When Grace Bumbry first stepped on the legendary stage of Bayreuth in 1961, she made headlines across the globe. Bayreuth, Richard Wagner’s own theater and dedicated to his epic works, had never invited a Black artist to sing on their stage. And while audiences were initially skeptical, Bumbry would silence them in the role of Venus in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, receiving over 40 curtain calls for her performance.
Bumbry was a native of St. Louis and took to music early being from a highly musical family. After high school, she would enter a local talent competition, with the winner being given a full scholarship to the St. Louis Institute of Music. After winning the competition, her full scholarship and admittance were rescinded when the school learned she was Black. But Bumbry didn’t let it faze her – she knew she was a winner and wouldn’t let small-mindedness hold her back.
She would attend Santa Barbara’s Music of the Academy of the West for over three years, picking up multiple high profile wins during her time there including accolades with the Metropolitan Opera. Her career would move ahead at breakneck pace, landing starring mezzo roles in Carmen, Samson & Delilah, and Orfeo. Her larger-than-life personality would shine as bright as her voice – even more so after she moved into soprano repertoire. She was a favorite of the Kennedy administration, winning the title role in Aida in Paris with help from Jackie Kennedy herself.
Bumbry would establish the Grace Bumbry Musical Heritage Ensemble in 1990, which was devoted to preserving and performing traditional Black American music. She would give her final performance at the Met in 1986 and then would retire from the opera stage in 1997 – with one exception. In 2010, she was asked to sing the lead role in Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, a request she would happily accept.
Bumbry would retire to Switzerland with longtime partner Jack Lunzer. She died May 7 in Vienna at the age of 86 after suffering stroke last fall.
The Washington Post shared a lovely quote from Bumbry that was published in the Post-Dispatch. “God has given me this wonderful talent, and why should I not enjoy it? 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.”
(Tune in to the May 21st Opera Show to hear a celebration of her recordings!)