Grace Bumbry: American "Venus" Diva (January 4, 1937 – May 7, 2023)
Updated: Jul 12
Grace Bumby "maintained a bit of a Carmen-esque spirit offstage. She dressed as Bizet's heroine in a promotional campaign for Lamborghini and was the second person to own a (Lamborghini) Miura P400." ( Photo from Gracebumbry.com)
This original article by Olivia Giovetti in Van magazine has been shortened for length.
Inevitably, many of the German obituaries for Grace Bumbry—who died on May 7 at the age of 86—have led with the phrase “Die schwarze Venus,” a reference to her barrier-breaking debut in Bayreuth early in her career.
This is understandable (headlines only run so long), but also a shame.
It reduces a decades-long career that saw the diva move between mezzo and soprano repertoire, covering everything from Glück to Strauss, to a single moment (albeit one with major historical and cultural ramifications). She was far more than “the Black Venus,” and often took pains to ensure that she was the one authoring her career. It’s a shame she never wrote a memoir, but hopefully we can count on gracebumbry.com staying online.
Camille Saint-Saëns: “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” (“Samson et Dalila,” 1877)
A precursor to the Met’s National Council Auditions, the radio-based Metropolitan Opera Auditions on the Air helped to launch the careers of singers who would become regulars on the company roster, including Robert Merrill, Regina Resnik and Martina Arroyo – a co-winner with Bumbry in 1958.
Despite being just 21, Bumbry’s voice in this broadcast of her audition already has her trademarks on display: an agility between the mezzo and soprano ranges, a warm bronzed tone, and the ability to shape phrases like Michelangelo working with a block of Carrara marble.
Giuseppe Verdi: “Ohimè! Morir mi sento” (“Aida,” 1871)
Bumbry wouldn’t make her Met debut until 1965. However, her Met Audition win would see her career rise, with an early peak coming two years later with her 1960 debut at the Opera National de Paris as Amneris, an audition facilitated by Jacqueline Kennedy.
At the time, Bumbry was torn between singing soprano and mezzo-soprano repertoire, with her teacher, tenor Armand Tokatyan, advocating for the latter and her coach, Lotte Lehmann, for the former. The end result is that Bumbry is one of the rare singers to have performed both the roles of Amneris and Aida.
Richard Wagner: “Geliebter, komm!” (“Tannhäuser,” 1845)
When Bumbry was hired by Wieland Wagner to sing Venus in the festival’s 1961 production of Tannhauser, the first Black singer to perform onstage at the opera house built in Wieland’s grandfather’s image, she immediately became the target of racist protests.
“Bumbry ignored them all,” writes Kira Thurman in Singing Like Germans, which opens with this historical moment and continues with Bumbry earning a 30-minute standing ovation after her first performance.
This performance set her on track for superstardom. However, as Thurman notes, this moment of ascension for Bumbry and rehabilitation for Wagner (whose association with the Nazi regime would have been fresh in the minds of many 1961 audiences) was not wholly altruistic or progressive. “The initiative was deeply flawed,” Thurman writes.
Verdi: “Nel dì della vittoria – Vieni, t’affretta!” (“Macbeth,” 1847)
Bumbry sang her first soprano role in 1964 as Verdi’s Lady Macbeth for her Vienna Staatsoper debut. Her own reasoning for this was sound: “I simply do what many others in the 19th century did before me."
Georges Bizet: “L’amour est un oiseaux rebelle” (“Carmen,” 1875)
To read Bizet’s Carmen as a story of clashing fates is, as musicologist Susan McClary writes in her Cambridge guide to the work, “to ignore the fault lines of social power that organize” the opera. Some of those fault lines are visible within Bumbry’s own story. An early competition win in her native St. Louis earned Bumbry a $1,000 war bond, but the other prize - a scholarship to the St. Louis Institute of Music – was denied on the basis of her race.
Bumbry, who said that the role “fit me like a glove, even though I never really liked her character”, was less interested in the deep reads. “I don’t think about Carmen as a Gypsy,” she told Dennis McGovern for his 1990 collection of opera interviews, I Remember Too Much. “I just think about doing the role and singing the music that Bizet wrote.”