Grace Bumbry, 87, Superstar Singer of Searing Eloquence and Glamour, has Died
GRACE MELZIA BUMBRY
ST. LOUIS, MO, JANUARY 4, 1937–VIENNA, AUSTRIA, MAY 7, 2023
AN ARTIST WHO INVESTED EVERYTHING she sang with sleek glamour and daring theatricality, Grace Bumbry was one of international opera’s authentic superstars in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. After a meteoric rise to recognition as one of the world’s best mezzos, Bumbry moved on to soprano successes at the Met, Covent Garden, San Francisco Opera, Paris Opéra, La Scala and other theaters while continuing to explore the mezzo repertory. At the height of her career, Bumbry provided dazzling copy to the press in Europe and North America: she reveled in her status as a diva, driving an orange Lamborghini, wearing fabulous furs and jewels and favoring couture ensembles by Yves Saint Laurent and Heinz Riva.
Bumbry’s life as a singer began with solos in the choir of a Methodist church in her native St. Louis; she later studied at Boston University, Northwestern University and the Music Academy of the West, where she worked under the personal guidance of Lotte Lehmann. Bumbry’s work with Lehmann, who remained her friend and mentor until her death in 1976, inspired the profound love of lieder and song that was the basis for Bumbry’s distinguished recital career.
After a win in the 1958 Met Auditions, Bumbry went to Europe. She made her stage debut in spring 1960 as Amneris at the Paris Opéra, and the following autumn she joined the ensemble of Basel Opera in Switzerland, where her roles during the next three years included Carmen, Dalila, Azucena, Princess Eboli, Fricka and Lady Macbeth.
In 1961, Bumbry made international news with her Bayreuth debut, as Venus in Wieland Wagner’s production of Tannhäuser. Only twenty-four, Bumbry was recommended to Wieland Wagner by Wolfgang Sawallisch, who had heard her at an audition for Carmen. The first Black artist to sing at Bayreuth, Bumbry grabbed headlines as “Die Schwarze Venus.” Bumbry admitted in a 1970 interview with Opera that she felt “not quite ready for Wagner” when she made her Bayreuth debut. Her performance was nevertheless accounted a major success by the opening-night audience, which rewarded the cast with a thirty-minute ovation, and by most critics, including Opera’s Andrew Porter, who said Bumbry sang “amply and warmly” as the goddess of love. In 1962, Bumbry was invited to sing in recital at the White House by President and Mrs. Kennedy and made her Carnegie Hall recital debut. Her opera-house triumphs continued in 1963, with Ulrica and Venus in Chicago and Princess Eboli at Covent Garden, where she stopped the show with her veil song. In 1964, she sang Lady Macbeth opposite Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau at the Salzburg Festival.
News of the young American’s European successes made her 1965 Met debut eagerly anticipated. In his history of the Metropolitan Opera, Irving Kolodin generously praised Bumbry’s first Met performance, in a revival of Margaret Webster’s 1950 Don Carlo staging: “Not only by the vigor of her temperament but also by the vitality of her voice, she made a more potent factor in the drama of [Eboli] than almost any predecessor in the [Webster production].” Bumbry’s 1965 Eboli was the first of 216 performances with the Met in New York and on tour. In her twenty seasons on the Met roster, Bumbry’s most frequent appearances were as Amneris, Carmen, Santuzza, Tosca, Eboli and Salome. Bumbry starred in new Met stagings of Carmen (1967); Il Trovatore (Azucena, 1969); Cavalleria Rusticana (1970); Orfeo ed Euridice (1970); Tannhäuser (Venus, 1977); and the company premiere of Porgy and Bess (1986). In 1996, after an absence of ten years, Bumbry returned to the Met to sing in the marathon televised gala celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of James Levine’s first appearance with the company, in which he had paced Bumbry in Tosca.
Bumbry regarded her first Salome, conducted by Georg Solti at Covent Garden in 1970, as the turning point in her life and career; as she told opera news’s Robert Jacobson, “It confirmed my theory that a soprano voice can sing both the mezzo and dramatic soprano parts.” Bumbry’s further soprano assumptions in the 1970s and ’80s included Sélika in L’Africaine, Adalgisa and Norma in Norma, both the Forza and Trovatore Leonoras, and the title roles in Jenůfa and La Gioconda. In the 1980s, Bumbry joined New York City Opera for Abigaille in Nabucco (1981); the following year, she was Medea in a new staging of Cherubini’s opera by Rhoda Levine (1982). In 1990, Bumbry sang Cassandre at the opening of the Opéra Bastille in Paris. She made her farewell to leading roles in 1997, with Klytämnestra in Elektra at Opéra de Lyon, but returned to the stage periodically in character roles such as Monisha in Treemonisha at Théatre du Châtelet (2010), the Old Lady in Candide at Deutsche Oper Berlin (2012) and the Old Countess in Queen of Spades at Vienna State Opera (2013). In the 1990s, Bumbry toured with the Grace Bumbry Black Musical Heritage Ensemble, a group devoted to preserving and performing traditional Negro spirituals. In 2009, she received a Kennedy Center Honor.
Bumbry’s greatest roles were Amneris and Princess Eboli, both of which gave her ample opportunity to deploy the lush color, magnificent size and searing eloquence that characterized her singing at its best. Bumbry’s 1965 recording of Don Carlo under Solti and her 1970 studio performance of Amneris, paced by Erich Leinsdorf, catch her infectious zest and unforced power at their zenith. Whatever she sang—in whatever range—Grace Bumbry was a star like no other. —F. Paul Driscoll