian Anderson.

As a child, Bumbry was taken by her mother to see Anderson perform in her hometown, St. Louis. It was an event that changed her life, she told NPR in 1990.

"I knew I had to be a singer," Bumbry said. "I studied piano from age 7 until I was 15 but I wanted to...seriously become a singer of classical music." At age 17, Bumbry sang for Anderson, who was impressed enough to recommended the young singer to her high-powered manager, Sol Hurok.

In 1954, the teenager won a radio talent competition and a scholarship to study at the St. Louis Institute of Music. But because the school was segregated, Bumbry was not allowed to take classes with white students, which Bumbry's mother declined. Later, after she appeared on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, offers from schools flooded in. Bumbry enrolled at Boston University, later transferring to Northwestern University and finally moving to California to study with the legendary German soprano Lotte Lehmann at the Music Academy of the West.

Bumbry's operatic debut came in 1960, in no less a venue than the storied Paris Opera, where she sang the role of Amneris in Verdi's Aida. Her Parisian success came, in part, through the help of Jacqueline Kennedy who, with the American Embassy in Paris, secured Bumbry an audition at the Opera.

Her triumph opened the doors to Germany's Bayreuth Festival. In 1961, Bumbry became the first Black artist to sing at the spiritual home of Richard Wagner, performing the role of Venus in the composer's Tannhäuser. Casting a Black American instead of a Nordic blonde at the renowned festival was met with skepticism and racism from opera purists and the German media.

Bumbry ignored the controversy. On the production's opening night, her performance was met with a 30-minute standing ovation and 42 curtain calls. Critics hailed her as the "Black Venus."

But after great success as a mezzo-soprano, especially in operas by Verdi, Grace Bumbry shocked the opera world by committing to singing mostly as a soprano in the 1970s.

"I think I'm the only singer ever in history to have made a career as a leading mezzo-soprano and all of a sudden, in midstream, change to soprano," Bumbry told NPR in 1990.

Over the rest of her 60-year career, Bumbry would toggle between both ranges, says Naomi André, a music professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

"She sang between roles that one person normally doesn't sing," André observes. "Her voice had this incredible smooth creaminess and strength in places that you wouldn't always expect in the same voice. An incredibly gorgeous sound."

A gorgeous sound that was also a summoning for the next generation of Black singers and performers.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brandon Gates