NEW YORK — Grace Bumbry, a pioneering mezzo-soprano who became the first black singer to perform at Germany’s Bayreuth Festival during a career spanning more than three decades on the world’s finest stages, has died. She was 86.
According to her publicist David Lee Brewer, Bumbry died on Sunday at the Evangelical Hospital in Vienna.
She had a stroke on October 20 while on a flight from Vienna to New York to attend her induction into Opera America’s Opera Hall of Fame. She was struck 15 minutes after the plane landed, received treatment at NYC Health + Hospitals/Queens and returned to Vienna on December 8th. She’s been in and out of facilities since then, Brewer said Monday.
Bumbry was born on January 4, 1937 in St. Louis. Her father, Benjamin, was a railroad porter and her mother, formerly Melzia Walker, a schoolteacher.
She sang in the choir at Ville’s Sumner High School and won a talent contest sponsored by radio station KMOX, which included a scholarship to the St. Louis Institute of Music, but was denied admission because she was black. She sang on CBS’s “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” and then attended Boston University College of Fine Arts. and Northwestern, where she met soprano Lotte Lehmann, who became her teacher and mentor at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California.
Bumbry, who is best known as a mezzo but also played some soprano roles. was inspired when her mother took her to a concert by Marian Anderson, the American contralto who became the first black singer at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1955. Bumbry became part of a generation of celebrated black opera singers that included Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett, George Shirley, Reri Grist and Martina Arroyo.
Bumbry was a winner of the 1958 Met National Council Auditions. That same year she made a recital debut in Paris and made her Paris Opera debut in 1960 as Amneris in Aida.
The following year she was cast by Wieland Wagner, a grandson of the composer, as Venus in a new production of Tannhäuser at the Richard Wagner Festival in Bayreuth. Bumbry’s casting in a production starring Wolfang Windgassen, Victoria de los Angeles and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau led to 200 letters of protest to the festival.
“I remember being discriminated against in the US, why should it be any different in Germany?” Bumbry told St. Louis Magazine in 2021. “I knew I had to get up there and show them what I was about . When we were in high school, our teachers – and of course my parents – taught us that you are no different from everyone else. You are no better than anyone and you are no worse than anyone. You always have to do your best.”
The reviews of their Bayreuth debut on July 23, 1961 were mostly positive.
“A very big voice, if a bit colorless. It’s a voice that hasn’t ‘set in,’ as the teachers say,” wrote Harold C. Schonberg in the New York Times. “She’s obviously a singer with a big career ahead of her.”
Because of the attention, Bumbry was invited by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy to sing at a State Dinner at the White House the following February. Debuts at Carnegie Hall followed in November 1962, at the Royal Opera in London in 1963 and at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1964.
She appeared at the Met on October 7, 1965 as Princess Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlo, the first of 216 performances with the company.
“Your confidence, self-control, and character delivery are the kind that a remarkable career can be made of,” wrote Irving Kolodin in the Saturday Review.
Bumbry’s last full opera at the Met was Amneris in Verdi’s Aida on 3 November 1986, although a decade later she performed for the 25 my heart gala from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila.
Peter Gelb, Met general manager, said, “The opera will forever be in her debt for the pioneering role she played as one of the first major African American stars.”
“Grace Bumbry was the first opera star I heard in person in 1967, when she sang the role of Carmen at the Met and I was 13-years-old sitting in Rudolf Bing’s box with my parents,” said Gelb. “Hearing and seeing her give a tour de force performance made a huge impression on my teenage soul and was an early influence on my decision to pursue a career in the arts like generations of younger singers have.” influenced all ethnic groups to follow impressive steps.”
In 1989 she sang in Berlioz’s Les Troyens (The Trojans) in the first fully staged performance of a work at the Paris Bastille Opéra. In 2009 she was celebrated with honors at the Kennedy Center.
Bumbry’s 1963 marriage to Polish tenor Erwin Jaeckel ended in divorce in 1972. Bumbry was a predeceased of brothers Charles and Benjamin.
Brewer said memorials are planned for Vienna and New York.