Obituary: Legendary & Trailblazing Mezzo-Soprano Grace Bumbry Dies at 86

By Francisco Salazar

Mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry passed away on May 7, 2023 in Vienna, Austria. She was 86. Recently, she suffered an acute ischemic stroke from a fall and was hospitalized.

Bumbry was a member of a pioneering generation of African-American opera and classical singers in the worlds of opera and classical music and helped pave the way for future generations of African-American opera and concert singers. She was also a singer with a wide range that not only sang mezzo roles but also performed numerous soprano roles to great success.

Born on Jan. 4, 1937 in St. Louis, Missouri, she was the third child of Benjamin and Melzia Bumbry; father was a railroad porter and her mother a school teacher. Bumbry graduated from the prestigious Charles Sumner High School, the first black high school west of the Mississippi.

Her voice teacher Kenneth Billups praised her for her “vocal prowess” and urged her to enter a teen talent contest sponsored by St. Louis radio station KMOX. She would win the contest which included a $1,000 war bond, a trip to New York, and a scholarship to the St. Louis Institute of Music. However, the institute did not accept her because she was black.

However, the concert promoters arranged that she appear on Arthur Godfrey’s nationally televised Talent Scouts program, singing Verdi’s aria “O don fatale.” That performance allowed her to enter Boston University College of Fine Arts and she later transferred to Northwestern University.

Bumbry would study with Lotte Lehmann at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California and in 1958, the mezzo won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

Her operatic debut came in 1960 as Amneris at the Paris Opéra. At the age of 24 she gained international recognition when she sang as Venus in “Tannhäuser” at Bayreuth and became the first black singer to appear at the famed festival. She received a 30-minute ovation for her performance there, including 42 curtain calls.

That performance led her to the White House at the invitation of Jaqueline Kennedy; she later returned in 1981 to sing at Ronald Reagan’s inauguration.

Bumbry went on to debut at every major opera house including the Royal Opera House in 1963, La Scala in 1964, the Wiener Staatsoper in 1964, and Metropolitan Opera in 1965.

In the 1970s, Bumbry made her debut as a soprano singing the title role “Salome” in 1970 at Covent Garden, and later debuted the title role of “Tosca” at the Metropolitan Opera.

Her repertoire included Princess Eboli in Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” Bizet’s “Carmen,” Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s “Macbeth,” Bellini’s “Norma,” Abigaille in Verdi’s “Nabucco,” Laura Adorno in Ponichielli’s “La Gioconda,” and the title role of “Tosca.” She also took on rare roles, such as Janáček’s “Jenůfa,” Dukas’s “Ariane et Barbe-bleue,” and Sélika in Meyerbeer’s “L’Africaine.” Other noted soprano roles in her career have included Chimène in “Le Cid,” Elisabeth in “Tannhäuser,” and Leonora in both “Il Trovatore” and “La Forza del Destino,” among others.

In the 1990s, she founded and toured with the Grace Bumbry Black Musical Heritage Ensemble, a group devoted to preserving and performing traditional Negro spirituals. She also devoted herself to teaching and judging international competitions and to the concert stage. In 2010, after an absence of many years from the opera stage, she performed in Scott Joplin’s “Treemonisha” at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, and in 2013, she returned to the Wiener Staatsoper as the Countess in Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades.”

She went on to win many awards including being inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame and was bestowed with the UNESCO Award, the Distinguished Alumna Award from the Academy of Music of the West, Italy’s Premio Giuseppe Verdi. She was also named Commandeur des Arts et Lettres by the French government. She received a Grammy Award in 1972 for Best Opera Recording and on Dec. 6, 2009, was among those honored with the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors.

On Dec. 5, 2021, she paid tribute to her friend Justino Diaz who was one of the five people being honored that night for the 2021 Kennedy Center Honors. In 2022 she received an award in Martina Franca, becoming the first African-American to be recognized with the award Premio Rodolfo Celletti.

Bumbry left a legendary discography that includes recordings of “Carmen,” “Norma,” “Don Carlo,” “Aida,” “La forza del destino,” and “Carmen Jones.”