Grace Bumbry, a renowned opera singer who garnered international acclaim as a mezzo-soprano, has passed away, NPR reports. She was 86.
David Lee Brewer, Bumbry's publicist, confirmed that she passed at Evangelisches Krankenhausin, a hospital in Vienna, due to complications from an ischemic stroke that she suffered last year.
Along with Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett, George Shirley, Reri Grist, and Martina Arroyo, Bumbry was a part of one of the best eras of opera for Black singers.
Born on January 4, 1937, in St. Louis, Bumbry launched her singing career at Ville’s Sumner High School, where she won a talent contest sponsored by radio station KMOX. Her prize included a scholarship to the St. Louis Institute of Music, but she was refused entry because she was Black.
She went on to attend Boston University College of Fine Arts and Northwestern, where she met soprano Lotte Lehmann. Lehmann became her teacher and mentor at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California.
In 1958, Bumbry was among several winners of the Met National Council Auditions. The same year, she made her recital debut and made her first appearance at the Paris Opéra debut in 1960 as Amneris in “Aida.”
Bumbry made history as the first Black woman to perform at the Bayreuth Festival in an opera written by a writer who had a reputation for antisemitism and German nationalism. Critics of the controversial move said that the composer would have “turned in his grave.”
In an interview with St. Louis Magazine in 2021, she spoke candidly about her experiences with racism as she rose to superstardom in the opera world.
“I remember being discriminated against in the United States, so why should it be any different in Germany?” Bumbry recalled. “I knew that I had to get up there and show them what I’m about. When we were in high school, our teachers — and my parents, of course — taught us that you are no different than anybody else. You are not better than anybody, and you are not lesser than anybody. You have to do your best all the time.”
In February 1962, Bumbry was invited by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy to sing at a White House state dinner and debuted at Carnegie Hall in November 1962. She also performed at London’s Royal Opera in 1963 and Milan’s Teatro alla Scala in 1964.
After performing on some of the most prestigious stages across the globe, Bumbry performed her final full opera at the Met at Amneris in Verdi’s “Aida” on Nov. 3, 1986.
Of the many honors she received in her remarkable career, she was recognized at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2009.
Peter Gelb, the General Manager of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, paid tribute to Bumbry saying that “opera will be forever in her debt for the pioneering role she played as one of the first great African-American stars."
“Grace Bumbry was the first opera star I ever heard in person in 1967 when she was singing the role of Carmen at the Met and I was a 13-year-old sitting with my parents in Rudolf Bing’s box,” he continued. “Hearing and seeing her giving a tour-de-force performance made a big impression on my teenage soul and was an early influence on my decision to pursue a career in the arts, just as she influenced generations of younger singers of all ethnicities to follow in her formidable footsteps.”
Memorials are currently being planned to honor Bumbry in Vienna and New York.
We, at EBONY, extend our prayers and deepest condolences to the family and friends of Grace Bumbry.