Born Grace Ann Bumbry, January 4, 1937, in St. Louis, MO; daughter of Benjamin James (a freight handler for a railroad company) and Melzia (a schoolteacher) Bumbry; married Edwin Andreas Jaeckel, 1963 (divorced 1972). Education: Studied at Boston University, Northwestern University, and with Lotte Lehmann at the Music Academy of the West, Santa Barbara, California. Addresses: Agent--Columbia Artists Management, attention Zemsky-Green, 165 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
Ancient Egypt, Macbeth's Scotland, Spain---singer Grace Bumbry has been transporting opera fans to such exotic worlds for more than 30 years. Initially trained as a mezzo-soprano, she switched to the slightly higher soprano register in 1970. Both repertoires have always shown a voice of silken purity that teams with a vibrant ability to bring operatic characters to life.
Bumbry's schedule is filled a year in advance, but every couple of months between tours she manages to fit in visits with her family. In addition, she finds time to guide young singers and lecture to disadvantaged teenagers about the undisputed benefits of concentration and hard work.
Grace Bumbry was born in 1937 in St. Louis, Missouri, to a freight handler for the Cotton Belt Route railroad and his wife, a Mississippi schoolteacher who had once dreamed of becoming a singer herself. A religious, middle-class couple, Benjamin and Melzia Bumbry taught their three children to count their riches in music. There were always neighborhood kids rehearsing at the house after school; there was singing around the piano in the evenings; and there was warbling around the washtub on Saturdays, when the family did the laundry. Every Thursday night, the parents went off to rehearse with their church choir, while their sons, Benjamin and Charles, sang in the youth chorus. Too young to stay home alone, Grace tagged along with her brothers, who eventually persuaded their choir master to let her join the group, even though she was younger than the other members.
The choir soon became the focus of Bumbry's life. Though unenthusiastic about the piano lessons she took with her mother, she lost no opportunity to practice singing her songs, which were already drawing admiring applause from church audiences when she was 11 years old.
Bumbry entered Sumner High School with her eyes already fixed on the concert sage. Determined to learn as much as she could as fast as possible, she practiced constantly, often storming home from music lessons in tears when dissatisfied with her own performance. The first of several important mentors, no-nonsense voice teacher Kenneth Billups guided her carefully, pacing his lessons to her developing voice and reining her in when she wanted to leap ahead.
In 1954 St. Louis radio station KMOX held a teenage talent contest. Billups encouraged his 17-year-old student to enter, sharing her pleasure when she won. Grace was now the proud possessor of a $1,000 war bond, a free trip to New York, and a $1,000 scholarship to the St. Louis Institute of Music.
The scholarship proved to be a bitter blessing; it slammed her up against the ugly reality of a prejudiced board of trustees who offered her segregated private lessons at the institute in lieu of admission alongside other students. Rosalyn Story, in her book And So I Sing, recalled Melzia Bumbry's parting shot after an acrimonious meeting with institute trustees: "It may be YOUR school, but it's MY daughter," she said, and stalked out.
A crisp revenge came by way of embarrassed KMOX executives, who did their best to neutralize Grace's pain by arranging for her to sing on Arthur Godfrey's nationally televised Talent Scouts program. According to a 1962 Ebony magazine feature, opera buff Godfrey was moved to tears by her interpretation of the aria "O Don Fatale" from nineteenth-century Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi's Don Carlos. "Her name will be one of the most famous names in music one day," he declared. "Beautiful! Just beautiful!"
Godfrey was not alone in his opinion. Soon scholarship offers began to pour in from colleges--several of them known for training far superior to that found at the St. Louis Institute of Music.
Bumbry was still a high school senior when a second mentor entered her life. Contralto Marian Anderson had been a musical legend for many years. Scheduled to appear in 1955 as the first black member of the Metropolitan Opera Company, Anderson experienced bittersweet triumph over prejudice. Anderson's brush with bigotry had come in 1939, when the Daughters of the American Revolution had barred her appearance in Washington's Constitution Hall. Undaunted, she sang instead for a 75,000-strong Easter Sunday audience on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a venue that displayed her magnificent voice and dignified bearing to perfection.
A woman of pragmatic intelligence, Anderson was quick to acknowledge that impresario Sol Hurok had been a wise and steadfast friend on her journey to fame. "My mother taught me you can't do anything by yourself," Anderson told Ebony magazine in 1982. "There's always somebody to make the stone flat for you to stand on."
Having reached the pinnacle of her own fame, Marian Anderson gladly made the stone flat for a promising high-school senior when a tour brought her to St. Louis in 1954. She took time out to put a dazzled Bumbry at ease, to listen intently while she sang her good luck aria "O Don Fatale," and to report her opinion of the yung singer's "magnificent voice" to Sol Hurok.
A longtime representative of such artists as pianist Arthur Rubenstein and violinist Isaac Stern, Hurok knew that much hard work still lay between Grace Bumbry and any guidance he could provide. At present he simply kept an eye on her, noting that she had picked the Boston University scholarship from the many offers the appearance on Arthur Godfrey's show had brought.
Unfortunately Boston was not a success. Wanting an indefinable "something extra," Bumbry transferred to Northwestern University in Chicago. She has never been able to explain why Northwestern beckoned so insistently, but she readily admits that the decision to go there transformed her life by introducing her to yet another invaluable mentor.
Lotte Lehmann had been one of opera's immortals since her debut in 1909. She swiftly matured into the type of singer whose performance becomes a standard for others. Lehmann had retired from the stage in 1951 but continued to contribute to opera by passing her own interpretative techniques on to young singers with promising futures.
Bumbry and Lehmann arrived at Northwestern simultaneously--Bumbry as a student, Lehmann to offer master-classes. Bumbry presented some meticulously prepared operatic scenes and songs for Madame Lehmann's criticism and was thrilled to receive an invitation to spend a summer at her Musical Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California. Eager to see that nothing stood in the way, Lehmann even arranged a scholarship, which was partly funded by comedian Anna Russell.
Bumbry worked so hard in Santa Barbara that the original summer stretched to three and a half years of study. Still aiming for a career as a concert artist, she studied with a fierce intensity, taking piano lessons; lessons from Lehmann in how to analyze every piece of music down to its skeletal essence; lessons in French, German and Italian, so she could sing the works of the world's best-known composers; and lessons in musical theory.
She also took lessons with voice teacher Armand Tokatyan, who categorized her voice as a dramatic soprano. Lehmann disagreed. Bumbry's voice was a mezzo-soprano, she said, and should be trained as one. It was a significant difference of opinion. A mezzo-soprano's range is lower than that sung by a soprano, and the voice itself, usually darker and more richly textured, covers a different repertoire of roles. Equally qualified to judge, Lehmann and Tokatyan never compromised; their disagreement ended only with Tokatyan's death in 1960.
Lehmann continued to train Grace Bumbry as a mezzo-soprano. Overcoming her student's shyness about acting, she coaxed her into learning songs needing drama to round them out. She tempted her into learning operatic arias and lent her books on the historical periods in which certain operas were set. Then, Lehmann persuaded Bumbry to refocus her career goal towards opera itself.
Bumbry was still in California when she began to build a reputation promising enough to merit the Marian Anderson Scholarship and the John Hay Whitney Award for 1957, plus a joint first prize with soprano Martina Arroyo the next year in the Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air. Her prize money mounted, allowing her to spend a summer in Europe studying the French art song.
By 1960 Bumbry's career was clearly on its way. She made her debut at the Paris Opera as Amneris in Verdi's Aida and signed a two-year contract with the Opera House of Basel, Switzerland. However, these events were but preliminaries to the big break, which came later that year.
Bumbry happened to be in Cologne, Germany, when conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch of Bavaria's Bayreuth Festival was searching for a possible Venus for Richard Wagner's opera Tannhauser. She sang for him and was invited to audition for Wieland Wagner, director of Bayreuth and grandson of the composer.
Wagner had definite ideas about the ideal Venus. He was planning an avant-garde production, and he wanted a mezzo-soprano who could tempt Tannhauser the Wanderer into her citadel of love with an elegant mixture of mystery and controlled sexuality. Despite the fact that Venus had previously been sung only by white singers, Wagner offered Bumbry the part.
Immediately, Bayreuth began to buzz with angry letters and unwelcome press coverage. "A cultural disgrace!" blared the neo-Nazi German Reich Party. "If Richard Wagner knew this," wrote another correspondent in a letter quoted in Newsweek, "he'd be turning in his grave! Why does Venus have to be black? We've always known her as pink."
Bayreuth's director kept his head. Wieland Wagner was uncomfortably aware that his composer-grandfather had been such a notorious racist and anti-Semite that black GIs who had liberated the city during World War II had paraded sarcastically through the streets dressed in Wagner opera costumes. He was now determined to erase the Aryan stigma that still hung over Bayreuth. So he answered his critics very carefully, stating, as recounted in Rosalind Story's And So I Sing: "I shall bring in black, brown and yellow artists if I feel them appropriate for productions. When I heard Grace Bumbry I knew she was the perfect Venus. Grandfather would have been delighted."
Bumbry kept away from the fracas and concentrated on bringing the bewitching temptress to life. Her effort brought its reward on opening night in 1961. Dressed in a spectacular gold costume, she sang the role of Venus with self-assured radiance. It was an unforgettable performance all around. The curtain came down to thunderous applause that rocked the theater for a full 30 minutes and brought the cast back for 42 curtain calls.
Bumbry has often remarked that racial prejudice is not a great problem in opera. Far more important are technical perfection and musicality--the ability to interpret the composer's wishes while adding an individual stamp to any role. Yet the question of skin color is one that a black singer must face. For instance, there are certain times when members of an operatic cast play a fictional family, and an opera's realism may be considerably compromised if these family members do not have similar skin tones. The solution, of course, is to use the right makeup.
At Bayreuth, Bumbry's skin color issue had been easily solved with gold body paint to match Venus's golden gown. But the question came up again later in the year, when she had to look Russian for a Basel production of Tchaikovsky's Evgeny Onegin. The company makeup artist experimented but came up with a formula that turned the diva's face yellow and did nothing to emphasize her huge doe eyes. Bumbry began to learn the intricacies of personalized stage makeup and came up with a formula so successful that the company adopted it to broaden the color palette for other artists.
This triumphant year was in its full midsummer bloom in August, when impresario Sol Hurok left his watchful place in the shadows to summon Bumbry to London. She signed a five-year, $250,000 contract for recordings, television appearances, and opera and concert engagements. Hurok also outlined plans for an American tour in November of 1962 and made arrangements to bring her back to Washington, D.C. in February, where she sang for President and Mrs. Kennedy and other dignitaries at the White House.
Bumbry's tour at the end of 1962 mared her as one of America's most distinguished artists. Lasting nine exhausting weeks, it consisted of a Carnegie Hall concert debut as well as 25 performances in 21 other cities, including St. Louis, where she sang for a packed 3,000-strong house in the same auditorium in which Marian Anderson had thrilled her eight years earlier. She reveled in the first family Christmas she had enjoyed in years and also visited her alma mater, Sumner High School, where she sat in on one of Mr. Billups's classes. The sight of the mentor who had set her on the road to stardom reportedly moved her to tears.
Since she was now part of the opera company in Basel, Switzerland, Bumbry bought a villa in nearby Lugano. Other new acquisitions included apartments in New York and California, plus a Mercedes Benz, a Jaguar, and a bright-orange Lamborghini that she used for her new hobby--auto-racing.
Nineteen sixty-three was a big year for the singer. Covent Garden audiences were introduced to Bumbry in Don Carlos, and Chicago's Lyric Opera featured her in Tannhauser. She was also married that year to Erwin Andreas Jaeckel, a Polish-born tenor she had met in Basel. Jaeckel soon gave up his career to manage hers and was thus able to take care of her 1965 Metropolitan Opera debut.
The 1970s brought several changes. One of the most important was Bumbry's decision to concentrate on soprano roles rather than the mezzo-soprano repertoire. Her first soprano role was that of Salome, which she sang at Covent Garden in 1970. Feeling sure of her ability to handle this new challenge, she gave in to a mischievous urge and "let slip" to the press that the end of the "Dance of the Seven Veils" would show her stripped "to her jewels and her perfume." On opening night, sure enough, the jewels were much in evidence-- securely attached to a flesh-colored bikini. Salome was an absolute sensation, as she told Ebony magazine in 1973. "Covent Garden had never before rented so many opera glasses. When I started dancing everything else on stage stopped and I could see the glasses going up en masse."
Salome became an enduring success, which was soon joined by other dramatic soprano roles in operas such as Macbeth, Vincenzo Bellini's notoriously difficult Norma, and, in 1975, Paul Dukas's Ariane and Bluebeard in a revival staged especially for her. The switch to the soprano range, it seemed, had been a perfect career move.
Jaeckel, however, still thought of his wife as a mezzo-soprano and could not accept that she had reached the decision to change her register independent of his judgment. The disagreement rankled, and along with too much togetherness, was a major factor in the couple's 1972 divorce. With Jaeckel's departure went much of the flamboyant lifestyle, including the orange Lamborghini.
As the decade wore on, two other major mentors passed away. Lotte Lehmann died at age 88, and Sol Hurok, reverently eulogized by Marian Anderson, passed away at age 85. Anderson herself, the "stone-flattener" who had given Grace Bumbry her first close-up look at fame, was then still in good health. In February of 982, then 80 years old, she was honored by Bumbry and African American soprano Shirley Verrett with a Carnegie Hall concert that took a year to arrange.
Not all events were as happy. The previous year, Bumbry had returned to the United States to sing the role of Abigaille in Beverly Sills's New York City Opera production of Nabucco, by Verdi. Despite acknowledgement that Abigaille is one of opera's most taxing characters, the production itself met with lukewarm reviews.
The Metropolitan Opera's 1985 production of Porgy and Bess was much more successful. Incredibly, this was the 50-year-old opera's first appearance at the Met, since it had previously been regarded as part of the popular, rather than the classical, musical repertoire. American composer George Gershwin had carved this niche for Porgy and Bess; adamant that all American productions be played by black artists rather than by white singers in blackface, he chose to unveil it on Broadway, where black singers were more readily available.
At first, feeling that the opera represented a period of history most African Americans preferred to forget, Bumbry was unenthusiastic about the project. But once tempted into accepting it, she threw herself into the work with her usual zest and resurrected Bess in a performance that ended in ten triumphant curtain calls on opening night.
The diva from St. Louis achieved an unshakable artistic maturity with the beginning of the 1990s. Along with the poise that is her longtime trademark, this trait proved invaluable during the 1990 production of French composer Hector Berlioz's Les Troyens that opened the brand new Bastille Opera in Paris. The opening night was an ongoing disaster of malfunctioning props, unpopular costumes, and scenery that one critic suspected was unfinished. But Bumbry, along with conductor Myung Whun Chung, was highly praised for heroically holding the performance together. Bumbry matured into an artist capable of "flattening the stone" for less experienced colleagues to stand on.
by Gillian Wolf
Grace Bumbry's Career
Opera singer. Paris Opera debut, March 1960, as Amneris in Verdi's Aida; first black artist to appear at Bayreuth, debuting as Venus in Wagner's Tannhauser, July 1961; Metropolitan Opera debut, 1965; changed to soprano repertoire from mezzo-soprano in 1970; sang title role in Richard Strauss's Salome, Covent Garden, 1970; sang role of Abigaille in Verdi's Nabucco, 1981, Bess in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, 1985, and Cassandra in Berlioz's Les Troyens, 1990.
Grace Bumbry's Awards
John Hay Whitney Award, 1957; Marian Anderson Scholarship, 1957; Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air, semifinalist, 1958; Richard Wagner Medal, 1963; honorary degrees from St. Louis University, Rockhurst College, Kansas City, and University of Missouri.
- Selective Works
- Verdi, Giuseppe, Aida, RCA, 1971.
- Wagner, Richard, Tannhauser, Philips, 1992.
- Bumbry's recordings have been released by Deutsche Grammophon, Angel, London, and RCA labels and include Handel's Messiah, with Joan Sutherland; Orfeo; Carmen; and Il trovatore, among others.
- Harries, Meirion, and Susie Harries, Opera Today, St. Martin's Press, 1986.
- International Dictionary of Opera, St. James Press, 1993.
- Rosenthal, Harold, and John Warrack, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, 1979.
- Story, Rosalyn, And So I Sing: African American Divas of Opera and Concert, Warner Books, 1990.
- Periodicals Ebony, May 1962; December 1973; May 1982.
- New York Times, July 22, 1961; July 24, 1961; August 14, 1961; December 10, 1967; June 13, 1970; March 3, 1974; March 7, 1974; August 27, 1976; February 1, 1982; March 20, 1990.
- Look, February 26, 1963.
- Newsweek, November 19, 1962.
- Opera, June 1970.
- Opera News, October 1981.
- Village Voice, February 26, 1985.
- Wall Street Journal, March 20, 1990.