Grace  Bumbry

The Singer in Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Widely known for her performances and recordings, Grace Bumbry is one of the very few who have moved successfully from one range and repertoire to another.

Having started as a mezzo-soprano, gaining fame and respect in that arena, she moved to the soprano range with stunning results.  She was careful but adventurous in her choices, and nearly always succeeded in giving memorable portrayals.  All the while, she earned respect on the concert platform and recital stage, balancing the several sides of a stellar career.  More details can be found in the box at the bottom of this webpage.

She has appeared at Lyric Opera of Chicago in eleven roles over several seasons, singing mezzo parts in the 1960s, and soprano characters in later seasons.  Because of her ongoing relationship with the company, she was named as one of 24 Jubilarians as part of Lyric's 50th Anniversary Season in 2004-2005. 

It was in 1982, while she was performing the title role in Tosca that I had the privilege of speaking with this great artist.  After a brief bit of chit-chat about the previous night's performance, which was, of course, very successful and well-received, we settled in for our conversation . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Let me begin by swiping a phrase from Madison Avenue.  You used to sing mezzo and now you sing soprano, so do sopranos really have more fun?

Grace Bumbry:   [Explodes in laughter]  That's very good.  I don't think so.  Possibly the only difference is that there's more to sing!  There are more operas to sing than a mezzo will have.  The main mezzo repertoire for a star mezzo is only about seven roles, and you don't want to spend your whole entire career with seven roles!  It's not constructive.

BD:   Is it actually boring to sing the same role over and over and over?

GB:   It is.

BD:   When you're doing a role that you've sung many times, do you look forward to it when it's a new production with maybe an interesting director?

GB:   If it's an interesting director, yes.  [Both chuckle quietly]  Otherwise, no.

BD:   Is there too much emphasis now being placed on the visual in opera?

GB:   I don't think there's too much emphasis being placed on it, no!  Because you mustn't forget that we do live in an electronic era, so you've got to get that visual which is so very important today.  You have the opera on television almost every week, sometimes two or three times a week!  So we've got to compete with the television!

BD:   Are you really competing with the televised operas?

bumbry GB:   Oh sure, as we also compete with the recordings!  We compete with ourselves in many cases.  Often there is a recording of an opera in which the same artist is singing on stage, and most times it's not quite the same.

BD:   Do you feel that the audience is expecting too much?

GB:   I think so, yes.

BD:   So then what is the proper use for recordings, and now video cassettes?

GB:   Mind you, the video cassette is at least a bit more honest than the recording, because in a recording you have so many times to repeat these things.

BD:   You can do it and do it and do it again until you finally get the right which the producer can use.

GB:   That's right.  But on a video recording, usually it's only a one-time shot from a live performance! 

BD:   Does it bother you at all to know that there are cameras out in the house transmitting your performance around the world?

GB:   No, because the system is sophisticated to such a point hat you don't even see the cameras.  They don't bother you; the cameras are not in your way!  You know they're out there, certainly, as you know the microphones are out there, too, for broadcast.  But you don't really see them.  It doesn't really bother you except in your innermost being and in your subconscious.  Every so often you might think, "Yeah, tonight's being broadcast," or "Tonight's being filmed."

BD:   When you're heading back to your dressing room and you see a few extra people backstage, does that kind of jar you back to the reality of it?

GB:   Oh, sure.

BD:   Do extraneous things bother you
— noises backstage, or if you stub your toe just as you're going on stage for a big aria?

GB:   Normally speaking, yes, but that happens to me so very seldom that I don't suffer with it.  But there are times when, in a pianissimo moment, that all of a sudden somebody coughs or sneezes, and it breaks the entire tension.  It breaks your concentration, and it's most disturbing.  But that's even worse when you're doing a recital program... if somebody starts to move about, or if somebody decides to leave or come in at that moment.  And in a recital you don't have a prompter there to help you.

BD:   And you're a little closer to the audience, aren't you?

GB:   Depending on the hall, of course.  If you do a recital in an opera house, of course you have the same situation.

BD:   That's true.  I was thinking about Orchestra Hall here in Chicago...

GB:   Oh, well you have the perfect hall, here, for recitals!

BD:   Do you prefer doing opera to concert, or do you like to balance the two?

GB:   I like to balance it because after a period I get somewhat bored with opera or somewhat bored with recitals.  So when I know that opera season is over for me, I'm looking forward to the recitals, and vice versa.  Then I'm refreshed, you see, looking for something different.

BD:   What does an opera singer do to relax?  You don't go to the opera, do you?

GB:   Sometimes I do!  Sure.

BD:   Do you specifically go to operas where you have no part, such as Billy Budd?

GB:   No, I usually go to an opera where I have a part just to see what they do in it!

BD:   Are you good audience?

GB:   A sympathetic audience, yeah.  The main thing is that I'm so frightened for them.  I know every little note.  [Speaks excitedly]  "Oh that's when he comes at me now, and that note's coming, oh, boy.  How's she gonna manage that?  How's he gonna manage that?"  I start to get nervous for them!

BD:   Do you breathe with them thinking it's for them?

GB:   Yeah.  Yeah.  Sometimes I may say to myself, "Calm down; relax!  They're the ones singing tonight!"

BD:   It's their problem!

GB:   Yeah!

GB:   Normally, though, I don't go to operas that much.  I don't have the time or energy.  Basically I go to operas that I'm about to learn, new roles.  I'll go just to see what that person does.  If it's really a person who is known for that role, then I'll go for that.  Or I'm just interested to see what the opera looks like.  Then I'll go to two or three different performances, in different places, as I do also with recordings.  I'll listen to maybe four or five different recordings of an opera just to see what is interesting, what that particular person has done with that opera, what the other person has done, what they all had in common, and how I can be better.

BD:   So you're always looking to improve.

GB:   Yeah.

BD:   Do you always look to improve your own performance, too?

GB:   Oh, definitely.  Definitely.  I have set for myself a very high standard, and I have also for my audience a very high standard.  I want to give them the very best that I have because I think they deserve it.  If they have paid money to hear me sing and they have been kind enough to come out to the opera that night, or to the concert that night, then I should also have prepared myself physically, mentally and vocally, to be at my very best.  I want to give them that very best.

BD:   Do you feel, then, that you're part athlete?

GB:   I think yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you enjoy the business of recording?

GB:   I don't particularly enjoy it, but it has to be.  I don't abhor it, either, but if you find a recording technique, then you can manage it very easily.  I haven't found it yet!

BD:   I was going to ask you for the secret!  [Both laugh]

GB:   Strangely enough, I talked to Richard Mohr from RCA, and I said, "Richard, tell me.  You've been with recording companies for so many years, so tell me what you think is the best solution for recording a voice.  What is best for the singer?"  He replied, "Strange that you ask that, because I've noticed that most singers don't really know what the best system is.  The orchestra takes a long time to warm itself up, to get to that finished product, whereas the singer usually comes and is ready.  His first shot is his best one."  So then I think that it behooves the singer to just sort of soft-pedal it until they get to that point where they are ready to play.

BD:   So then your high point comes together.

GB:   Mm-hmm.

BD:   So that's the secret, then?

BD:   Mm-hmm.

BD:   Should I keep that under wraps, or should I publicize it?  [Laughter all around]

GB:   You can publicize it!

BD:   Do you prefer long takes rather than little snippets?

GB:   I prefer long takes.  I use the little ones for little corrections.

BD:   When you put in a high note or replace a bad note from another take, is that a fraud?

GB:   [Thinks for a moment]  That depends how you look at it, because don't forget, you never sing a production or a role the same way every night.  Let's say Wednesday night you sang that particular high C pretty well, and then on Saturday night you were fabulous!  It's the same thing with a recording.  The first one might have been lousy, and the second one is good, so take the one that's good!  You want to sell yourself to your best advantage, don't you?  So you use that one.

BD:   I'm just wondering at what point cut-and-paste becomes really not a performance?

GB:   [With excited conviction]  But it's still the same person singing, isn't it?  They're not bringing anybody in from the outside to help singer with that particular note.  I think it's honest enough as far as you can go in that business.  Don't forget it's a business for making money.  The recording company wants to sell a product that is as finished as possible, without, as you say, frauding.  Not only that, it's also a very good investment.  After all, you do get your royalties over the years, which is very good.  Even if it's over 20 or 30 years, there are still royalties coming in!

bumbry BD:   Are you happy with the recordings you made 15 or 20 years ago?

GB:   [Somewhat disgustedly]  No.  There are only two recordings that I'm really very happy with.  The aria recording done by Deutsche Grammophon, and the recording we did of Orfeo with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Václav Neumann.  I really liked that very much.  I was in very fresh voice; I'd just come from my vacation, and I was also inspired by that orchestra.  It's such a beautiful orchestra.  I just enjoyed it because to hear music done with enthusiasm was, just for me, a very rewarding sort of feeling.

BD:   Do you still sing Orfeo?

GB:   No.

BD:   Have you abandoned all of the mezzo roles?

GB:   Everything except Eboli, which I never, ever looked upon as a mezzo role anyway because it's very high.  Her top note in "O don fatale" is a C-flat, a B natural.  And it has to be a sustained B natural; it's not just you get on it and you get off it.  I did some research on Don Carlos and it turned out that Verdi had written it for two different singers!  When he first started it he had a contralto, and as a matter of fact the "Cansare del Veno" that we know today was originally written a third lower.  In midstream he changed singers, and the singer that he got for the second half was a higher voice.  I was happy to have read that.  Of course it only substantiated what I had always felt!

BD:   Would you sing Eboli in French?

GB:   I wouldn't want to.  I would try to avoid having to sing it in French.

BD:   That's one o' my little hobby horses because it was originally in French.  I've heard it a couple of times in French and it just worked so well.  It's very beautiful in French.

GB:   I don't believe you.  Mind you, maybe Don Carlos just could work because it's not one of those biting operas like Medea, which also was written in French.  Medea does not work in French.  I know that the structural line is far better and far smoother in French, but as far as the action is concerned, the drama falls in French.  The French language does not lend itself to that very biting, vicious type of music.

BD:   So you see Medea as a vicious person?

GB:   Sure she is!  Definitely!  She's been a wronged person.  Can you tell me anybody who's been wronged who is not vicious and bent on getting revenge?

BD:   No, of course not.  Do you enjoy being vicious?

GB:   No, but I enjoy doing dramatic pieces of music, certainly.

BD:   I asked another singer that same question, and she thought that the people who were personally normally vicious found it harder to be vicious on stage because it was too close to home.

GB:   Ah!!!  [Bursts out laughing]

BD:   So if you find it easy to be vicious on stage then that's good; that means that you're a very nice person!  Tell me a bit about Medea.  Do you enjoy the part?

bumbry GB:   Yes.  It's a very, very interesting part.  It's too bad that you don't get as much of the play as one would like to get; mind you, the same thing is true with Macbeth, but I find it to be an extremely interesting opera, very close-knit in its structure and its action and its music.  Everything seems to go hand in hand.  I saw the play of Medea with Zoe Caldwell and Judith Anderson this spring in New York.  I tell you, I've never been so riveted as when I went three evenings to see those ladies.  I was speechless, and when I say speechless, I mean I couldn't talk!  That's never, ever happened to me.  I went backstage to see Dame Judith because I know her; I worked Lady Macbeth with her years ago out in Santa Barbara.  She was playing the nurse, and I must say I was so very impressed with her professionalism.  For a person to have come from the glorified, wonderful role of Medea, to all of a sudden now playing the role of the nurse with such beauty, was wonderful.  So I went backstage to see her and my voice was gone!  I couldn't talk.  She took me to meet Zoe and introduced me as a Medea, but I found my voice and said, "No, no.  There are two Medeas here, you and Dame Judith.  I'm just beginning to learn what it's all about."  It was wonderful, the most incredible experience I've had in I can't tell you how many years.

BD:   Are you looking forward to really getting into the role?

GB:   I am.  As a matter of fact, friends of mine who are producers of opera in London were in New York at that time, and they're going to do Medea for me in concert version at this new center they have in London.  One of the two of them is a scholar, and we had this long, long discussion at dinner about Medea
— what it shouldn't have, what it should have been, what it shouldn't have been, how this should've done and so on.  So now we're going to do it in London, and we were trying to decide in which language.  I said that I know it was written in French, but I've already turned down Bologna in French, I've turned down La Scala in French, I've turned down Covent Garden in French."  I know by having sung it in Italian that the Italian language is not the language it was written for.  You have to compromise.  Then I went to the French text and saw how smoothly it worked, but the drama is missing in the French language, plus the fact you have the spoken dialogue instead of the recitative.  Now if they could find someone to write recitatives in the French version, then I would be willing to at least try it in the French.

BD:   [Musing wistfully]  "Oh, Guiraud, where are you when we need you?"  [He's the one who did the recitatives for Carmen.]  [Both laugh]

GB:   Exactly!  Exactly.  But I feel that today, dialogue and singing just don't go together!

BD:   So you would not do a spoken-dialogue version of Carmen?

GB:   Not in performance, no.  People fail to remember that the voice for singing is positioned in one place, and the voice for speaking is completely different.  To go from one to the other, back and forth and back and forth the whole evening is impossible.  In a piece of music like Medea, which is so serious and so dramatic, you can't go back and forth like that.  It becomes silly!  It takes the weight of the drama away.  Sure, you can get away with that with Carmen, because it is not what you would call a very tragic piece!  I grant you she gets killed on the end, but it's not a "tragedy" as such.  In the old days, perhaps one could do that.  Maybe it might have also been better for the public then, but we have to remember we're in nineteen hundred and eighty-two now.

BD:   Do you feel that there has to be an alteration in many operas because they were written for a public that no longer exists?

GB:   Many operas, no.  I don't feel that at all.  I think we have to try to stick as close to the original as we possibly can, and that's our job to do so.  It would be too easy, then, to take a piece of music and veer off in another direction.  I think the challenge is in doing a piece of music justice the way the composer wrote it!  If you ask, "What about Medea, then?" I just don't feel that Medea works in that fashion, for this audience of today especially.  Singers today are probably better than they were in the olden days.  We have much better techniques, much better schooling!

BD:   And is there a higher expectation from the audience?

GB:   Today, yes.  That is exactly my point!

BD:   You're optimistic, then, about the future of opera?

GB:   I am.

BD:   You don't think it's a dead, or dying art?

GB:   Not if we are true to it and serious about it.  You have to be serious about opera, otherwise it does become a bore.  I don't mean deadpan.  When I say "serious," I mean to the point of doing it correctly, and doing it so that it is interesting vocally, scenically, musically.  Everything has got to be presented in a fashion that is true to the music and also appealing to the audience!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you prefer doing roles that are better known?  For instance, would you rather do Tosca than Ariane of Dukas?

GB:   Yes, but not because it's popular!  Dukas' Ariane is very difficult.  It's very, very difficult music to learn.  The style for Dukas is... [pauses, then chuckles slightly]'s a style all its own in one respect!  On the other hand, the music itself is a kaleidoscope.  If I can remember correctly, there's Ravel, there's Strauss, there's Wagner in it.  You name it, they're all in there, and you've got to learn that style and sing it accordingly!  That's not an easy thing to do.  Plus the fact that Ariane is very difficult from the point of view of stamina.

BD:   It's a long role!

GB:   She sings all the time.  Everything really rests on her shoulders.  It's very difficult.

BD:   Was this a concert performances?

GB:   No, it was a staged performance.

BD:   I heard a tape and it's just wonderful.  I enjoyed it very much!  Is it a part that you look forward to singing again?

GB:   No, but it should be done again at some point.

BD:   Is it an opera that we would enjoy here in the States?

GB:   I think it depends on where in the States.  You have to take into consideration the audience, because it's not every audience who can receive that kind of stuff easily.

BD:   Do you perform a little differently if you know the audience is going to be more receptive to a particular work, or do you just give your best all the time?

GB:   You can't change that.  I can't, anyway.  I give my best wherever I can, wherever I sing.  It might vary a little bit from day to day, but that's normal.  But far as changing how I perform, no.  I give as much in Chicago as I do at the Metropolitan or as I do at La Scala, or I would do in Timbuktu!

BD:   Is there a place for having a star of your magnitude singing in much smaller houses
Indianapolis or Grand Rapids or something or is that just too overwhelming for that kind of a community?

GB:   I don't think it's too overwhelming; as a matter of fact, I would think that would be the thing you would want
— if you could entice those singers to go there — but you've got to have a whole cast.  You can't just bring one person in and have little people hanging around you.  It's impossible.  That's too big a chore.

BD:   So it can't be one star and lots of locals; it would have to be Bumbry and Domingo and Wixell and a good conductor.

GB:   Yes.  We do that very often in Europe, in Germany especially.  I've done it with Wixell and Carreras in Mannheim, I think.  And I think we did it once in Gelsenkirchen, but mind you, as I say, it was just once.  Those are what they call "Gala Performances."  It brings a certain level to that community which they normally wouldn't have.  So that gives not only the audience a chance to see what the top is, but also the singers of that opera house get a chance to aspire to something better than what they hear around that opera house.  I think it's a very necessary thing to do.

BD:   Do you enjoy being looked up to
— to know that there are singers in the house each night who are saying, "I want to be just like Grace Bumbry"?

GB:   I don't think about that.

BD:   Do you do master classes?

GB:   I have given some, yes.  I like them; I like them very much.

BD:   How is the talent that's coming along today?

GB:   Oh, fabulous talent, especially here and in England.  There are lots of wonderful, wonderful voices, and not only wonderful voices, but you get people who are well prepared.  That's what's important; that's really the crux of the matter in master classes.  You have to have students who are prepared, who are ready to receive.  If they're not able to produce what you're trying to tell them, it's a waste of your time and theirs.  We weed them out to find which ones are able and which ones are not.  Otherwise, why bother?

BD:   Let me turn the question around.  What kinds of things did you learn from Lotte Lehmann [with Bumbry in photo]?

bumbry GB:   The importance of the word.  The importance of the word and the importance of the musical line.  Usually the word and the music tells you what movement to make.  She was really very, very strong on that point, that the word is most important.  Then the word and the music together, because a musical line should give you a certain feeling.  With that sort of feeling and those words, it tells you what you have to do!  If you're at all a little bit intelligent, there are markings in the score that tell you what you're supposed to do.  It might say, "She takes the fan, and she goes with the fan to the lamp."  But what happens in that musical line, from the moment she takes the fan until she gets to that lamp, tells you how she got there and which way she got there.  Another thing that Lehmann and I very often discussed was wearing apparel for the stage, for the opera.

BD:   Do you have much choice over that?

GB:   Oh, sure!  In every era, there were many types of costumes, many types of wearing apparel, so you had to find the thing that fits you!  Even though that costume designer might have in his mind a certain figure, if that costume does not fit you and your personality, then you will be at odds with yourself!  So it behooves you to get in touch with that costume designer and ask if he can change the costume a bit.

BD:   What if he says "Absolutely no"?

GB:   You talk to him and give him a reason for it.  Usually they are very sensible; what they really want is a success of their costumes and success of that particular opera as well.  If you give them a good enough argument and show them what you're talking about, he might say, "Oh!  That's not a bad idea."  Just send him something in the mail.  He might draw you a sketch, not exactly the same as he saw in that picture you sent him, but something similar that passes with you!

BD:   Do you have the same problems with the stage director?

GB:   That's a little bit more difficult.  [Much laughter]  If he gives me a good enough argument, then I probably will do it.  But if he doesn't have a good argument, then I have to do what I feel is best for me.  After all, I am the one who's going to stand on that stage.  For instance, the other night in rehearsals with Tito Gobbi, there were some movements he wanted me to do which I hadn't been accustomed to doing.  It's actually just a matter of changing your point of view, a slight variation in interpretation, that's all.  [Momentarily thinking back to the rehearsal]  It was in the second act just before I kill Scarpia, that whole scene with Spoletta and Scarpia.  My words are Chi m'assicura?  I said to Gobbi, "Tell me, how do you hear her voice at this moment?  What do you hear?"  I feel that she's being rather determined and rather arrogant at that moment, and very defiant with him.  [Demonstrating, defiantly] "Chi m'assicura, who's going to assure me I'm going to get this?"  But his interpretation is that she still is very feminine; she's not at all arrogant, she's not at all haughty.  One thinks of a prima donna as being haughty, you see, so if you are trying to impersonate a prima donna, you go overboard.  I wanted to know what he felt I should do because I've got to build it up from before in order to get to that point.  I've got to know how I'm going to take the phrases before, or the lines before and the actions that go on before, so when I get to that point I have the right tone of voice.  The same thing was true in the "Quanto?  Il prezzo!" moment.  That, too, can sound like a fisherwoman, you know?  [Both laugh]  So you've got to build that up from way back before.

BD:   You have to make sure that the audience knows this is the first time she's said those words.

GB:   Yes!

BD:   So you never say just one line; everything builds out of what comes before!

GB:   It's a great big arch.

BD:   So you see each role, then, as a totality?

GB:   Yes.  What I usually do is figure out for myself what kind of woman she is; what is her main character.

BD:   Is it hard, then, to do just a portion?  For instance when you're in rehearsal and just doing a section of an act, is it hard to do that isolated piece because you are conscious of the totality?

GB:   No, because you know what the totality is.  So it's not hard, but sometimes if they start the wrong place...  [Chuckles playfully]  These are very interesting questions you're asking because it makes me think a bit.  [Ponders a moment and then continues]  During that scene with Scarpia, when he brings her the wine, that's really his music.  I've got to hear that music and I've got to live that music.  At that particular moment she's really concerned about what's going to happen.  When he says, "...sedete, e favelliamo", until now I have always been very reluctant to sit down.  I'm hesitant.  I say, "Now what does he want from me?  Why should I sit with him?"  Earlier he had said, "...parliam da buoni amici."  Why should I speak to him as a friend?  He's no friend of mine, and I've always reacted to those words literally.  But Gobbi said, "You have to remember that she still is very feminine.  And don't forget that Scarpia is a bigot.  You've got to remember all those things."  So that gives me the clue to how I'm going to use, "Quanto?  Il prezzo", because if she's still being very feminine over here, she's got to carry that straight through.  When I say feminine in this instance, I mean weak in the sense of being vulnerable.  So if I'm going to be vulnerable over here, I've got to carry that straight through.  And the same thing is true just a bit later on when she's killed him and says, "È avanti a lui..."  I became aware of all this through Lehmann.  I really wanted to study recital music with her; that was my first love.  I didn't want to be an opera singer.  In recital music, of course you've got to know the word.  You've got to understand the word and analyze that piece of music!

BD:   Do you find it hard in a recital to do so many little five-minute characterizations?

GB:   No!

BD:   I would think it would be easier to do one long character, rather than many during the evening.

GB:   Yes, that's very, very true, but it also has its pleasure!  To have those little snippets
five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten of those little things in one eveningit's wonderful!  It's very beautiful!  It's also very challenging.

bumbry BD:   So what got you into opera?

GB:   [Somewhat disgustedly]  Lehmann insisted!  When I was studying with her out in Santa Barbara, she said, "Oh, you must take the opera classes too!  You must take them because you have operatic flair!"  I said [curtly] "No, I don't have any operatic flair."  She replied, "Believe me, Grace, just believe me."  So I told her, "All right, Madame Lehmann, okay," and I took the opera classes.  The next thing I knew, I'm enjoying this!  Really I had my rebirth.  My rebirth was in the opera class.  Mind you, at first I couldn't do it!  I couldn't emote, I couldn't do all these gestures with my hands up there because I felt self-conscious.  I later analyzed it, and it was a fear of looking silly.  I remember one lesson...  We always had our master classes on Friday and Saturdays in front of audience, and I was doing, for the 99th time, the Aïda-Amneris duet.  I could feel these emotions inside, but I couldn't bring them out.  I couldn't show them.  So she says, in front of the whole audience, [in a commanding tone of voice] "We're not leaving here today until you get those hands up in the air.  I want 'em up like that!!"  [In a comically pathetic tone of voice, like that of a timid child]  "I'll never get my arms way up there."

BD:   [Laughs]

GB:   She tried and she tried and she tried, but it was hopeless.  I was in tears; I was wiped out.  Finally one of her friends, who was a psychologist, said, "Leave her alone.  She cannot possibly do another thing today."  I was so disappointed with myself, so disgusted!  I would have given Madame Lehmann my left arm.  I'm left-handed, so that's my best arm, you see.  I would have given her my arm if she wanted, but I couldn't do it!!  I was so disgusted with myself that when I got home in front of a mirror, I told myself, "Everybody else in the class can do it; why can't I?"  So I got my music and did this particular moment with the arm movement, and I thought, "Oh!  That's not too too bad."  I put the other arm up and I tell you, I was carrying on in that mirror for about half an hour!  So the next day I got to class and we were repeating this scene.  She couldn't believe it.  She said, "What happened to you?!  What happened to Grace?"  We were all smiles, of course, and that was my rebirth.  I had been a very inhibited, sheltered little girl; very self-conscious up to that point.  All of a sudden, Grace was a different person!

BD:   Do you now still work on new gestures or new facial expressions in front of a mirror?

GB:   Not so much facial expressions, but gestures to see what it looks like, whether it works, whether it "reads" out into the audience or not.  Now that I have my little video camera, that's even better.

BD:   Does it ever surprise you to see something that you thought looked like one thing, and seeing it from the front it looks like something else?

GB:   I immediately change that.  [Both laugh]  It's good to be aware of those things because you can't really see yourself.  I find it very interesting that we have this video camera at this point in my life so that I can perfect these little things.  For a person in my stage of life it could be a help, but it could be a hindrance for a young singer.  I think it depends on how discriminant they are because they could become to tied to that video machine and not really have it from the inside.

BD:   Do young singers, as a general rule, tend to work on little bits of technique rather than from the heart?

GB:   Yes.  I find many, many singers
unfortunately, most of themhave a grab bag of externals, and don't really sing from the heart.  That's why there are so few star singers.  It's the star singers who sing from heart out.  That's been my experience and my analysis up to now.  And if you find a young singer who sings from heart out, they've got to be very, very careful that they don't give too much.  Then all of a sudden, all they do is give drama to the detriment of the vocal cords.  It's not easy!

BD:   Is that why maybe some singers are known for one or two roles?

GB:   No, I think that's going to always be, that you find certain singers who are famous just for those one or two roles.  They might be very, very fine in other roles as well, but you can't be famous in every role you sing.  You can't be the greatest in every role you sing.

BD:   Don't you want to be the greatest in every role?

GB:   I would love to be!  I would love to be, but I know that I'm not the greatest in every role that I sing.  I know that I'm very good in almost all of my roles, but I'm not the greatest, no.

BD:   [With a slight nudge]  Are there any that stand out for you as being personal favorites?

GB:   My personal favorites are Norma, Gioconda, Tosca and Eboli.  In the past, it had been also Amneris.

BD:   Do you miss Amneris?

GB:   Mmmmmm... not really.

BD:   You're awfully hesitant about that.  [Both chuckle]

GB:   It depends, you see.

BD:   Have you done the title role?

bumbry GB:   Yes.  I really like Aïda very much.  But I also love Amneris.

BD:   If a record producer came to you and said "We want to do a recording with Grace Bumbry as Aïda and Grace Bumbry as Amneris," would you do it?

GB:   Definitely.  I've done it on television for the BBC.

BD:   [Genuinely surprised]  I didn't know that!  Did it work?

GB:   Oh, and how!

BD:   How was the confrontation scene between the two?

GB:   Fantastic!

BD:   Did you like talking to yourself?  [Both laugh]

GB:   That was very tricky.  What you do is you go through one whole part.  I think we did Amneris first; she's the main part.  Then we did the part of Aïda, but you have to remember where you were standing.  It was very interesting.  I think we did it in two takes.

BD:   [Facetiously]  You didn't have the urge to slap yourself in the face?

GB:   No, but there was a little line where the director told me, "Don't get too close to her, Grace."

BD:   Are there any other parts like that for you?  Would you do both Venus and Elisabeth?  Of course, they never meet...

GB:   Sure!

BD:   Have you a passion for Wagner?

GB:   I don't have a passion for Wagner.  I have a passion for Verdi!  Italian opera is really my obsession.

BD:   So you don't miss the role of Venus at all.

GB:   No.  I sing enough Wagner.  I sing Venus and Elisabeth both almost every year, especially in Germany. 

BD:   Tell me bit about Gioconda.  Do you like her?

GB:   I love Gioconda, yes.

BD:   Vocally or dramatically or both?

GB:   Both.  Vocally, dramatically, musically, everything.  There are some little crazy little silly moments in Gioconda, but if you have a good stage director who understands what he's doing, then it can be really wonderful.

BD:   It's a five-sided triangle... the baritone loves the soprano, who loves the tenor, who loves the mezzo, who's married to the bass.

GB:   [Bursts out laughing]  That's right.  Makes it interesting, doesn't it?  There are some beautiful moments in Gioconda, beautiful moments, but again, you have got to have a soprano who has a sense of drama!

BD:   So you don't live for the big moments, you live for the whole thing as a totality.

GB:   Mm-hmm.  You're absolutely right.  That's why I find the moment of the Vissi d'arte a bit of a letdown in Tosca.

BD:   Do you wish that Puccini had left it out?

GB:   A bit, yes.  I know Callas has said that, too, but I do agree because all of a sudden this drama [stomps foot on floor] happens to come to an end right there!  It comes to a [stomps foot on floor] standstill!  Mind you, maybe it'd be very good for the audience that it have a moment of repose.  Maybe he did it on purpose for that reason.  I don't know, but I thought he wrote it because the soprano who was singing it requested it.  I think it's unfortunate, though.

BD:   Would you ever do the Sardou play?

GB:   I'm not an actress; no!  But it's interesting that you mention that, because I think that very often what we should do is to have an operatic cast
like the one we had last nightget together and do that play, or the libretto without the music, before doing it as an opera.

BD:   In front of an audience?

GB:   No, just for their own preparation!  I think it's very important, and we'd find far more little nuances in the opera by having done the play.  It's a dreamer's paradise, isn't it?

BD:   We'll see if we can write that into the next contract.  [Much laughter]

GB:   Well that would be really quite interesting.  The play of Giocond
a [Angelo, tyran de Padoue (1835 play in prose by Victor Hugo)] is a very interesting play.  I liked it very much, but Sardou's Tosca is also very interesting.

BD:   I'd like to see that sometime.  I'd also like to see Schiller's Don Carlos.

GB:   Yes.  I saw that in my early opera days in the Basel Stadttheater.  That same season we did the opera.  That's very good for the audience because they get to see both.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask about Norma.  Is she a complicated woman?

bumbry GB:   I don't find her complicated at all.  She is very straightforward and self-sacrificing.

BD:   Some people have called her the "Not-so-Vestal Not-so-Virgin."

GB:   So?  You have to have something in the play, don't you?  [Hearty laughter all around]

BD:   Do you prefer that opera in two acts or four?

GB:   I think four.

BD:   Then you have three intermissions.

GB:   [Somewhat sternly]  What do you think the singers are, some kind of gladiators???  No!

BD:   Do you feel like you are a gladiator sometimes?

GB:   You can say that!  [Both laugh]  That's for sure. I do think that it's easier for the singers in four acts rather than doing it in only two.  Maybe that's why Lilli Lehmann said singing Norma was more difficult than doing all three Brünnhildes!

BD:   Do you feel that Norma is more difficult than any other part that you sing?

GB:   I think yes.  Definitely.  She sings an awful lot.

BD:   Had you done Adalgisa?

GB:   I've done two performances of Adalgisa eight days from my first Norma.

BD:   Do you enjoy the part of Adalgisa?

GB:   No.  It's not for me.  My character is too dramatic for that, my flair is too different.  I have to scale myself down
I don't mean my voice, I mean my whole character and intensity.

BD:   Do you enjoy doing concert-opera?

GB:   I have done one with Eve Queler, Le Cid

BD:   Does concert-opera work?

GB:   Sure!  It gives the audience a chance to hear something new, to at least be exposed to that particular piece of music they might not ever see on stage.  But it should be or has been important piece of music.

BD:   Did you enjoy Le Cid?

GB:   I did, and I find it a pity that it has not been done in a staged version because it's so beautiful!  But I would imagine it'd be extremely expensive.  It's a mammoth piece of music.

BD:   What new roles are you learning?

GB:   I don't want to learn another role; I don't wanna hear about another role at least for another year.  My brain is completely gone.  I'm so tired of learning.  I learned three operas last year.  The Medea I learned with City Opera, and don't forget there was no prompter in City Opera.  I'd never sung in City Opera and I promised Beverly I'd do her this favor, so I did it.  Imagine, my first time singing Medea ever, and with no prompter!!!  My heart was going really fast!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Do you rely on the prompter, or is it just a comfort to have him there?

GB:   I don't rely on him in operas that I've sung a thousand times, but a first performance?  If, let's say, we had never ever had a prompter in our career, then you know that you don't have a prompter and you don't worry about it.  We would all learn the music well enough not to have to have to count on a prompter.  But for this first performance, to be without a prompter I was frightened to death.  I had to hire my own prompter for my rehearsals to give me all my little cues.  My rehearsals were going too erratic, and I didn't know what was coming next because in a rehearsal you get accustomed to the prompter being there.  He helps you, and just one little word keeps the movement going, keeps the action going in a staging rehearsal.  So I hired my own prompter for that, and by the time of the first performance
by the time of the dress rehearsalI was fine.

BD:   You didn't have the prompter there for the performances?

GB:   No.  [Clicks her tongue several times in disgust at the thought]

BD:   Besides Medea, what were the other two roles you learned this year?

GB:   Forza del destino, and I had to refresh Nabucco.  I hadn't sung that in maybe three years, so it was like learning a new role.

BD:   Do you like Abigaille?  It seems like a terribly awkward thing to sing.

GB:   It is awkward.  The aria is not awkward; it's that very first ensemble that's awkward because of those enormous skips.  But once you get past that and over into the second act, then it's beautiful music with the big aria Anch'io dischiuso.  That's very beautiful, and then the cabaletta behind it.  I grant you it's difficult, but at least the line is already better there because it's shades of Bellini in this early Verdi.  From that point on you're home free.  It's just that first act which is so unvocal.

BD:   There was a time when they were saying that Verdi was mistreating the human voice, and didn't know how to write for it.

GB:   I really wouldn't say that.  I think Verdi, probably better than any other composer, understood the voice.  Maybe at the very beginning he didn't, but he certainly made up for those mistakes later on in his writings.

BD:   If someone came to you today wanting to write a part for Grace Bumbry, what advice would you give that composer?

GB:   What advice?  To study Verdi.  [Both laugh]  And Bellini.  He wrote a lovely, wonderful line.  That's what makes the people's hearts jump a quicker beat; a beautiful line and a beautiful luscious melody to sing.  Today they could write something that's not always in a major key, but enough to let people know that they're still alive.  I would think they'd have to first think about the beauty of the voice.

BD:   Is that something that we're missing now, that composers today don't understand the voice?

GB:   I don't know whether they don't understand it, or whether they just would rather have it sound more mechanical, more instrumental.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You don't want to think of yourself as a clarinet?

GB:   No!  [Playfully]  A cello, maybe, for the long legato.

BD:   Do you sing any modern opera at all?

GB:   What you call modern opera?  I call Dukas modern opera.

BD:   Ariane is a lovely work, but I'm thinking of atonal things.  You're not going to sing Lulu, are you?

GB:   No, you can count on that.  [Both laugh]  Nor Wozzeck either.  Why should I sing those things when there are people who can sing them far better than I ever could?

BD:   Do you enjoy Salome?

GB:   [Pauses for a moment]  Yes and no.  I like the Schlussgesang, of course, at the very end.  I like that even though it's terribly difficult.  The thing I don't like about it is having to do that dance.  If someone could do the dance for me, then I wouldn't mind it so much.  As you go on in years, you get little bit heavier, and at my age you can't be goin' gallavantin' and carousin' and cavortin' around on the stage like a little girl of 16
or whatever she's supposed to beespecially if you're not a dancer!

BD:   When you were first preparing the role, did you specifically take some ballet lessons in order to deal with the dance?

GB:   Oh sure, but it's still not the same.  When I did the initial performances, I really had to concentrate on that from October until the following June!  I was taking my ballet lessons and my gymnastic lessons for the dance, but once that's over, you don't have the time to build up from October to June for every time you're going to do Salome.  So that preparation time has been done only once, and you don't really feel that you've done the role justice.

BD:   Are you glad when the dance is over and you can get on with the final scene?

GB:   Yes.  But not only because of the physical part of it.  If you're not a dancer, you have to get that extra bit of nerve to get out there and make a fool of yourself.

BD:   Are you aware of all the men out there drooling?

GB:   Well thank goodness they're so far away.  [Both laugh]  They can't see the mistakes you make.  But the funny thing that about the men...  The first time I did Salome in Covent Garden, they have these binoculars that you can rent, and they had never earned so much money from the binoculars as they had at those performances.  [Both laugh]  The funny thing was, when you're dancing you start the dance off and you face forward.  All of a sudden I saw something shining all over the building!  I wondered what was going on, and realized the glasses were all coming up!

BD:   Don't you want to be a sex goddess and have your picture on the cover of Playboy?

GB:   [With mock enthusiasm]  Oh sure, I'd love that.  Yeah, to be on the cover of Playboy.  I don't really need to be on the cover of Playboy, thank you very much.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Are you coming back to Chicago?  Can we hope?

bumbry30 GB:   We can hope!  I don't think in the next four years, unless we squeeze something in.  My problem is that I divide my time with Europe and also with my recitals.  So I've got a triad that I have to work out.  I don't believe in doing too much in one place because people begin to get tired of you.  So I try not to do too much in one city.

BD:   So then every time you come, wherever you land it's a special occasion.

GB:   Yes.  On the other hand, if you don't give enough they don't get enough time to really enjoy you.  Sometimes I think maybe I should do two operas instead of one, but then it makes me stay too long.

BD:   Do you like traveling all over the world?

GB:   [Emphatically]  No.  I don't really like it anymore.

BD:   Do you wish you were a Madison Avenue type that has a nice office and can come home every night for dinner?

GB:   That would be nice, too but you made your choice and you have to stick with it!  It's far more interesting to be a singer of course, but at the same time, Madison Avenue is also a very exciting place to be.  Madison Avenue is fabulous!  Anybody who has a job on Madison Avenue must be doing very well!  So you can't really knock that either.

BD:   Any parts that you're longing to do, that you're thinking "Gee, I'm looking forward to that two or three years from now"?

GB:   I've got to do Turandot.

BD:   Why?  Does Grace Bumbry say you have to do that, or does the public say you have to do that?

GB:   Both.  Actually I was supposed to do it already someplace in Italy and in Covent Garden.  But with the budgets and the money matters all across the world now, they had to cancel them.

BD:   Do you like being booked so far ahead?

GB:   Sure!

BD:   Is it a comfortable feeling knowing that on October the 3rd five years from now you're going to be singing a certain role in a certain house?

GB:   Sure!

BD:   Do you know that you'll be psychologically ready for that particular role, or do you ever wish that you could be more spontaneous?

GB:   If you're going to have five years to get there, you should be psychologically ready.

BD:   Do you ever get to a point where something has been booked for a long time and you think, "I wish I had opted for the other opera instead of the one I'm doing"?

GB:   No, I never have.  I had a situation almost like that with Jenůfa at La Scala 19 years ago.  I had my choice, then, of which role to sing.  I could've done Jenůfa or Kostelnička, and of course I chose Jenůfa because she's a young lady and she is title role.  Then we got into rehearsal and Magda Olivero was Kostelnička.  When I saw this role I said, "That's the role I want!"  But it was wonderful, so it was a grave mistake on my part.

BD:   Have you since then sung Kostelnička?

GB:   No; I'm a bit too young for Kostelnička, actually.  Maybe in another five years
if I still sing then...  [Musing a bit]  She was wonderful in that.  Boy, was she good.

BD:   In Europe there's a tradition where the aging singer, rather than retiring, moves into smaller character parts to lend that experience to the stage.  Do you see yourself doing that later on in your career?

GB:   No way.  I think that'd be a great psychological problem.  I don't think one can do it.  But you mustn't forget that they came in a period when we didn't have the jet.  They didn't travel nearly as much, and when they traveled, they came on the ocean liner, which was a wonderful way to travel.  But now, traveling all the time, back and forth, here and yon, takes its toll!  I cannot imagine anybody, once they have gone through the whole proper big career, to continue it in smaller roles.  It wouldn't be for me even if I didn't have to travel.  I wouldn't want to do it; it wouldn't work for my psyche.

BD:   Might you teach or do master classes?

GB:   I don't know.  I wouldn't teach voice, in any case.  That's too great a responsibility.  There's so many teachers out there who do such injustice to these young singers.  They get them off on the wrong track, and once a singer is off on the wrong track it's so difficult to correct those things.  If I taught at all, it would have to be the art of interpretation in a Master Class.  But I'm really not looking forward to it.

BD:   Anyway, it's a long time off.

GB:   [Chuckles]  Noooo-ho-ho-ho, not so long as you think.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Thank you so very much for coming back to Chicago!

GB:   Ah, I'm glad to have come!

BD:   And thank you for being so gracious this afternoon.

GB:   It was my pleasure.

Grace Melzia Bumbry

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, she became interested in music when, as a little girl, she was taken to concerts of Marian Anderson. Her life was altered forever after this experience and she absorbed every recording of classical music that she could find. Encouraged by all who knew her singing, at age 16, she won first prize in a local radio contest which awarded her the opportunity to appear on the then famous “Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout Program” where she sang “O Don Fatale” from Verdi’s Don Carlo. She then began her studies at Boston University and later at Northern University where she met the woman who would change her life forever -- Lotte Lehmann. The renowned diva heard Ms. Bumbry while giving master classes and invited her to Santa Barbara, California, to the “Music Academy of the West”.

Through the influence of Jacqueline Kennedy and the American Embassy in Paris, Bumbry was granted an audition at the Paris Opera where she was immediately engaged and made her operatic debut as Amneris in Aïda at the Paris Opera, the first person of color to sing at the house. The extraordinary success of these performances by the 23-year old Bumbry created such a stir in the opera world that she was immediately invited to audition in Bayreuth for Wieland Wagner, grandson of the composer Richard Wagner. He immediately cast her as Venus in a new production of Tannhäuser. When the press discovered that the new Venus would be a (Schwarze) black singer, there began protests in several publications. However, Wagner remained steadfast in his decision stating that his grandfather would want the best voice for the part and Ms. Bumbry certainly had that voice. Ms. Bumbry, unmoved by the negative press, went on stage and changed history by becoming the first person of color to be cast in a major role at the prestigious opera in Bayreuth. The next day she was hailed as “The Black Venus” (“Die Schwarze Venus”) propelling her into international stardom. She sang in 1962, one year later, a recital at the White House under the Kennedy administration. It was another “first.”  In December 2009 Ms. Bumbry received the most prestigious and coveted award in America for one’s contributions to the arts, The Kennedy Center Honors.

Grace Bumbry, unlike the many singers that came before her, coped with international success and stardom very well. Because of Bumbry´s singing gifts, Lotte Lehmann was able to develop her innate musical abilities and transform her into a singing actress. Her roles, amongst others, included Amneris in Aïda, Eboli in Don Carlo, Azucena in Il Trovatore, Ulrica in Un Ballo in Maschera, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Carmen, Dalila, Gluck’s Orfeo, Adalgisa in Norma, Selika in L’Africaine, and Didon in Les Troyens.

Accustomed to making headlines wherever her travels took her she demanded world attention by changing to the soprano repertory. In her new fach she sang the title role of Richard Strauss’s Salome, Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana, Abigaille in Nabucco, Cherubini’s Medea in Medea, Spontini’s La Vestale, Jenůfa in Jenůfa, the title role of La Gioconda, Ariane in Ariane et Barbe-bleu, Leonora in both Il Trovatore and La Forza del Destino, Tosca and Turnadot. She gave another “tour de force” performance at Covent Garden when she sang Norma and Adalgisa in the same production of Norma within a period of two weeks.
From the beginning Grace Bumbry was an acclaimed recitalist, and her recitals merited the exclamation “authentic and keeping with tradition” a standard and style of singing she learned from her famous teacher Lotte Lehmann, a great lieder exponent.

Ms. Bumbry is especially proud of being named Goodwill Ambassador to “UNESCO”, receiving The American Guild of Musical Artists´ (the dance and opera union in America) first “Lawrence Tibbett Award” awarded, France’s “L’Officier des Arts et Lettres”, as well as the “Commandeur des Arts et Lettres”, Italy’s Giacomo Puccini award for her interpretation of Tosca and the “Premio Giuseppe Verdi” award.

Ms. Bumbry was a favourite collaborator of the world’s greatest conductors -- Claudio Abbado, Leonard Berstein, Kurt Böhm, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Herbert von Karajan, James Levine, Loren Maazel, Seiji Ozawa, Giuseppe Patanè, Wolfgang Sawallisch, and Sir Georg Solti, among others.

Not every artist gives back to the music community, but Bumbry believes that it is neces­sary to pass on tradition, style and the insatiable love for opera and music to all who want to ob­tain it. She teaches all over the world in universities and colleges giving master classes, and in 2009 she founded The Grace Bumbry Vocal and Opera Academy in Berlin. At this age, she is still elegant in her delivery, poignant in her intent – a true icon of the world of opera.

-- Biography from IMG Artists Website (with slight corrections) 

© 1982 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on October 14, 1982.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1987, 1989, and again in 1997.  A brief segment was used by Lyric Opera of Chicago as part of their Celebration of Jubilarians, part of their 50th Anniversary Season in 2004-2005.  Portions of the interview were transcribed and published in Opera Scene in May, 1983.  This full transcription was made and posted on this website in 2012.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.