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)
This interview was recorded in Chicago on October 14,
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
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.
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.