Grace Bumbry (1937-2023)

Grace Bumbry, who was a mainstay of the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, the Vienna State Opera and other major companies and was the first Black singer to perform at the Bayreuth Festival, has died at 86.

Denied admission to a segregated conservatory in her native St. Louis, Bumbry performed on Arthur Godfrey’s “Talent Scouts” program, an appearance that led to her enrollment at Boston and Northwestern universities and studies with the great German-American soprano Lotte Lehmann.

A mezzo-soprano who later took on soprano roles, Bumbry made her stage debut in 1960 at the Paris Ópera as Amneris in Verdi’s “Aïda,” and was dubbed the “Black Venus” after singing that role in Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” at Bayreuth in 1961. In 1962 she sang at a state dinner at the White House at the invitation of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, and made her debut at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

She went on to sing many mezzo and soprano roles at major US and European opera houses through the 1990s, including the Met’s first staging of the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess” in 1985, in which she co-starred with bass-baritone Simon Estes.

Initially retiring from the opera stage in 1997, she returned in a 2010 Paris production of Scott Joplin’s “Treemonisha” and a 2013 Vienna production of Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades.”

She also founded and starred in the Grace Bumbry Black Musical Heritage Ensemble, which toured in the 1990s with performances of spirituals.

An obituary by The New York Times’ Alex Williams:

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