THE DIGITAL REPOSITORY FOR THE BLACK EXPERIENCE
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"A Baby Born in a Stable is Not a Horse."
Opera singer Grace-Melzia Bumbry was born on January 4, 1937 in St. Louis, Missouri to Melzia Lillie Walker and Benjamin James Bumbry. She attended Boston University College of Fine Arts and Northwestern University before studying with renowned soprano Lotte Lehmann at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California.
From the beginning, Bumbry was an acclaimed recitalist and lieder interpreter, making her recital debut as a mezzo-soprano in Paris in 1958. She then made her operatic debut as Amneris in Aida at the Paris Opera in 1960, where she was the first person of color to sing at the house. Bumbry also joined the Basel Opera that year. In 1961, she sang Venus in Tannhaeuser for Wieland Wagner, grandson of composer Richard Wagner, at Germany’s Bayreuth Festspielhaus, becoming the first black woman to perform at the venue, where she received forty-two curtain calls. Bumbry soon was invited to sing a recital at the John F. Kennedy White House, marking the first time an African American opera singer performed there. In 1962, her manager, Sol Hurok, organized an extensive U.S. recital tour for Bumbry. She went on to debut at the Royal Opera House in London in 1963, La Scala in Milan in 1964, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in 1965. Bumbry’s other mezzo-soprano roles have included Eboli in Don Carlos, Azucena in Il Trovatore, Ulrica in Un Ballo in Maschera, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Carmen in Carmen, Dalila in Samson et Dalilia, Orfeo in Orfeo et Eurydice, Adalgisa in Norma, Selika in L’Africaine, Herodiade in Herodiade and Didon in Les Troyens, among many others.
In the 1970s, Bumbry increased her repertoire to include traditional soprano operatic roles that featured a dramatic, rich, and distinctive sound. These performances included Salome in Salome, Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana, Abigaille in Nabucco, Medea in Medea, La Vestale in La Vestale, Jenufa in Jenufa, Giocando in La Gioconda, Ariane in Ariane et Barbe-bleu, Leonora in Il Trovatore and La Forza del Destino, Tosca in Tosca, Turandot in Turandot, Cassandra in Les Troyens, and Norma in Norma.
Bumbry collaborated with the conductors Claudio Abbado, Leonard Bernstein, Karl Böhm, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Herbert von Karajan, James Levine, Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta, Seiji Ozawa, Giuseppe Patane, Wolfgang Sawallisch, and Sir Georg Solti, among others. In the 1990s, she formed the Grace Bumbry Black Musical Heritage Ensemble, a group dedicated to preserving and performing traditional spirituals. In 2009, Bumbry founded the Grace Bumbry Vocal and Opera Academy in Berlin.
Bumbry was the recipient of numerous honors and awards including the Lawrence Tibbett Award, the Premio Giuseppe Verdi, Austria’s Kammersänger title, the Kennedy Center Honors, the Bellini Award, and the Puccini Award. She was named a Goodwill Ambassador to UNESCO in 1991 and a Commandeur de L’ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1996 by the French government.
Bumbry lived in Salzburg, Austria.
Grace-Melzia Bumbry was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on July 18, 2022.
Grace-Melzia Bumbry passed away on May 7, 2023 at the age of eighty-six.